Confronting Farming's Ugly Past and Present Troubles

 Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm recently gave a talk titled ‘Ending Racism and Injustice in the Food System.’ (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News staff)

Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm recently gave a talk titled ‘Ending Racism and Injustice in the Food System.’ (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News staff)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Current news about oppressive conditions and discriminatory practices at farms and slaughterhouses stem from centuries of institutionalized farming and land-ownership practices.

It started with a papal decree in 1455 that sanctioned land taking by white Europeans and endures in the United States and elsewhere through laws that restrict wages and protections for agricultural workers.

Southern New England isn’t exempt from this troubled history and is complicit in land and food problems that exist today, according to a farmer, educator, and reformer who spoke Nov. 16 at the Rhode Island Department of Health.

“We are on stolen land of the Narragansett and Wampanoag people,” Leah Penniman said. “It’s important to name, but it’s also important to think, ‘What are we all doing about that?’”

Penniman explained these conclusions to an audience of mostly young people that included African-American and Latinx men and women, many of whom are involved with the local farm and food movement and all shared an appreciation for environmental and social justice causes.

At a farm Penniman co-founded outside Albany, N.Y., she and her team of farmers and social reformers remedy these injustices through advocacy, policy work, education, and farming.

This work at Soul Fire Farm includes advancing programs that repatriate land to indigenous and black people. The nine farmers change policies around food access, such as restricting junk-food marketing. They advocate for food-stamp funding and laws that improve workers’ rights. They support native sovereignty initiatives and show up at protests.

“Giving back land, if we have land, is very important,” said Penniman, who is the author of  Farming While Black.

Among its many initiatives, Soul Fire Farm teaches culturally appropriate growing practices to at-risk youth and offers boxes of food to nearby low-income residents.

History also is important to its mission. Penniman explained how Pope Nicholas’ Doctrine of Discovery in 1455 gave Europeans the right to colonize America. Sanctioned by god and justified through manifest destiny, whites appropriated new lands and enslaved and slaughtered native peoples.

This entitlement for white Europeans endured through the doctrine of manifest destiny and the expansion across North America. These beliefs were affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1823, when treaties with Native Americans were abandoned and indigenous groups lost their right to sovereignty.

Efforts to allow blacks to own land after slavery were undermined by white land owners. In 1910, blacks owned 14 percent of farmland, but new laws, racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and favorable lending programs for whites forced most black farmers from their land. Today less than 2 percent of U.S. farmers are black.

“This is not old history,” said Penniman, a Massachusetts native. “We are still on stolen land. We still haven't really reckoned with that. Most of our food is still grown on that land and we have to consider that very carefully anytime we talk about the food system.”

Today, minimum-wage laws and guest-worker programs institutionalized exploitation of farm workers, exposing them to harmful pesticides, wage theft, and harassment.

“The food system is not really broken. It was designed to concentrate power and resource in the hands of a few people,” Penniman said. “And it’s doing that very, very well. And the food system, its DNA, is stolen land and stolen labor.”

Soul Fire farmers not only teach history and lesser-known facts about pioneering African-American farmers, they also practice indigenous farming and grow culturally appropriate food. But their mission goes beyond the farm.

“We’re not obligated to fix the whole world, but we are obligated to take a step in that direction,” Penniman said. “We need to find that intersection of what the world needs and what really makes us come alive. Cause otherwise we are just complicit.”