Leah Penniman wants blacks to re-imagine a relationship to the land outside the context of slavery and sharecropping.
When the 20th annual Virginia Biological Farming Conference sprouts in Richmond, it brings two days of educational workshops and presentations, panel discussions, exhibitors, regionally-sourced meals, book signings and a social.
Sponsored by the Virginia Association for Biological Farming and Virginia State University, the conference features talks by book-writing farmers, including Leah Penniman, owner of Soul Fire Farm and author of "Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm's Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land."
Penniman was 16 years old when she took a summer job at the Food Projects in Boston and discovered the satisfaction of harvesting and planting. But only once workers took the produce to people in shelters and to its low-income farmers market did she realize how deeply the work resonated for her.
"It was the intersection of social justice and environmental stewardship, both things that I was passionate about," she says from Puerto Rico where she's part of a group offering workshops and working on Soul Fire Farm's sibling farm. "I've been farming ever since, for 22 years."
Meeting Karen Washington at Rising Root Farm and later the Black Urban Growers, helped Penniman see that their job was to reach back beyond 500 years of land-based oppression to a black history of land-based autonomy and innovation to reclaim their agrarian legacy.
When Penniman speaks in Richmond, her keynote address will focus on how some of the most sustainable farming practices — including organic agriculture and co-ops — have roots in African wisdom. "Yet because of discrimination and violence against black farmers, there's been a decline in black farmers from 14 percent of all growers in 1920 to less than 2 percent today," she explains, citing the corresponding loss of more than 14 million acres of land.
"As a result, not only have we lost the land but also much of our health," she says, referring to how the black community suffers disproportionately from illnesses related to lack of access to fresh foods.
Pointing to systemic racism as the major cause for the drop in black farmers, she cites the 1962 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which identified United States Department of Agriculture discrimination as the number one cause of the decline of black farmers.
"I hope that folks realize, whether they're black, white or brown, it's not just up to one racial group to try to fix a racist food system," she says. "This is everyone's problem. I hope I inspire folks to take action and particularly for black farmers to reclaim our connection to the earth."
Research taught her that nearly every farming practice has roots in African methodology. Learning that practices as varied as worm composting, raised beds, terracing, soil testing methods, community-supported farming and regenerative agriculture could be traced back to blacks so impressed her so much that it became the focus of her book.
Soul Fire Farm, Penniman's 72 acres in Grafton, New York, is devoted to raising vegetables, fruit, eggs, poultry and herbs using exclusively organic and ancestral techniques. The farm's mission is to dismantle racism and injustice in the food system and that's accomplished through three programs.
"All of the food we raise is grown using Afro-indigenous farming practices that restore the land," Penniman explains. "We box it up every Wednesday and bring it to 100 families across the district, many of whom are low-income refugees, immigrants and people impacted by mass incarceration. We do doorstep delivery and people pay what they can."
The farm also offers training for aspiring black, indigenous and Latino farmers and homesteaders, teaching everything from business skills, construction and canning to saving seeds, marketing and carpentry. The third arm of Soul Fire Farm's outreach involves working nationally as part of a number of coalitions to change policy, while organizing for reparations and decolonization of the food system.
What defines Penniman is a love of farming.
"I love the sweat and the soil, I love the labor and the delicious, crisp food. I love sharing abundance with community. I love learning the plants. I love being forced to be so in tune with nature and what cycle the moon is in and what the weather's going to be because it matters," Penniman says with passion.
"I love the intimacy with the earth and that's why I make myself available to teach others who want to learn."
The 20th Virginia Biological Farming Conference is held Jan. 11-13 at the Omni Richmond, 100 S. 12th St., vabf.org.