The Untold History of Black Farming

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Revisiting and reclaiming the history of people of color in agriculture helped Leah Penniman, founding coexecutive director of Soul Fire Farm, find her place as a contemporary Black farmer and social justice advocate.

By Leah Penniman

As a young person, and one of three mixed race Black children raised in the rural North mostly by our white father, I found it very difficult to understand who I was. Some of the children in our conservative, almost all-white public school taunted, bullied, and assaulted us, and I was confused and terrified by their malice.

But while school was often terrifying, I found solace in the forest. When human beings were too much to bear, the earth consistently held firm under my feet and the solid, sticky trunk of the majestic white pine offered me something stable to grasp. I imagined that I was alone in identifying with Earth as Sacred Mother, having no idea that my African ancestors were transmitting their cosmology to me, whispering across time, “Hold on daughter—we won’t let you fall.”

I never imagined that I would become a farmer. In my teenage years, as my race consciousness evolved, I got the message loud and clear that Black activists were concerned with gun violence, housing discrimination, and education reform, while white folks were concerned with organic farming and environmental conservation. I felt that I had to choose between “my people” and the Earth, that my dual loyalties were pulling me apart and negating my inherent right to belong. Fortunately, my ancestors had other plans.

A Summer Job Leads to a Revelation

I passed by a flyer advertising a summer job at The Food Project, in Boston, Massachusetts, that promised applicants the opportunity to grow food and serve the urban community. I was blessed to be accepted into the program, and from the first day, when the scent of freshly harvested cilantro nestled into my finger creases and dirty sweat stung my eyes, I was hooked on farming. Something profound and magical happened to me as I learned to plant, tend, and harvest, and later to prepare and serve that produce in Boston’s toughest neighborhoods.

I found an anchor in the elegant simplicity of working the earth and sharing her bounty. What I was doing was good, right, and unconfused. Shoulder-to-shoulder with my peers of all hues, feet planted firmly in the earth, stewarding life-giving crops for Black community—I was home.

As it turned out, The Food Project was relatively unique in terms of integrating a land ethic and a social justice mission. From there I went on to learn and work at several other rural farms across the Northeast. While I cherished the agricultural expertise imparted by my mentors, I was also keenly aware that I was immersed in a white-dominated landscape. At organic agriculture conferences, all of the speakers were white, all of the technical books sold were authored by white people, and conversations about equity were considered irrelevant.

I thought that organic farming was invented by white people and worried that my ancestors who fought and died to break away from the land would roll over in their graves to see me stooping. I struggled with the feeling that a life on land would be a betrayal of my people. I could not have been more wrong.

Finding Community Among Farmers of Color

At the annual gathering of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, I decided to ask the handful of people of color at the event to gather for a conversation, known as a caucus. In that conversation I learned that my struggles as a Black farmer in a white-dominated agricultural community were not unique, and we decided to create another conference to bring together Black and Brown farmers and urban gardeners.

In 2010 the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners National Conference (BUGs), which continues to meet annually, was convened by Karen Washington. Over 500 aspiring and veteran Black farmers gathered for knowledge exchange and for affirmation of our belonging to the sustainable food movement.

Through BUGS and my growing network of Black farmers, I began to see how miseducated I had been regarding sustainable agriculture. I learned that “organic farming” was an African-indigenous system developed over millennia and first revived in the United States by a Black farmer, Dr. George Washington Carver, of Tuskegee University in the early 1900s. Carver conducted extensive research and codified the use of crop rotation in combination with the planting of nitrogen-fixing legumes, and detailed how to regenerate soil biology. His system was known as regenerative agriculture and helped move many southern farmers away from monoculture and toward diversified horticultural operations.

The Roots of Community-Supported Agriculture 

Dr. Booker T. Whatley, another Tuskegee professor, was one of the inventors of community-supported agriculture (CSA), which he called a Clientele Membership Club. He advocated for diversified pick-your-own operations that produced an assortment of crops year-round. He developed a system that allowed consumer members to access produce at 40 percent of the supermarket pricing.

Further, I learned that community land trusts were first started in 1969 by Black farmers, with the New Communities movement leading the way in Georgia. Land trusts are nonprofit organizations that achieve conservation and affordable housing goals through cooperative ownership of land and restrictive covenants on land use and sale. In addition to catalyzing the community land trusts, Black farmers also demonstrated how cooperatives could provide for the material needs of their members, such as housing, farm equipment, student scholarships and loans, as well as organize for structural change. The 1886 Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Union and Fannie Lou Hamer’s 1972 Freedom Farm were salient examples of Black leadership in the cooperative farming movement.

Learning about Carver, Hamer, Whatley, and New Communities, I realized that during all those years of seeing images of only white people as the stewards of the land, only white people as organic farmers, only white people in conversations about sustainability, the only consistent story I’d seen or been told about Black people and the land was about slavery and sharecropping, about coercion and brutality and misery and sorrow. And yet here was an entire history, blooming into our present, in which Black people’s expertise and love of the land and one another was evident.

When we as Black people are bombarded with messages that our only place of belonging on land is as slaves, performing dangerous and backbreaking menial labor, to learn of our true and noble history as farmers and ecological stewards is deeply healing.