For our second blog post of Black Environmentalists Making History, we turn to leaders in organic farming. ILERA Apothecary is a plant-based company with ethically sourced ingredients, and a big part of ethical sourcing involves choosing organic. We choose organic because it’s better for people AND the planet. We’ll spend time in a later post breaking down what organic means-- today we want to pay homage to those who showed innovation and fought for organic methods! Our header photo comes from the Black Farmers Collective, a network of farmers in the Seattle area. You can click on the header image to learn more about them, or follow the link here. Finally, we want to add that this list is not exhaustive. There are so many Black leaders in agriculture and farming that aren’t on this list. To read more about people we weren’t able to highlight in this post, you can click on this link.
1. George Washington Carver
Although organic farming methods are long-standing, ancient practices, George Washington Carver should be credited with reviving these practices in the United States. Carver’s agricultural system is known as “regenerative agriculture,” and helps to maintain soil health, which is crucial for healthy crops. One popular tenet of regenerative agriculture is composting, a practice Carver helped to popularize. Many people credit him as the inventor of peanut butter, although this is not true. While he did not create peanut butter, he did discover over 300 ways to use the peanut plant, including peanut soap and peanut paper. George Washington Carver was born into enslavement and was denied access to multiple universities, but finally graduated as the first Black student at Iowa State University. Carver paved the way for present day organic farmers and permaculturalists, a sect of organic farming. Congress designated January 5th as George Washington Carver Recognition Day, and he was inducted posthumously into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
2. Leah Penniman
Leah Penniman is a farmer, educator, author, and food sovereignty activist. As a young mother, Leah struggled to find fresh food for her children. At the time, she was living in the South End of Albany, NY, where her only options for finding food were a corner store, a liquor store, and a McDonald’s. Areas that lack access to affordable and nutritious food are commonly called “food deserts”-- you can find more on that topic and “food apartheid” linked here. Leah and her husband started a community garden in their neighborhood in response to the food insecurity their community faced living in a food desert. Their efforts with the community garden eventually gave way to the creation of Soul Fire Farm, which has an emphasis on training young Black and brown people on activist farming. Soul Fire Farm now has over 10,000 program alumni nation-wide! Leah has an inspiring and robust interview about Soul Fire Farm, reparations, and land access with the Foundation for Intentional Community that you can read here. If you would like to buy Leah’s book, “Farming While Black,” I’ve included a link at the end of the post.
3. Karen Washington
In 2012, Ebony magazine voted Karen Washinton one of their 100 most influential African Americans in the country because of her accomplishments in community organizing and farming education. Karen Washington was a physical therapist for 30 years, but was always engaged in community farming and gardening projects. Since 1985, she worked to turn empty lots in the Bronx into community gardens, worked tirelessly to protect urban gardens and farms from land auctions, and campaigned to change New York City farming restrictions. She “retired” a few years ago and started Rise & Root farm. Rise & Roots has several affiliated projects and branches, including Farm School NYC (an urban agriculture certificate program), and the Black Farmers & Urban Growers Conference. She worked closely with Leah Penniman for years, and Leah considers Karen to be a close mentor. You can read an interview with both Karen and Leah here.
4. Black-led farming initiatives in Detroit
We couldn’t wrap this post up without giving a shout out to the numerous Black farmers and entrepreneurs here in Detroit, Michigan. ILERA Apothecary is based in Detroit, a city that should be in the national spotlight for our organic farming initiatives. Detroit has a number of organic, Black-owned farms who offer so much more than fresh fruits and vegetables. Many local farming initiatives offer educational opportunities (for youth and adults alike), networking events, and community aid. While there are too many individuals to shout out, we’ve included a link detailing some of the Black-owned farms in the Detroit Metro area here. We are grateful to witness Detroiters making history firsthand!
Learn more about George Washington Carver, Leah Penniman, Karen Washington, and Detroit farms:
Related books and media: