Plant Your Seeds, Watch You Grow

black and white picture of book cover. It has a sketch of two black farm workers. It reads "Farming while black: Soul fire farm's practical guide to liberation on the land by Leah Penniman forward by Karen Washington

A book review of Farming While Black

by Ciana Hamilton

When I first got my hands on Farming While Black, I felt my soul rejoice. I have always felt a strong connection to land; whether it’s a long walk in the woods or growing a zillion tomatoes in my garden. Something in my soul sets on fire whenever I find myself intertwined with the earth. Even though this love of land comes naturally for me, I can’t help but feel misplaced, disconnected and even hurt whenever I attempt to foster a stronger bond with Mother Earth. From the moment you open Farming While Black you can feel the dedication, energy and love that Leah Penniman poured into this book. In its most practical form, Farming While Black is a hands-on how-to guide for everything to do with tending to the land. Once you begin to dive deeper though you realize it is so much more than a generic farmers guide. Farming While Black is 16 chapters of beauty, colour and testimony. It is as pragmatic as it is reflective of Black peoples’ history, connection and rehabilitation towards farming.

Penniman described Farming While Black as the book she wished she had growing up. Throughout the chapters, she seamlessly integrates her years of farming expertise with her personal journey of finding true liberation working on and with the land. Chapters such as, “Finding Land and Resources” explores different points of access to land, whether it is leased, communal, bought or through a land trust.  In chapter six, you can find vital information on crop planning, transplanting seedlings and days to maturity for a variety of herbs and vegetables. In each of these more practical chapters, Penniman includes UPLIFT subsections that draw connections to African ways of farming and present day uprising within Black communities. In one chapter, “Feeding the Soil”, one UPLIFT section speaks on African Dark Earth, a highly fertile and dark soil that was created 700 years ago by women in Ghana and Liberia. Farming While Black is easily the best book for Black (Indigenous, Brown, Latinx) folks who feel the duality of detachment and yet, the desire to build skills in farming.

For most of us, it doesn’t take much to get outside and get our hands dirty. There is nothing really stopping Black people from contributing to urban community gardens or being involved with farm internships. But where the work gets tricky is when it comes to repairing the internal damage that many Black people carry as a result of slavery. In short, slavery has destroyed our relationship with land. That pain I sometimes feel towards land, is a pain that is felt by most Black folks across Turtle Island. It is the same pain that is shared with our Indigenous cousins and others who have been displaced at the hands of colonialism. It is the pain we often try to bury; and in an attempt to forget, we sabotage ourselves from regaining identity through something that has been in our history for centuries. There is no question that even Leah Penniman felt this distorted disconnection when she first began her journey of farming. The history of Black connection to land has been greatly misconstrued to fit a narrative of white supremacy. We are perpetually told and reminded that our only real connection to farming was when our ancestors were enslaved, exploited and forced to endure hard labour. Rarely is there a discussion around Black farming prior to slavery or Black farming after slavery.  Rarely is there any discussion on African culture and how intertwined our African relatives were with nature, land and crops. The space that Penniman dedicates towards healing our land legacies in Farming While Black is what sets this book apart from any other farmer’s how-to guide.  Chapters such as: Honoring the Spirits of the Land, Plant Medicine, Cooking and Preserving and Healing from Trauma are the parts of this book that invite readers to dig deep within themselves and recognize where healing needs to begin. In “Healing from Trauma “ Penniman said, “Many of us have confused the terror our ancestors experienced on land with the land herself, naming her the oppressor and running toward paved streets without looking back. We do not stoop, sweat, harvest, or even get dirty, because we imagine that would revert us to bondage.” What makes Farming While Black a book of true deliverance, are the constant reminders from Penniman, and all those at Soul Fire Farm, that farming is in our blood. Whether it is through the UPLIFT sections throughout the book, the wealth of knowledge (old and new) or the beautiful photographs of Black, Brown, Indigenous and Latinx folks working harmoniously on the land, Farming While Black is the reminder that our history in slavery will not erase our history of land stewardship.

