Leah Penniman

Dismantling Injustice In Our Food System Leah Penniman, 2016 NOFA Summer Conference Keynote Speaker

by Nicole Belanger

Situated on 72 acres in the rural hills northeast of Albany, New York, Soul Fire Farm connects people with land, good food and a sense of their own power. Since its inception in 2011, the farm has grown food for neighbors in urban Troy and Albany, furthered food sovereignty regionally, nationally and globally.  Soul Fire Farm is also a home base for the education and organizing work of Leah Penniman, her husband Jonah and their two children.

Leah is a fascinating and passionate educator, farmer and social justice activist. Her sense of hope and inevitability in ending racial and other injustices in the food system is heartfelt. It has grounded the transformative work done by Soul Fire Farm and many others in what Leah calls a movement of regenerative Black agrarianism.

She shares an ever-expanding perspective on farming and activism, working regionally, nationally and internationally. Though this is not Leah’s first NOFA Summer Conference, it will be her first in some time. She is one of two 2016 Summer Conference keynoters; the other is international organic agronomist, Andre Leu.

A strong movement of regenerative Black agrarianism

Last growing season, Leah and her family let their land rest in an observation of the Hebrew schmita year. They spent half the year working with indigenous farmers in Mexico on a Fulbright Fellowship. There they exchanged farming techniques and ideas for organizing to resist the corporate food system. When they returned they focused on the infrastructure at Soul Fire Farm, building a new barn and housing for their apprentices. They also became a non-profit and fundraised to pay people a living wage for the first time. This year their programming is expanding.

In 2016 they will offer three immersion trainings for Black and Latino farmers. These week long trainings are designed to help people of color gain “basic skills in regenerative farming and whole foods preparation in a culturally relevant, supportive, and joyful environment.”

“[There is a] dangerous and precipitous decline of land owning Black farmers in this country,” says Leah. “Farming is officially the whitest profession in the United States, and that’s not an historical accident. That’s of grave concern, because the food system should not be in the control of just a single ethnic group for our own security.” In addition to the external pressures Black farmers face, Leah also recognizes inherited trauma from the history of slavery and sharecropping on the land. Soul Fire Farm works to address those traumas in their programs.

“I’m so hopeful,” said Leah. “I think that right now there’s a really strong movement of regenerative Black agrarianism.”  She cites a number of organizations all across the country working on farmer training, credit and land access. “The local success stories are really powerful, and I’m confident that we’ll start to see a shift in the national data. That this next census is going to show for the first time a rise in the number of Black land owning farmers because the whispers are already on the ground. That’s because of grassroots organizing, and the kind of trainings and networking that we’re doing. People are fighting for their rights using the legal system and suing the USDA.” Leah is working with a number of others on a book highlighting such stories rooted across the country, slated for release in 2016.

Leah thanks Black Lives Matter for putting racism in the public discourse in a way it hasn’t been since the 60s or 70s. She makes some policy suggestions to address racial inequality in farming, including full scholarships to land grant universities for minority farmers and having existing established minority farmers be adjunct faculty for those institutions so they can run on-farm trainings and get paid for them. “There’s some people who are willing to listen to those suggestions,” said Leah, “where, before the Black Lives Matter movement was so prominent, it wasn’t even on white people’s radar. It’s time, you know?”

We can have a truly just and sustainable world

She also cites South American and Western European policy models that recognize the important environmental services farmers produce, like biodiversity protection and filtration of water. “We need to start moving towards an economic model that honors the real work that sustainable farmers are doing,” said Leah. “I’m collaborating with some lawyers at National Resources Defense Council to try to turn these suggestions into campaigns.”

To have a truly just and sustainable world, which Leah believes we can have, they’re also working in the context of a global food sovereignty movement. “It’s not just in the United States where there are huge gaps of wealth and power in the food system – that’s an international phenomenon. We’re trying to collaborate with indigenous farmers in Mexico, Haiti, Ghana and elsewhere in the world to resist land grabbing and corporate takeovers of the food system.”

Expanding programming for youth, skills, dismantling racism and community

Leah is a high school science teacher with farming roots stretching back to her first summer job with Boston’s Food Project and a history working with young people, including co-founding Worcester, Massachusetts’s YouthGROW and working with Albany’s Youth Organics. She is passionate about issues related to diet, health and lack of access to nature. “We’re trying to connect youth with land,” noted Leah, “to good food and to, really, a sense of their own power. That means they can be producers and contributors – when society gives them so many messages that their role is to consume, to consume media, to consume video games, to consume knowledge. It means that they can be actual participants and share their brilliance in a meaningful way.” Soul Fire Farm is also expanding its programming to work with court adjudicated young people. Added Leah, “so they can get out of the trouble they’re in with the law while learning skills and be able to pay court ordered restitution.”

This year Soul Fire is also offering skill training and community building workshops like seed saving, herbal medicine and ancestral healing. An Undoing Racism Farmers’ Immersion training will happen this July, targeted to those with white privilege. Participants will learn to grow and prepare food and work to integrate dismantling racism in their personal and professional lives.

Helping NOFA become a more inclusive organization

“I’m really grateful to NOFA,” said Leah. “When I was a teenager I started going to the NOFA Summer Conferences and I remember being so wide-eyed and a little naively excited about the idea of growing my own food and self sufficiency. I remember buying books and drinking up workshops. It was very instrumental.”

After several years of attending, it became increasingly difficult for Leah, as a person of color, to still feel like NOFA was her peer group. “I went around one year with invitation cards for this unofficial workshop for people of color in the organic movement,” said Leah. “We all gathered and I wasn’t the only one feeling alone.” Some people of color instead started attending The Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference, which came out of a NOFA workshop in the early 2000s.

In her late teens, Leah began to work on Many Hands Organic Farm, NOFA/Mass Executive Director Julie Rawson’s farm in Barre, MA. “As I have watched her move through life and into this present iteration of farmer/educator/social justice activist for brown and Black farmers,” observed Julie, “I felt it was time for her to bring her work to us, and help NOFA become a more inclusive organization. That she will do, with our enthusiastic support.”

“It’s essential. The world is changing,” continued Leah. “I think that it’s really difficult for organizations that are born out of white leadership and white culture to really transform and become inclusive. It definitely happens, but it takes such a wholesale commitment, almost a singular goal in order to do that. A lot of organizations don’t make that decision. For NOFA to stay relevant and to truly contribute to the world we want to see, racial inclusivity has to be a part of that evolution.”

The beginning of a conversation

Preparing for this year’s growing season, Leah looks forward to experimenting more with intercropping of annuals and cover crops. The farmers in Oaxaca (“the masters of polyculture,” explained Leah) shared some strategies with Jonah and her. At Soul Fire Farm they have made a renewed commitment to try to produce as much of their fertility on farm and in closed loops as possible.

They are also trying a new management structure, moving away from their beginner level apprenticeship program towards a farm manager in training apprenticeship model. Three such apprentices will start this spring. Leah’s enthusiasm for being back on the farm is palpable: “I’m excited to get back to full production so we can feed families. I just love the soil, the seeds, I love it all. I miss it a lot. “

That’s the beauty of Leah and her work. She not only sees the big picture and can connect the dots. She also sees the small acts in every day life that add up to big ones.

When asked about her message to the 2016 Summer Conference, she said: “I’d like to focus on strategies for ending injustice in the food system. There are many great examples going on locally and internationally of people doing just that. The most relevant conversation we could be having is how to contribute to that movement.”