Returning to Our Roots: Black Americans are Redefining Relationship to the Land with Gardening, Farming

Leah Penniman, Soul Fire Farm, Albany NY

Black people across America are reconnecting to their roots – literally.

Though large numbers of Black people have historically been excluded from land ownership, an emerging group of Black Americans are turning to gardening, farming and agriculture as a means of empowerment, self sufficiency and tapping into their ancestral ties to the soil.

My grandfather was one of those Black people with deep roots to the land. During a Father’s Day FaceTime call with my dad, I discovered my paternal grandfather was a master at agriculture, skills he learned from his grandfather. I listened as my dad recounted how his father would tend to the soil in their backyard in Bakersfield, California, making do with the small plot of land at their modest family home.

My grandfather Lloyd Reed was a World War II veteran and a fire captain among the first to integrate his fire department in Bakersfield. He would use the almanac as a guide to growing green beans, peas, okra, tomatoes, watermelon, bell peppers, corn and other foods.

“Most of my childhood we would eat fresh vegetables,” my dad, Michael Reed, said. “There was this powerful feeling of pride that was instilled in us from having a father – and a grandmother – who had those kinds of skills.”

The conversation was a reminder of a time that, for many, feels long gone – but also a glimpse at what life tending to the land still looks like for current groups of Black Americans.

Large numbers of Americans have moved away from agriculture-based lifestyles, but there are pockets of people who are creating communities around sustainable food sources.

“I think farming is revolutionary, fundamentally,” says Leah Penniman, owner of Soul Fire Farm in Albany, New York. “It’s about weaving together a relationship to land, our human communities and the spiritual realm, and producing something that’s undeniably good.”

Black Americans find ancestral, historic connections in agriculture

Black people make up less than 2% of farm producers, according to the most recent USDA farm census data, released in 2019.

Penniman is part of that small percentage. Her earliest memories of growing anything are connected to her grandmother, and she explains both sides of her family were historically dispossessed of the land on which they lived.

“My family has been landless for a few generations, but when my maternal grandmother moved to the Boston area, she always wanted to hold onto a little bit of that connection to land,” Penniman says. “So she kept a garden, and she had a crab apple tree in the yard and this wonderful little strawberry patch.”

Part of Soul Fire Farm’s mission is to use “ancestral regenerative practices” to take care of the 80 acres of land, and to advocate for justice for farmers and farm workers.

“We can reclaim that inherent right to belong to land and that dignity and agency in the food system and not be thinking that our relationship to farming is just rooted in oppression,” Penniman says.

rionna Jimerson tends to her garden in Brooklyn, New York City, two 5-by-8-foot raised beds of fresh fruits and vegetables. Her connection to cultivating the land runs deep. She learned from her paternal grandmother, Lula Mae Cole, who grew up on the Cherry Grove Plantation in Natchez, Mississipppi, in a family of sharecroppers.

“It’s part of my DNA, just the ability to see the potential and see the value in the dirt,” she says.

Self reliance for food is key due to coronavirus, health concerns

Derrick and Paige Jackson embarked on the journey to become part of the 2% in 2019, launching their farm in northern Durham, North Carolina, Grass Grazed.

The couple started the direct-to-consumer model 73-acre farm, which has pastured poultry, pasture-raised pigs and grass-fed cattle, after health concerns prompted them to do more research into the food system.

Derrick, who was in the Army, says that “for work I had to be extremely athletic and I work out a lot … but all of a sudden I started having health issues.” They started purchasing food from a local farmer, then began raising chickens of their own before buying the farm.

Derrick and Paige Jackson own the 73-acre, direct-to-consumer model Grass Grazed Farm in Durham, N.C.

Jimerson says she is already reaping produce after her “panic reaction” of planting seeds when the coronavirus pandemic first began. The social media editor culls inspiration from other Black women in agriculture, including Black Girls Farm and Black Girls Gardening (which she calls “the mothership”), and says her ultimate goal is to own a “garden market or … system that can sustain a small community.”

“So many (enslaved people) were from West Africa and made to work the land,” Jimerson says. “There is something inherently powerful about being able to produce and cultivate something with your own two hands.”

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Leah Penniman says of Soul Fire Farm: "We’ve really become a training farm and a real epicenter of training the next generation of Black and brown farmers."

Penniman started her Soul Fire Farm with her husband after struggling to find fresh produce for their young children in their area of Albany, which would be commonly referred to as a food desert. Penniman calls it food apartheid – “that insidious system of segregation that relegates certain neighborhoods to food scarcity often by racial lines,” she says.

“When our neighbors found out we knew how to farm,” she says of prior farming experience she had as a teenager and into early adulthood, “they were encouraging us to start a farm that would bring food to this particular neighborhood, and we took that charge very seriously.”

‘Gardening to me means faith in tomorrow’

Another aspect of Soul Fire Farm’s mission statement is to equip the next generation of farmers.

“Because of community need, we’ve really become a training farm and a real epicenter of training the next generation of Black and brown farmers,” Penniman says, listing a week-long immersion course, season-long apprenticeships, a youth camp and field trips as options.

At Grass Grazed, the parents of five children want to pass along their farming experiences. “You can know about your food, you can understand where it comes from, and it doesn’t have to be privileged information,” Paige says.

Her husband agrees, and he pushes back against misconceptions: There are Black farmers, Black people can own livestock or be ranchers, farmers are educated and the farming community is welcoming, he says.

“What we’re trying to do is not just say we want to help the next generation of farmers, but creating a platform that’s going to give them the resources (to start farming),” Derrick says.

Tending to the land is a reminder of the past, the present and the future.

“At one level that feels a little bit disempowering, but at the same time it reminds you that time is all you have,” Jimerson says. “It’s just nice to remember that any seeds you plant today, you will see the growth.”

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