A harvest for the world: A Black family farm is fighting racism in agriculture and climate change

Leah Penniman is teaching people of color to work the land without tilling and pesticides that harm the land and air. Hundreds are on a waiting list to learn.

PETERSBURG, N.Y. — A heavy snow was falling here in the Taconic Mountain Range outside Albany when Leah Penniman moved to the farm she bought with her husband. It was the day after Christmas, Penniman recalled, “and I cried.”

They were not tears of joy.

Penniman was having second thoughts. “I was, like, can we just stay in Albany?” Her family had left that city’s impoverished South End community because it was a food desert — devoid of grocery stores with fresh produce or sit-down restaurants. But she worried about losing friends she made there. “I wasn’t so sure about this rural thing.” The tears came when a pile of snow made it impossible to turn around. “When I saw we were stranded, I just cried,” Penniman said.

But as the first seedlings grew at the new Soul Fire Farm, so did she. Today, Penniman, 41, is a leading spokesperson for the movement to increase the ranks of Black, Brown and Indigenous farmers. Hundreds of people are on a waiting list to attend her classes on regenerative farming that reduces carbon emissions and mitigates climate change, refuting a belief that Black people and other underrepresented groups do not want to farm.

“People are blowing up our phones, blowing up our inbox, wanting to come to the farm,” said Naima Penniman, the farm’s program director and the part owner’s younger sister. “Our wait list is hundreds of participants long. No matter how much we offer, everything is maxed out.”

Leah Penniman’s 2018 book, “Farming While Black,” a guide to regenerative farming that called America’s paucity of Black farmers “food apartheid,” turned heads. A year after the book published, Penniman received a James Beard Leadership award “for her work facilitating powerful food sovereignty programs,” including training Black and Brown people to farm and creating Soul Fire’s subsidized farm food program for communities “living under food apartheid,” the group said.

According to its 2019 annual report, Soul Fire Farm Institute trained 120 people of color at week-long farming immersions and 905 activists at workshops. The report also said 675 youngsters learned about farming and food justice.

Naima Penniman, left, 39, program director, conducts a tour for volunteers after a Community Farm Day at Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, N.Y., on June 3. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Naima Penniman, left, 39, program director, conducts a tour for volunteers after a Community Farm Day at Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, N.Y., on June 3. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)

Four new small farms are in operation partly as a result of those internships: High Hog Farm in Grayson, Ga., 40 miles northwest of Atlanta; Harriett Tubman Freedom Farm in Whitakers, N.C., 15 miles north of Rocky Mount; Catatumbo Cooperative Farm in South Chicago and Sweet Freedom Farm, about 60 miles south of Soul Fire in New York.

Soul Fire’s 25 major donors include the Bezos Family Foundation, led by Jacklyn and Miguel Bezos, the parents of Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post.

“What I’m particularly excited about is the capacity for Afro Indigenous regenerative agriculture to participate in carbon drawdowns,” Leah Penniman said as she dug up potato plants recently at Soul Fire. “So we are demonstrating how to capture carbon in the soil using our ancestral methods of no till and composting, all these fabulous ways of growing food and medicine.”

When she finished her sentence, Penniman shouted to a woman across a row of crops. “Brooke, we have our first potato bug! I’m going to squash it.”

Brooke Bridges, 29 and seven months pregnant, first heard Penniman speak in 2018 and was so inspired she applied for a job. If she left Soul Fire today, she said, she could start her own farm with the knowledge she obtained.

“I know that the work we do here and the way we farm here is the most sustainable way to farm — no-till farming, grass-fed chickens running around eating bugs. “All of that creates a better environment,” Bridges said. “I prefer … to live like this and farm like this and buy meat down the road from my farmer friend versus going to the grocery store.”

Penniman is part of a cadre of farmers who are teaching new ways of farming, said Ricardo Salvador, who runs the food and environmental service at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“Her efforts with Soul Fire Farm are an argument that you don’t have to exploit people, you don’t have to exploit nature and still produce abundant, nourishing food for communities,” he said. “She’s training people who come to the farm, who take short courses or do internships … to rethink access to land.”

Soul Fire’s staff also “grows 20,000 pounds of vegetables, fruits and plant medicine,” tax documents say. Along with 250 chickens, the farm’s harvest puts food, herbs and eggs on the doorsteps of their former neighbors in Albany’s South End, West Hill and Troy.

Other farms are doing similar work.