I am a descendant of African heritage. The women in my family were farmers, caretakers and keepers of the Earth. Farming While Black is my awakening to remember and honour my ancestors. With every shovel of dirt, every seed planted, every vegetable harvested, I vow to never forget that they were proud people of the land and today, so am I.

Ciana Hamilton is a happy nappy freelance creative writer & journalist. When she’s not writing she can be found doing fun shit with her kids.

Young and New Farmers in the Struggle for a Decolonial Food System

Black and white photo of cupped hands holding seedlings

Report Back on the National Farmers Union 2019 Youth Convergence

by Adabu B. Jefwa

From the 4th to the 7th of March 2019, nearly sixty young and new farmers gathered for the “National Farmers Union (NFU) 2019 Youth Convergence” in Parham, Ontario, 60 km North of Kingston on unceded Algonquin territory. The NFU is a farmer-led food sovereignty organization and a member of the global peasant movement, La Via Campesina. This convergence was, to my knowledge, the first time in a generation that young and beginning farmers had come together in such large numbers, from across the country, to talk about the issues that matter most to them.

There was a lot of excitement in the air. I personally did not know quite what to expect. After a long winter of school assignments, I’d almost forgotten all about farming. For many, as spring was approaching, the convergence interrupted very important farm planning and seed ordering work necessary for the upcoming season. Nonetheless, people were enthusiastic and everyone seemed to have an aura of eagerness to connect with and learn from each other.

The purpose of the convergence was to gather self-defined young and new farmers to come together to talk about the challenges we face within the food system, specifically in Canada, but across the globe as well. Discussion topics included ‘The Political Economy of Agriculture’ and ‘Farming in a Changing Climate’. There was a strong emphasis on ‘Building Solidarity to Decolonize the Food System,’ which was a workshop that focused on how Indigenous and non-Indigenous farmers, hunters, gatherers, and supporters can challenge settler-colonialism in the food system.

This is what drew me to attend the convergence. Not only was it organized to address farm production issues, it also focused the socio-political elements that shape production, and farmers’ lives and experiences. The challenges that arise out of political, environmental and social realms seem very distant from the everyday struggles faced by farmers working outside in the field. Although the economy and politics shape farmers experiences, these topics are rarely discussed within most mainstream food and agriculture organizations. For this reason, I felt the convergence was extremely important. It created a space for participants to talk about the systemic issues that impact farmers, the land and all people. At the same time, the convergence allocated time for folks to engage in farm specific details, such as farm management and growing practices.

The presentation by former Ardoch Algonquin Chief and professor, Bob Lovelace, was of particular importance to me given my commitments to decolonization. Prof. Lovelace spoke about building alliances between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. He invited us to ask questions and participate in small-group discussions about what actions we can take and how we envision making change to decolonize the food system. As settlers on colonized lands it is important for us to, first, understand and acknowledge the ongoing colonial history of Canada and second, put intention into seeking justice in partnership with Indigenous peoples. Prof. Lovelace outlined a five-pronged approach to building solidarity between settlers and indigenous peoples and emphasized that it all begins with Research. Without knowing the history of the land and people it is impossible to engage in effective actions for decolonization. He then spoke about the importance of the four other prongs: Community Education, Legal Action, Direct Action and Healing as a means of supporting Indigenous peoples struggles.

We had discussions about issues around young farmers access to farmland. From what I understood, Prof. Lovelace was against the whole system of privatized and commercial land because it constitutes a colonial relationship to land. Canada’s settler-colonial system of land ownership reinforces dispossession of Indigenous peoples. It is also bad for Canadians as many of us across the country, especially young people, struggle with land access due to the high cost of land.

In one especially dramatic moment, Lovelace asked the nearly 60 farmers in the room to raise their hands if they owned the land they farmed. Only three people indicated that they owned land. This is because of the huge barriers of cost, access to financing and lack of support for farming, especially organic farming. (And even when farmers ‘own’ land, it’s usually not ‘owned’ by them but by the bank!). Lovelace emphasized that alternative relationships to land are possible, and already exist within Indigenous systems. He also emphasized that cooperative relationships between Indigenous peoples and settlers requires building trust and meaningful, long-term relationships. Only then, through true solidarity based on personal connections, not based in a self-satisfying identity of allyship, can a strong foundation be established for developing alternative systems that center around land and food sovereignty for both Indigenous peoples and Canadians.

