Leah Penniman is the co-founder, co-director, and farm manager of Soul Fire Farm, the author of Farming While Black, and a 20-year veteran in the struggle to build equitable food systems for Black and brown people.
She spoke with Food & Wine’s Adina Steiman on why Black-owned farms have become so rare, why food deserts are actually food apartheid, and how sustainable farming can deliver social justice.
Penniman said approximately 98% of the arable acreage in this country is white-owned which is an all-time high down from 14% in 1920. When the Emancipation Proclamation came out—the end of the Civil War—there was a promise made by the Union army to give emancipated Black households 40 acres of land. It never came to fruition.
I’m not here to get into politics, but rather to share some of the most important aspects of farming – that has been created by Black farmers.
She says that pretty much anything you can think of that we cherish in organic and regenerative agriculture from raised beds to compost to polycultures, you can trace back to African and African American innovation.
The Obambo people of Namibia had the first raised plant beds. There are 26 different polycultures in Nigeria, and that's the basis of what a lot of people call permaculture today—these mixtures of different plants in a mutually supportive ecosystem.
In post-slavery United States times, Dr. George Washington Carver at Tuskegee is the one who brought regenerative agriculture to the mainstream, to the university. And Dr. Booker T. Washington is the one who gave us the CSA and pick-your-own and farm-to-table. Fannie Lou Hamer started co-ops, and Shirley and Charles Sherrod came up with the idea of a community land trust. So these alternative economies as well are traceable to African heritage.
Soul Fire Farm is in Rensselaer County, New York, and one of the main projects is to farm using these Afro-indigenous methods on 80 acres, and then deliver that food on a weekly basis to the doorsteps of people living under food apartheid, which is where based on your race and your zip code, you're pretty much able to predict whether a person is more likely to have diabetes, heart disease, kidney failure, or other cardiovascular issues. It's not because they don't want to eat vegetables or don't know how to cook, but really because there's just not access.
What most people refer to as food deserts.