Soul Fire Farm, a cooperative with several owners, is a member of the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, 30 farming and food activist groups run by Dara Cooper.

Cooper said that Will Allen, a Black agriculturalist and a 2008 winner of a MacArthur Fellowship “genius award,” is a major figure in Black and Indigenous farming whose operation, Growing Power, preceded Soul Fire Farm by more than a decade.

Leah Penniman, left, co-director and farm manager, weeds the strawberry beds with volunteer, Elijah Fulks, right, 33, at Soul Fire Farm on June 3 in Petersburg, N.Y. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Leah Penniman, left, co-director and farm manager, weeds the strawberry beds with volunteer, Elijah Fulks, right, 33, at Soul Fire Farm on June 3 in Petersburg, N.Y. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Emet Vitale-Penniman, 15, farming and operations assistant, pats down weed-seed-free straw to mulch the strawberry beds at Soul Fire Farm on June 3 in Petersburg, N.Y. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Emet Vitale-Penniman, 15, farming and operations assistant, pats down weed-seed-free straw to mulch the strawberry beds at Soul Fire Farm on June 3 in Petersburg, N.Y. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
A strawberry plant at Soul Fire Farm. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
A strawberry plant at Soul Fire Farm. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)

Fighting discrimination in American farming is central to what the network does, Cooper said. But so is offsetting climate change.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, agriculture accounted for 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. Research has shown that traditional farming practices such as tilling and plowing release carbon dioxide when they cut into the earth.

“I think [climate] is a main priority,” Cooper said. “We see that the solutions we’re inside of directly address climate, because one of the greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions is the industrial ag system.”

Cooper said activists should be wary of lionizing a single person, a mistake the civil rights movement made with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But she praised Penniman.

“There is something very special about Leah,” Cooper said. “She’s a farmer, she’s studied, she’s brilliant, she’s an amazing teacher and educator. Anybody who’s attended her talks are fired up and ready to go afterward.”

Trust Jackson, right, 7, holds up an earthworm he found in the herb beds with his sister, Zion Jackson, 3, at Soul Fire Farm. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Trust Jackson, right, 7, holds up an earthworm he found in the herb beds with his sister, Zion Jackson, 3, at Soul Fire Farm. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Greenhouses on Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, N.Y. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Greenhouses on Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, N.Y. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Brooke Bridges, 29, food justice coordinator, pulls a weed from a compost pile at Soul Fire Farm on June 3. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Brooke Bridges, 29, food justice coordinator, pulls a weed from a compost pile at Soul Fire Farm on June 3. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)

‘Farms like a man’

Penniman was on her hands and knees planting a row of bok choy when she spotted something wiggling near her lettuce-green seedlings.

She plunged her hand into the dirt and held it eye level. “There’s worms in this soil,” she said as one inched toward her bare fingers. “There’s nematodes in this soil, all kinds of beneficial organisms.”

Leah Penniman, co-director and farm manager at Soul Fire Farm. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Leah Penniman, co-director and farm manager at Soul Fire Farm. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)

She smiled as she admired the habitat — creepy crawlies, bugs and microbes living healthy lives on her family farm, which rejects using pesticides that kill them.

The worms and millions of tiny organisms have a symbiotic relationship with dirt, and plants sequester greenhouse gases and convert it to an organic form. Trapped in the ground, the gases cannot rise into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming.

Earlier in June, researchers at France’s Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences and other institutions across the globe suggested in a recent study that the mass conversion of carbon-rich peatlands for agriculture may have added more than 250 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere well before the industrial era. It equates to more than seven years of current carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels.

A Netflix documentary “Kiss the Ground” noted the finding that a 1 percent increase in organic matter in an acre of soil pulls down about 10 tons of carbon dioxide.

“Agriculture is the biggest way humans impact our landscape,” Kristin Ohlson, author of “The Soil Will Save Us,” says in the film. “We have unleashed through agriculture over the centuries millennia of carbon from the land, and now it’s part of that legacy load of carbon dioxide.”

The writing’s on the wall for the people who are most vulnerable, Penniman said.

“Black and Brown folks are … disproportionately impacted by climate change,” she said. Urban heat waves, hurricanes, floods and wildfires do not just force people of color from their homes; they are more likely to leave them homeless. “So the issues of racial justice and climate justice are really connected.”

The merger of race, wilderness and farming is more than just a talking point for Penniman; it is her life story. She is the daughter of a Haitian mother and a White father who moved the family to a trailer in rural Massachusetts.

