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Why farmers are the doctors of the next generation

This article explains the up-and-coming farmer activist profession and highlights action steps we can all take to end racism and injustice in the food system.

“Your neighbor steals your cow. A year later, he knocks on your door with tears running down his cheeks, saying, ‘I’m so deeply sorry. I feel your pain. I’m going to give you a portion of the butter your cow makes for the next five years.’ What do you say?... How about, Give me back my cow!

In a talk at Harvard Divinity School last week, this is how Leah Penniman – a Black Kreyol educator, farmer/peyizan, author, and food justice activist – described reparations for the unpaid labor and broken families that white plantation owners still owe to the descendants of enslaved Africans. She explained that the legacy of exploited labor and stolen land contribute to the fact that the typical white household has 16 times the wealth – nearly 80% of which has been inherited – of a typical Black household in America. Today’s political landscape only reinforces the Black-white wealth gap, which exacerbates socially-created racial inequities in health.

Leah has devoted her career to uprooting racism by giving back stolen land from Black/Indigenous/People of color (BIPOC). She is doing so in a way that is somewhat unconventional yet surprisingly inspiring: by owning a farm. “Not one of those theoretical farms you see on twitter these days,” she told the audience with a smile, “but an actual physical farm.”

Growing up in the Midwest, being a farmer was a profession that was romanticized in reference to the past, but it was nonetheless one that was extremely undesirable in our era. Smart children were supposed to become doctors or lawyers – professions that would afford us a sizeable income, while enabling us to contribute to the health and livelihood of our communities. Who would want to have to deal the risk and burden of manual labor that goes hand in hand with working the land? Besides, we could always buy ponies if we wanted them as wealthy doctors – at least, that’s what my parents told me. At some point during my Pre-Med track in college, I began to understand the fault lines of this logic.

Leah, on the other hand, told the audience that she was the daughter of two preachers and would have jumped on the pulpit herself if her parents hadn’t convinced her to choose a profession that would pay a decent wage and that wouldn’t cause her to lose her faith. “What about going into science?” her parents suggested.

So, after studying science, Leah jumped straight back on her soapbox as a spiritual activist. Leah founded Soul Fire Farm, a BIPOC-centered community farm in Grafton, New York with a mission to end racism and injustice in the food system, or what she calls “food apartheid”. In addition to growing and distributing nutritious food at a subsidized rate to families experiencing food apartheid, Leah trains BIPOC farmer activists through the BIPOC FIRE program. This program uses land as a tool to heal from racial trauma by providing education, practical training, and mentorship to aspiring farmers of color.

According to an article in The Atlantic, nearly 98% of African American agricultural land owners have been dispossessed due to “thousands of individual decisions by white people, enabled or motivated by greed, racism, existing laws, and market forces”. Although the number of BIPOC farmers has shrunk considerably in the span of the last two to three generations, Leah says that BIPOC waitlist to join the nearly 100 adults and over 300 youth that are trained each year is consistently full.

There is a yearning among millennials to return to and restore the land that was stolen and degraded by big agribusiness. The farmer activists that Leah is training are a far cry from the portraits of a farmers we grew up with – one of a balding white man with a pitchfork in one hand and an obedient wife in his second; or one of a white man in a John Deer trucker hat rolling his tractor over brown, lifeless land.

Farmers of the modern era are training to be healers of the land by investing in regenerative agriculture, whole farm planning, and soil fertility; to be healers of social ecology by tending to the wounds of our collective legacy of slavery and economic exploitation; to be healers of our bodies by trading in subsidized non-nutritive crops for varied ancestral plants that nourish us; and to be healers of our souls by reminding us that environmental justice is moral and spiritual matter.

Farmer activists may well be the doctors of the next generation. In other words, farming could be the next career move for many millennials and the next competitively sought-after profession for Generation Z. I certainly wanted to jump on the bandwagon after hearing Leah’s talk. Perhaps Daniel and I could scavenge a cheap plot of land in Mexico and start a teaching farm?

I was serious enough about the deviation in profession to message my little brother, “Can you buy me Leah’s new book for my birthday for my next career move? It’s called Farming While Black.”

He replied, “Your next career move… as a Black farmer?”

