Leah Penniman says the American agricultural system is designed to dominate the land — and the people of color who live there.
“If you look at any of the five areas that make up the food system – land, labor, ecology, capital and food – we see exploitation. We see inequality,” said Penniman, director of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York.
Penniman, author of the book “Farming While Black,” gave the Jan. 28 keynote for the online portion of Pasa Sustainable Agriculture’s annual conference.
Penniman views traditional American agriculture as exploitation, in contrast to the regenerative practices she associates with historic black and Native farmers.
Within its framework, a farming system focuses on efficiency, uniformity, profit and extraction. A regenerative system emphasizes collaboration, diversity, and the ability to sustain the system over the long term.
Conventional farmers might view this distinction as simplistic, arguing that they too care about the environment and want to pass their land, better than they found it, to the next generation.
But Penniman takes his contrast further, on how blacks, Latinos and Native Americans have historically been treated in American agriculture.
Whites own 98% of American farmland, a domination according to Penniman based on a long history of racist practices – slavery, of course, and the conquest of Native Americans, but also the lynching of black landowners in Jim’s day. Crow, and discriminatory lending practices at the USDA in the 20th century.
The challenges continue, Penniman said, with investment firms targeting landowners whose title falls into a legal gray area because their ancestors had limited access to lawyers.
And some federal labor law provisions do not apply to farm workers, more than 85% of whom are non-white.
People of color even have disadvantages in the types of food they can get. They have less money on average than white people, and redlining policies have long limited the neighborhoods where black people could live.
“Whether it’s land, capital, labour, food, land, there are actually policies in place that reinforce these inequalities,” Penniman said. “It’s not just a matter of individual choice or an accident of history or the individual hand of the market.”
Penniman said farmers and farm organizations can respond to these concerns in several ways.
They can join mailing lists for relevant causes, help new black-led organizations learn how to manage business documents, and welcome Spanish speakers to trainings and events.
At the legislative level, Penniman wants to end labor law exclusions for farm workers and provide debt forgiveness to black farmers.
Congress passed a debt cancellation plan last year, but it is being challenged in court as inherently discriminatory.
The most controversial and costly equity strategy – also the most important, in Penniman’s mind – is to transfer resources to people who have been affected by a history of unfair treatment.
This means paying reparations to people of color and giving land to local Indian tribesmen.
These actions recognize that something has been stolen and must be returned, Penniman said. And rather than creating an initiative on behalf of these people, reparations and land transfers provide capital to beneficiaries.
“Simply by returning resources to a community that has been dispossessed, it empowers that community to implement their own solutions,” Penniman said.
Pursuing a more perfect union can feel overwhelming. Penniman said it was often for her.
But she believes that many of the big global problems, like racial hierarchy and climate-destroying agricultural and industrial practices, have only been around for a few centuries. They are not the inevitable state of human life.
“All of these systems that we’ve created, we can change,” Penniman said.