“In the woods, down a dirt road, in the middle of nowhere,” Naima Penniman said. “We were surrounded by pine forests and marshes and tributaries and lakes, and a lot of our childhood was exploring the natural world around our home.”

In high school, Leah Penniman got a job at Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre, Mass., “her first taste of urban farming,” her sister said. At Clark University in Massachusetts, she studied science and agriculture.

Her studies led to a trip with one of her professors to research peasant farming in the Dominican Republic when she was 19.

“My job was to count species in these agroforests compared to the native forests — birds, lizards, plants,” Penniman said. It was all to prove the professor’s hypothesis that agroforests created by peasant farmers were more biodiverse than untouched native forests.

What she learned there increased her interest in Indigenous farming.

Three years later, in 2002, Penniman traveled to Ghana for six months “with $200 in my pocket.”

There she learned about African dark earths “that store 200 to 300 percent more organic carbon than other soils,” according to “Farming While Black.” She learned to raise beds for planting in a way developed by the Ovahimba people of Namibia. It was hard work.

“They used to tease me all the time,” Penniman said. “They called me Ami Dede — it means Saturday born, first born daughter. They said Ami Dede farms like a man. And I took that as a compliment.”

They frowned on using pesticides.

“The problem with pesticides is they’re toxic to people, and so a big human rights issue we have is farmworkers being exposed,” she said. “Another is they harm the environment. They not only kill the pests that you want them to kill, they’re a generalist that kill a lot of the beneficial native insects and organisms.”

The worms and microbes that capture carbon.

When Penniman returned to Wendell, Mass., from Ghana in 2002, she reunited with her boyfriend, Jonah Vitale-Wolff. Within months, they were expecting.

The new baby put her wanderlust on hold. She found a job teaching science in Albany.

Leah Penniman, right, harvests herbs with volunteers during a Community Farm Day at Soul Fire Farm on June 3. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Leah Penniman, right, harvests herbs with volunteers during a Community Farm Day at Soul Fire Farm on June 3. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Volunteers Ama Josephine Budge, center, and Dawn Kinard, right, garble dried mint at Soul Fire Farm. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Volunteers Ama Josephine Budge, center, and Dawn Kinard, right, garble dried mint at Soul Fire Farm. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Volunteers garble dried mint at Soul Fire Farm. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Volunteers garble dried mint at Soul Fire Farm. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)

Wise woman in ‘a food desert’

In 2006, the year that Penniman and Vitale-Wolff bought the land that became Soul Fire Farm, they literally dodged a bullet in the South End section of Albany.

Their young children, Neshima and Emet Vitale-Penniman, were playing near their Grand Avenue apartment when gunshots rang out. “In the middle of the day … there’s a drive-by, and someone gets shot right over the heads of our children,” Penniman said.

The South End was not just a food desert. It was a historically redlined community near the industrialized banks of the Hudson River, deprived of housing loans by city planners and banks, along with businesses and jobs over decades. It became a haven for violent crime.

Neshima and Emet ran to a neighbor’s house. Now teenagers, they do not remember the peril. All they recall is that it was the first time they tasted a food their parents had refused them — McDonald’s french fries.

“Our neighbor passed them around because that was all she had,” Penniman recalled. “I was, like, you’re lucky to be alive and that’s what you remember?”

Penniman insists that the shooting is not the reason they left. The constant search for fresh produce wore down their resolve to stay.

They tried to overcome that obstacle by joining a few neighbors who used squatters rights to claim a vacant lot and start a community garden. When it bloomed, the neighbors were amazed at how well it turned out.

“When they learned that we could farm, they encouraged us to go do that,” Penniman said.

The 75-acre farm they found was 25 miles east of Albany. The plan was to farm a few acres as part of a community cooperative and leave the rest for wildlife. For four years they remained in the South End as a house was built and the land was prepared for farming.

When she started the Ujamaa Farm Share program in 2011, fewer than 20 families signed up, and doubts filled Penniman as she grew food, delivered vegetables and eggs to families on Sundays, “working around my full-time public school science teaching job,” she wrote in an essay last year.

“This is not the easiest life, you know,” Penniman said recently at the farm. “I’ve made a lot of sacrifices of my own health and my family’s well-being to respond to community needs and community demands, so I have to really grapple with it.”

Her doubts started to melt when she made internships and classes available and Soul Fire’s phones started ringing.

Microgreens at Soul Fire Farm. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Microgreens at Soul Fire Farm. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Volunteers gather dried herbs to garble at Soul Fire Farm on June 3. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Volunteers gather dried herbs to garble at Soul Fire Farm on June 3. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Microgreens at Soul Fire Farm. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Microgreens at Soul Fire Farm. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)

‘You know she’s on a mission’

At first people came from down the way in Troy, from Albany, New York City and Massachusetts. And then they started arriving from places as far away as California, Chicago, Georgia, North Carolina and Puerto Rico.

“It astounded me because I had believed the myth that Black folks were not interested in farming,” Penniman said. “And Brown folks were tired of farming. It’s been really fascinating to see the passion. Folks coming into farming, yes, they want to make a living, but they’re also looking for a way of giving back to the earth and also giving back to community.”

The story of Black people abandoning farms did not start with Black people. It started with White people in the federal government, in rural areas and in bank loan departments pushing them off the land.

Black farmers were often refused farm loans that White farmers easily got. Agents for the Agriculture Department who were supposed to lend a hand did not help. Over time, Black people dwindled from a peak of being 14 percent of American farmers in 1910 to just 2 percent now, according to the Agriculture Department.

For other underrepresented groups, the numbers ranged from slightly better to far worse. Latino farmers constitute slightly more than 3 percent of farmers, while Asian Americans and American Indians make up slightly more than 2 percent combined. Together the four groups represent nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population.

The USDA was forced to pay a settlement as part of a discrimination lawsuit in 1999. Others are pending.

Penniman also knows that all land in the United States, and by extension all farmland, was originally controlled by Native tribes, who used it differently than European settlers and, later, industrial farmers.

Soul Fire Farm offers week-long flagship immersion programs for Black and Indigenous growers, Naima Penniman said. A community workshop is open to those who live nearby. An urban gardening program teaches residents to build raised beds in Albany and Troy. There is also carpentry training and everything from beekeeping to cultivating mushrooms and soil health.

Sabelo Narasimhan, 46, adjusts twine to trellis tomato plants at Soul Fire Farm. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Sabelo Narasimhan, 46, adjusts twine to trellis tomato plants at Soul Fire Farm. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Volunteers trellis tomato plants. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Volunteers trellis tomato plants. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Brittany Levers, 29, a volunteer, attaches twine to trellis a tomato plan at Soul Fire Farm. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Brittany Levers, 29, a volunteer, attaches twine to trellis a tomato plan at Soul Fire Farm. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)

It is easy to find information about the classes, the younger Penniman said, because her sister seems to be everywhere.

Recently both Leah and Naima Penniman appeared in an ABC-TV special about Juneteenth. Leah has given a speech at Harvard University’s Divinity School, participated in a virtual forum at the Schumacher Center for New Economics, appeared on the “Today” show and was interviewed in Vogue.

Karen Washington found Penniman at a Northeast Organic Farmers Association conference in 2010. She was walking in a crowd and felt someone slip a note in her hand.

“And the note says, meet at room, I think, 101 or something like that to discuss people of color, something like that,” Washington said.

Washington, 67, was an elder who had mastered urban gardening and did not need to learn how to farm, but she was interested in networking. Farmers conferences were dominated by White people, and she longed for familiar faces.

“So I went to that meeting,” Washington said. “Maybe around 30 of us, sitting in a room. As we looked around, for the first time we are in a room, and it’s all Black folks, all people of color, and that was significant because, like I said, we go to these workshops and conferences, and we stick out like a sore thumb.”

Washington and Penniman bonded that day and have remained close in the years since.

“She has never lost the connection to the ancestors,” Washington said. “As young as she is, she’s bold, fierce, loving — she has a loving heart.

“When you’re with her, you are guided around history, you’re guided that the ancestors are there. You know she’s on a mission. She’s touched by the ancestors. And you have to be in a room to know certain people have that. She is that person.”

Staffers and volunteers stretch after participating in a Community Farm Day at Soul Fire Farm on June 3. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Staffers and volunteers stretch after participating in a Community Farm Day at Soul Fire Farm on June 3. (Desiree Rios for The Washington Post)
Darryl Fears is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter on the national staff who covers environmental justice. Over more than two decades at the Post, he has covered the Interior Department, the Chesapeake Bay, urban affairs and race & demographics. In that role, he helped conceptualize a multiple award-winning project, "Being A Black Man."