Oh. Right. There were two tiny flaws with my plan: 1) I can barely keep a basil plant alive let alone manage a farm. 2) I’m not Black. Or Colored. Or Indigenous. Or even from Mexico, for that matter. Maybe I don’t deserve to take the land. More importantly, maybe there are better ways I can contribute to ending racism and injustice in the food system from where I am now.

According to Leah, there are ways I can give back besides owning a farm. In fact, Soul Fire Farm has an extensive list of action steps they recommend each of us to take to contribute to food sovereignty. If you’re ready to take a deep dive into the topic, then read all 16 pages of action steps and check off each item you need to work on as you go. In case that sounds like too much mental effort, I’ve highlighted a few of my favorites:

Unpack personal biases and privilege

Soul Fire Farm encourages us to reflect on the intersection of our identities (e.g., race, ethnicity, settler status, color, sex, gender, sexual orientation, class, ability, religion, age, education, documentation, and body size). In understanding our personal biases, privilege, and social advantages, we may begin to challenge the limitations of our perspectives and stand up to power structures that work to the disadvantage of others. Soul Fire Farm includes these questions for self-reflection:

1. “What identities do you hold that society treats as normal/fully human?

2. What identities do you hold that society treats as deviant/not fully human?

3. What stories can you share about identities that are difficult for you to claim?

4. Where are your areas of ignorance around identity? What do you need to learn?...

5. …What action can you catalyze by bringing your privileged identities into awareness?”

Open your eyes, honor the land

During her talk, Leah told a story about her work with farming women in Ghana. She explained, “The Queen Mothers in Ghana would ask me, ‘Is it true that farmers in America, don’t pray for the land, ask for consent to use the land, dance for the land, or even say thanks to the land?’” Leah covered her face in shame and said, “It’s true!”

Honoring the land means saying “thanks” to Mother Nature – in whichever form the expression of gratitude comes most naturally to you. Saying “thanks” also means expressing this gratitude to others by advocating for land conservation and climate justice.

Take a thousand individual actions

Each individual step we take toward ending discrimination in the food system – and in our daily lives – adds up to collective change. Soul Fire Farm suggests a cornucopia of individual actions to choose from, including:

· Signing a Food Justice Pledge;

· Supporting community work organized by those directly affected by food justice issues (rather than adopting a “white savior complex” in creating our own if we are outsiders);

· Raising the consciousness of white people (rather than “organizing” people of color if we are white);

· Uplifting and elevating ancestral and modern Black and Brown expertise;

· Becoming educated on structural racism;

· Investing energy into relationships with members of our communities (rather than inviting community members of color to serve as “tokens” of diversity in our organizations or events); · Sharing our technical skills with people of color (rather than providing them with band-aid solutions to inequities created by our own technical skills);

· Promoting accessibility – including creating cultural accessibility by making space for others to share elements of their culture (rather than deferring to the dominant white culture);

· Building and sharing power with people of color (rather than “serving” or “saving” them);

· Creating a personal equity statement that addresses our attitudes toward racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism, classism, and other oppressions;

· “Be(ing) willing to name racism directly and address oppressive behavior”.

Support political action

Of course, individual action toward food justice may be far more effective if we transform the structural violence that exacerbates inequities. Soul Fire Farm suggests writing letters to our political representatives in support of policies that would provide real food to all people. These policies may include:

· Fully funding SNAP and WIC;

· Funding access to sustainable, nourishing, and culturally-appropriate foods in schools, hospitals, prisons, and senior centers;

· Including agriculture and food systems science in school curriculum;

· Ending marketing of junk foods to children;

· Equalizing labor and wage laws for farmworkers so they can be paid a living wage and prevented from sexual abuse;

· Creating pathways for migrant and seasonal farmworkers to become land-owning farmers; funding BIPOC-led farmer training programs;

· Creating reparations for land and wealth that was stolen from African American, Latinx, and Indigenous people.

So, you may not have to become a farmer to plant seeds of change for the injustice that plagues our social and environmental landscape. But we each have a responsibility as living, breathing, eating beings to plant our own seeds of change in the fertile gardens of wherever we may be now.


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