A major contributing factor which made the convergence possible was the funding allocated to covering each participant’s travel costs, accommodations and food. Those from Ontario travelled by car while others took trains and planes from across the country. But everyone was reimbursed for their travel costs and no one was required to pay for the amazing meals that were served during the convergence. This made the convergence accessible for the many young and new farmers who are, by and large, struggling financially. On top of that, all of the dinners were locally sourced from farms around the area, including kegs of beer from a local brewery. Well nourished, and well accommodated, we were able to maintain high spirits throughout the duration of the convergence. This enabled a very open, vulnerable and cooperative space for folks to discuss the heavy topics we addressed.

The title ‘convergence’ was intentionally used to differentiate the event from a conference. A conference usually implies a formal, academic, lecture-based style of learning. The organizers, however, wished to create a more lateral climate in which everyone was welcomed, and encouraged, to share their knowledge and skills. This was accomplished by dividing the large group into smaller groups of 8 to 10 people. The groups were prompted to discuss amongst themselves then reunite for a sharing session whereby everyone contributed to a large group discussion. This allowed for people to share their perspectives and ideas and made for a comfortable space for people to work through challenging concepts without the pressure of 60 people listening.

The structure of the convergence made for an open and inclusive space that overall made people feel inspired and empowered to move forward in continuing the fight for food justice within the agricultural and broader food system. This was one of the wonderful outcomes of the convergence and reflects the need for these types of gatherings to occur more frequently amongst farmers with an inclusion of people who understand the importance and value of land.

This is not to say that there was no room for improvement. The convergence would have benefitted from a more culturally and racially diverse range of speakers and attendees. For me, struggles within the food system center primarily around engaging racialized communities and including racialized people in the fight for food sovereignty. Within Canada, it is extremely important to recognize and engage in Indigenous movements and struggles for sovereignty, but as a country built on white supremacy, it is also important to consider the ways in which racialized people and immigrants are included in activism for food sovereignty. Moving forward I urge for organizers, not only in the NFU, but within agricultural and food organizations more broadly, to put intention into including the voices of racialized people and immigrants, and especially migrant agricultural workers, for they play a huge role in the current agricultural system and hold a lot of knowledge that can contribute to envisioning alternative farm and food systems.

Farming matters because we all eat and we all rely on the land. We all also rely on caretakers of the land to regenerate a healthy, balanced ecosystem and provide us with the nutrients necessary to survive. Ensuring the sustainability of agriculture means deconstructing the current agricultural system based so heavily on corporate industrialization. It also means shifting to a more diverse range of alternatives that are suited to work in favor of all people across the globe. The NFU, La Via Campesina and many food justice organizations are working to make this shift possible. Gatherings such as the Youth Convergence that intentionally create space for building relationships between people who understand the importance of farms and land and are committed to preserving knowledge related to the land are necessary, and make it possible, to continue the movement for food justice and food sovereignty.

Adabu is a black queer student, farmer and DJ. She is committed to building a sustainable food system that is inclusive of black, indigenous and racialized people across the globe. She also believes in decolonization and building relationships through sharing knowledge and celebrating diverse cultures through food and music.

Claiming Our Clean Food Sovereignty

An Interview with The Black Farmers and Food Growers Collective

by Adabu Brownhill

Adabu: Who established the organization? When?

BFFGC: The Black Farmers and Food Growers Collective came out of the oppression of the Black Creek Community Farm located in the Jane & Steeles area, where infamous Jane and Finch is just south of the farm. The Collective was established by the Afro-farmers and local community members to address and dismantle racism and oppression as it pertains to our food system as well as the generational food oppression coming out of slavery. We are one of three local cross-cultural food access hubs in partnership with FoodShare Toronto funded through the Ontario Trillium Foundation and Access and Equity Toronto. We are still learning about some of our culturally appropriate foods from Africa and our vast afro food culture, we are also working to connect with other afro farmers in the diaspora from the Caribbean to share farming and food knowledge as it pertains to the afro-people’s experiences in the diaspora. The organization got started in 2013 officially after the Intensive Leadership Facilitation Training (ILFT), working to dismantle racism and food oppression in the food system as it pertains to the community. This training was done by “Growing Power” from Milwaukee and Chicago through the partnership with Foodshare Toronto local Empowerment Group (LEG), “Growing Food Justice For All Initiative.”

