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ON THE SCENE: Racism and social justice in farming

August 1, 2019
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

On Friday, July 26, John Brown Lives! presented a talk by Leah Penniman, co-founder of Soul Fire Farm and author of "Farming While Black," as a means of highlighting the level of racism and injustice in our food system and providing examples of what can be done to create fairness and equal opportunity.

Many immigrants who come to the United States have a history of farming in their roots. Once here, few start their own farms or have opportunities to work their way up into senior management positions in the agricultural industry. Many do work in agriculture; about two-thirds of 2.5 million people working on farms are immigrants. In states like California, the number is over 90 percent. The work is hard, the hours are long, the living conditions often sub-standard and the pay is modest.

As a consequence, few can save sufficient amounts of money to start their own businesses. Also, banking practices and real estate purchase requirements make taking out loans or purchasing property or equipment nearly impossible. An added burden is many immigrants don't feel safe or welcome in rural communities, often suffering insults and disrespectful behaviors.

Article Photos

Birch Kinsey, a young farmer, poses with speaker Leah Penniman, co-founder Soul Fire Farm and author of “Farming While Black.”
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Immigrant farmworkers find themselves trapped in a dead-end job with no benefits. Many abandon the work, seeking to begin again in an urban setting, leaving a tradition that may have been in their families for generations. Their opportunity to realize the American dream has become more distant. The agricultural industry then has to seek and train new employees, which is challenging in a climate where federal regulations are making it harder for people to immigrate to the United States or get temporary work visas. As a consequence, a growing number of mega-farms are augmenting their workforces through leasing prisoners from correctional institutions.

This imbalance in the food system is by no means new. It's been present in our country since the founding of Jamestown, when residents brought in slaves to grow their cash crop tobacco. Specifically, slave traders trafficked people from the Senegal and Gambia river watersheds in Africa. They reasoned that slaves imported from regions having a climate similar to conditions found in Brazil, the Caribbean, and the American South would be more productive harvesting cotton, tobacco and sugar cane.

This exploitation of cheap labor from the outset put the family farmer at a disadvantage, causing many of them to seek opportunities for affordable land west of the Appalachian Mountains. Doing so, they, aided by state and national militia, destroyed or displaced native populations. Their respite was short-lived as large slave-labor farms followed as far west as Texas and up to Missouri and Kansas. Slave labor, on a more modest scale but for similar economic reasons, existed in the Middle Atlantic, New England, and Mid-Western states. In New York, they played a vital role on the Dutch farms of Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island, turning this region into a breadbasket and enabling Manhattan to become the financial center of the country.

Following the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln and the initial efforts of generals Sheridan and Grant to divide up southern plantations, giving the land to the former slaves, soon ended under President Andrew Johnson. No federal laws were instituted or maintained to protect the rights of former slaves. The initial lofty ideals of the Reconstruction failed and were reversed as former slave and plantation owners rejoined the political system and established Jim Crow laws under the banner "state's rights." A high percentage of former slaves found themselves once again working for "the man" as either loaned out prison labor or in near poverty conditions as a sharecropper.

Benefits of Civil Rights laws instituted under President Lyndon B. Johnson did not last as he was followed by President Richard Nixon. His Secretary, Earl Butz, instituted policies designed to destroy family farming in favor of large agri-business made profitable substantially through an immigrant workforce that paid low wages and provided substandard living. To be sure, not all farms operate this way, but many do. Throughout, family farmers struggled against both the mega-farms and cheap imports from Mexico, South America and elsewhere and were encouraged by vested interests to blame immigrants and people of color for their plight.

"In short, racism is built into the entire DNA of the food system," said Penniman. "Essentially stolen land and stolen labor. That's the genetics that hasn't shifted. Hopefully, we all know about the theft of the entire continent from the indigenous people and slavery. Even after slavery ended, there was a whole series of chess moves to make sure that farm labor was never respected and properly compensated. Sadly, now that there has been a huge crackdown on so-called illegal immigration, there has been a rise in convict leasing. This has resulted in more African Americans being put back to work on farms at a rate not seen since Jim Crow. We need to have a reckoning as a nation about relying on folks we've forced into a desperate situation to do the fundamental labor."

The goals of Soul Fire Farm are to end inequity in access to land, sustenance, and power in the food system, and to reverse industrial agriculture's damage to the planet and harm to vulnerable communities. Further, their goal is to reconnect African Americans and other peoples of color to nature and farming. Soul Farm's programs include growing and delivering affordable quality fruits, vegetables, and eggs to the inner city to low income people in their community, especially to refugees, immigrants and people impacted by mass incarceration. They provide training for aspiring black, indigenous, and Latina farmers and assist disadvantaged people gain access to financing and farmable land.

"African Americans and others want to farm," said Penniman. "We're just providing the training and support they need to navigate the system. Good news is the USDA had their pants sued off in the '90s, so now they have to show they are making progress. There are a couple of good people in the agency heading this up. Fortunately, we have good relations with them. They trust us, and we can help people navigate the paperwork."

Penniman spoke with pride of African Americans' agrarian roots that go back over 10,000 years and highlighted many innovations they pioneered. Penniman shared skills she learned from her grandmother that could be traced back to Ghana, most importantly respect for the land and the plants that can be grown. She made a case for the value of dignity as a means of respecting and empowering people.

"I thought her presentation was very inspiring and encouraging to young farmers who are just starting," said Karen Toffolo. "It was also eye-opening. Leah introduced issues and a historical perspective that I didn't know. It's good to learn about programs like Soul Fire Farm that are out there advocating and bring people of color back to farming in a healthy organic way."

"The history behind the Black farmers' movement that we learned tonight was extraordinary," said Jeff Jones. "Linking that to Timbuctoo and the history of John Brown's farm was incredible. Her presentation was one of the most moving I've experienced."



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