Cultivating Farmers of Color at Soul Fire Farm

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This upstate New York farm—the recipient of the Omega Center for Sustainable Living's Leadership Award in Sustainability Education—is promoting racial justice and food security through its Black and Latinx Farmers Immersion program.

On a sun-splashed, spring Saturday in upstate New York, Lytisha Wyatt was in her element.

Clad in a tank-top shirt, green work pants, and Muck boots, Wyatt had just come in from the fields at Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, where she serves as an assistant grower.

As a child in New Bedford, Massachusetts, she had dreamed of working in a place that looked, felt, and perhaps even smelled like the cranberry and maple farms she visited.

“I romanticized the idea,” Wyatt said.

What she didn’t know then is how much of a long shot her dream was—and still is—for young farmers of color.

Nowhere among the cranberry bogs or maple stands that captured her imagination could one find a description of Pigford v. Glickman, the landmark class-action lawsuit that exposed racial discrimination in federal lending practices to black farmers.  

Lost in the daily rhythms of the low income, urban environment in which she was raised was the story of the precipitous, century-long decline of African-American farm ownership.

Farm Ownership by Blacks Shrinks Severely  

In 1910 Black farmers operated 14.5 percent of the 6.4 million farms in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture. In 2012, just 1.4 percent of the nation’s 3.2 million farms were operated by African Americans.

“There is a reason right now that farm management is the whitest profession in the United States, whereas being a farm worker is the brownest profession in the United States,” said Leah Penniman, codirector of Soul Fire Farm. “That is not an accident of history.”

Penniman cites the USDA discrimination exposed by the Pigford lawsuit, as well as the history of targeted lynching of land-owning Black farmers and an immigration policy “that makes it so that you can come to this country and work for (low) wages, but you certainly can’t become a landowner.”

Soul Fire Farm Teaches Ancestral Farming Techniques

Soul Fire Farm is trying to change that. Wyatt is a product of the farm’s Black and Latinx Farmers Immersion program, a weeklong intensive of 50 hours of instruction.

“People come from all over the country to learn how to run a small-scale, sustainable farm using our ancestors’ agricultural techniques,” Penniman said.

In 2017 Soul Fire Farm received the Omega Center for Sustainable Living’s $10,000 Leadership Award in Sustainability Education. The award is being used to fund scholarships to the immersion program.

Participants spend four to five hours on farming techniques, including class and field work. They also learn the tear- and blood-stained history suffered by Indigenous, Black, Latinx, Asian, and other farmers of color—from genocide and enslavement to share-cropping and biased lending practices.

“It’s all part of the story,” Penniman said, “and it’s all part of the healing.”

Reparations Map Offers Interactive Social Justice Tool

Soul Fire’s latest project is the creation of an interactive, online reparations map.

“Farmers of color are putting on this map where they are looking for land and what they need, so that people who do have access to privilege and resources can make that directly available to these farmers who are trained and who just need that land, really, to be given back,” Penniman said.

There are hopeful signs. Farms with black principal operators increased 9 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to the census.

Wyatt said Soul Fire’s immersion program was a “life-changing experience.”

“It was so affirming,” she said, “to see people who look like me doing the work that I wanted to do, knowing that it was possible to farm and focus on racial justice. I wasn’t sure if that was possible, based on the limited exposure that I had had to farmers who weren’t thinking about those issues or focusing on them.”

Wyatt now dreams of owning a farm that integrates vegetable and livestock farming. She doesn’t know where. Or when.

But this much is certain: She believes it will happen.