 

A: What is the main goal or vision of Black Farmers and Food Collective?

BFFGC: One of the main goals of the collective is to ensure that the “clean” (organic) food we grow gets distributed through collaborative partnerships such as pop-up communal markets in fresh food oppressed communities that are affordable and sustainable. Also encourage communal growing so food-insecure and oppressed members of the community can and will have access to clean and affordable local, culturally appropriate food that can be grown in Canada in the short growing season through collaborative efforts and participation.

A: Who is mainly involved with the organization? Do you have many participants from the Black community?

BFFGC: We are farmers, food growers, small food business owners and food-insecure families and individuals –eight members thus far. Our Collective presently are all Afro-people from the Caribbean, Canada and Africa. We get volunteers from right across the ethnic board. People have been stoked by what we’ve been able to accomplish this year, its magnitude, and the variety of crops we’ve grown.

A: Do you have garden space that you use to grow food? How does that work?

BFFGC: This year we rented a half acre of land from Fresh City Farms – a local organic farm that operates out of Downsview Parkc at Keele & Sheppard Ave, West. We had written formally to the Black Creek Community Farm steering committee in 2014 and made a request for an acre of the land to do the work we are now doing but our request was laid under the rug and locked away! We are now working towards our own farm and growing spaces in the city with future community collaborations wishing to address food security and food justice issues as they pertain to affordable and sustainable and other racialized communities.

A: In my experience agriculture in Ontario is extremely dominated by white people. What are your views on this? Do you feel that Black Farmers and Food Collective address the issue of environmental racism?

BFFGC: Yes, I agree with you but once upon a time we had productive and stable farming communities; this was how we fed ourselves and shared food with each other– trading through commerce and land ownership. After our younger generations left their communities for the big cities they abandoned their roots in the agricultural sector and assimilated into the wider food culture which has impacted us in a very negative way through many types and diseases and sickness. Historically we were also driven off land and much of  this lands  was used to redevelop middle to high-income communities, unfortunately just like like all the other oppressive tactics perpetrated against us these issues were swept under the rug! As a collective member I have the right to live, work, contribute, play and invest in myself and my community just as any other ethnic groups in Ontario and I can do it anywhere in any community I choose. This is what we do presently, we share space with such a high profile farm in the local urban sphere. Our encouragement to community is to empower them through a variety of engagements. We work with our community as they come and we meet them where they are presently but we ensure we leave them more empowered than how we found them through the work we are doing to dismantle racism and oppression and to empower ourselves and the community.

A:  Can you tell me about what kinds of things volunteers can get involved with?

BFFGC: Yes, we welcome volunteers to help us in capacities that they are knowledgeable or want to learn with us. We are still grassroots but are working towards developing and becoming an independent local cross-cultural food access innovation hub for Afro-people and other community members who wants to support our work and experiences.

For more information, check out www.blackfarmersto.wordpress.com


 

Adabu Brownhill
Adabu Brownhill (DurtyDabz) is a Black/Mixed, Queer, FemmeBro dedicated to fighting for Mother Earth and the Liberation of Black & Indigenous Peoples and All People Of Colour. She is a badass DJ as well as a passionate gardener. She strives to decolonize agriculture in Ontario and create farming/gardening spaces that are fun and kool for racialized folks. She dreams of a farm where People Of Colour be chillin’, bumpin hella beats, planting seeds, harvesting herbs and eating gourmet meals while making jokes and enjoying each other’s company. She draws inspiration from radical underground artists such as Junglepussy, Destiny Frasqueri (Princess Nokia), Jay Boogie and Le1f. Her favorite foods are spicy meat and fresh fruits and vegetables.