Learning the Power of African Farming Traditions

Leah Penniman ( left ) and Amani Olugbala ( right ) tend the beans during konbit at Soul Fire Farm

Far before the release of her book Farming While Black, Leah Penniman had been helping countless Black and Brown farmers reclaim their right to the land. For years, Leah has been educating, inspiring, and working alongside so many individuals to make sure they truly understand the customs and traditions of their ancestors and help them become one with the Earth.

We asked Leah to share with us one of her favorite memories and also asked her more about the Black Latinix Farmers Immersion Program at Soul Fire Farm.

I am in love with the hoe.

An ancient, versatile African tool that can open new ground, form mounds, plant, cultivate weeds, and harvest—this piece of flat iron was first put into my hands at age 16 at The Food Project in Boston.

In the beginning, it was awkward trying to work between the broccoli plants to remove the tender pigweed threatening from beneath. With mentorship and practice, I got my stride and learned to dance with the hoe, employing a gentle rocking motion where the tool did most of the work and I just guided gently. I got the nickname “Alacrity” for moving quickly down the beds, outpacing my contemporaries twofold, little beads of sweat erupting on my nose.

When I first traveled to Ghana, West Africa, in my early twenties, I learned that the so-called hoe that I cherished was actually a flimsy lesser relative of the true African hoe. The farmers in Odu-mase-Krobo handed me a tool that weighed at least four times what a US-style hoe did, with a piercing blade and sturdy construction. They taught me to dig hills for beans, canals for irrigation, and terraces for erosion control, all with this single tool. Choice of technology drives the culture of use. In the case of the hoe, it works better when many people use it together in community. In moving to tractors, we begin to relinquish community. Now each time I go visit our sibling farm in Haiti, I purchase a few of these legitimate hoes and negotiate with the airline about my overweight, oddly shaped baggage. Used correctly, the hoe is an efficient technology to accomplish many farm tasks, and keeps us in direct contact with the land and our own physical power.

The farmers of Ghana also taught me how to build structures out of soil. Across the Dahomey region of West Africa, schools, homes, and places of worship are sculpted out of the earth. Inspired by this model, we constructed our home and educational center from local clay, straw, sand, ground limestone, local wood, and recycled materials. The primary building is a timber-frame straw-bale structure with passive solar design, interior thermal mass, earthenfloor, and solar panels for heat and hot water. Choosing to build in harmony with nature is not the quick-and-easy path.

We do not subscribe to the capitalist perspective that buildings should go up in a few months and be disposable after 30 years. It took us over three years to construct the durable primary building, and we endured many challenges along the way. For example, when we had almost finished digging the foundation using our undersized tractor and hand shovels through the hard, rocky clay of the mountain-side, we realized that solar and magnetic south are about 13 degreesdifferent in our area. This magnetic declination matters, because a solar home must face solar south. Needless to say, many tears of frustration were shed as we picked up the shovels to re-dig the foundation in the correct direction. We drew strength from the deep knowing that our ancestors faced greater challenges, and endured.

An Interview with Leah Penniman

Leah Penniman headshotTell us about Soul Fire Farm’s Black Latinx Farmers Immersion, its origins and what it entails?

The Black Latinx Farmers Immersion (BLFI) at Soul Fire Farm is a 50-hour activist-farmer training program designed for us to reclaim our ancestral right to belong to the land. We heard time and again from aspiring Black and Brown farmers that agricultural training programs in their communities were, at best, culturally irrelevant, and often outright racist. In response, we created BLFI, a rigorous introduction to small-scale sustainable farming that balances the nerdy explication of concepts like “soil cation exchange capacity” with the cultural and historical teachings necessary for our people to heal our relationships to land. On a typical day we wake at dawn and circle up on the dew-covered grass for morning movement. From there we break into teams to learn hands-on farming tasks by doing—bed prep, seeding, transplanting, pest control—and then share that knowledge with other participants through an “each one teach one” popular education model. We take turns cooking the recipes of our ancestors, substituting locally grown vegetables for their tropical equivalents. We use drums and song to encourage the seeds to grow, and we fill the moonlit night sky with the sounds of our dancing to Kendrick Lamar and Nicki Minaj. We bathe ourselves in resiliency.

Both in the book and on social media, you share powerful, informative, and also joyful moments that have taken place in these programs over the years. What is a moment from 2018 that you will carry with you?

I held out two fistfuls of soil to participants in the first session of BLFI 2018 and asked them to “test” the soil without instruments, to use their senses to investigate. They described the soil in my left hand as “compacted, gray, dry, odorless, impenetrable” and the soil in my right hand as “dark, richly aromatic, crumbly, full of roots and worms.” I revealed that the soil in my left hand was the one we encountered when we first arrived on this abused land in 2006, and the soil on the right was the one we helped create in partnership with microbes, cover crops, and earthworms. I had just read a statistic about the organic matter in the soils on the plains plummeting by 50 percent in only one generation of white settler colonialism. In that moment, I realized that all of our efforts to heal the soil entailed the restoration of organic matter and that the return of organic matter was, in effect, a decolonization of the soil. We were inviting our non-human relations back onto the land and back into relationship with us. That work is the song of my heart.

Leah Penniman Black Kreyol farmer who has been tending the soil for twenty years and organizing for an anti-racist food system for fifteen years. She began with the Food Project in Boston, Massachusetts, and went on to work at Farm School in Athol, Massachusetts, and Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre, Massachusetts. She currently serves as founding coexecutive director of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, a people-of-color led project that works to dismantle racism in the food system through a low cost, fresh food delivery service for people living under food apartheid; training programs for Black, Latinx, and Indigenousaspiring farmer-activists; Uprooting Racism training for food justice leaders; and regional-national-international coalition building between farmers of color advocating for policy shifts and reparations.

Recommended Reads

How to End a Food Apartheid

Lessons in Resilience: How to Plan a Successful Farm Business


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Farming While Black

Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land


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