May 20, 2024

Special funds are a step toward leveling the playing field for Black farmers

Later this spring, for the first time ever, farmers of color in West Michigan will be able to apply for a grant through the West Michigan Farmers of Color Land Fund to help them buy, maintain, and improve agricultural land.

It took three years for supporters of the West Michigan Farmers of Color Land Fund—one of 51 chapters nationwide that are affiliated with the National Young Farmers Coalition—to raise $50,000 to award the first round of grants. A GoFundMe campaign generated 70%  of the funds, and the rest came from grants.

A review committee is being formed to evaluate applications and award grants. 

“Land ownership is the only pathway to a just, equitable, and sustainable future for farmers,” says Payge Solidago, Michigan organizer for the National Young Farmers Coalition. “Access to land empowers communities to be self-sufficient, food secure, and resilient in the face of climate change and unstable food systems, globally.”

Unfortunately, the outlook for aspiring farmers is not ideal, Solidago says. Vacant land in and around Grand Rapids is scarce and expensive. Nationwide, 40%  of land used for agricultural purposes are leased. Farmers who own their land are more likely to invest in and grow their operations, Solidago says.

The West Michigan land fund is intended to address generational injustices against Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) farmers. Over the past century, racial prejudice and discriminatory lending practices against black and brown people contributed to a significant decline in the number of black-owned farms.

Nationwide, only 2% of farmers are black. In Michigan, the percentage is more dismal, only 0.4%, according to a National Young Farmers Coalition report

Solidago says she knows of 10 black people farming in West Michigan. Typically, farming is a side hustle to a more lucrative occupation that “pays the bills,” she says. Some are farming on as little as one-quarter acre. 

Co-leaders of the West Michigan chapter are Alita Kelly, who is restoring a West Michigan apple orchard, and Takidia Jenkins-Smith, who grows vegetables in Grand Rapids.
The West Michigan chapter often collaborates with organizations that share a vision for a more racially inclusive, environmentally sustainable community. Partners include the Black women-led nonprofit group Power to the People 616, which periodically hosts Liberation Saturdays at Grand Rapids’ Garfield Park.

Addressing historic disparities

Black farmer land funds have emerged as important means to seek capital that do not replicate the discriminatory and predatory practices that have been driving Black farmers and land stewards off their land for over a century.  

“We know there are more aspiring growers and farmers of color out there that we have not met yet,” Solidago says. “In West Michigan, we’ve needed to do public education to raise the public’s awareness of this issue.”

In Southeast Michigan, fundraising proceeded faster because more people seemed familiar with the concept of land reparations, she adds.

That region has two similar farmland funds: the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund, which started the movement in Michigan in 2020, and the Washtenaw County Black Farmers Fund, which started in 2022.   

The Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund was founded on Juneteenth 2020 by members of three urban farming organizations: Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, Keep Growing Detroit, and Oakland Avenue Urban Farm. The organizations’ goal is to cultivate healthy foods, jobs, educational programs, and cultural enrichment programs through the city of Detroit. 

Four years ago, the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund helped 30 new black farmers purchase vacant land in Detroit. In 2021, more than $50,000 was raised to support an additional 40 black farmers’ efforts to purchase land and make capital improvements, according to the organization’s website.   

The Washtenaw County chapter raised $100,000 for its first round of grants. Those awards go toward down payment support, equipment purchase, developing farm infrastructure, and operating costs.

“Michigan is a very unique space within the food ecosystem in America. We have three land funds to support a Black and brown ecosystem of agriculture producers throughout the state,” says Keesa Johnson, a food systems design specialist at Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems. “Food is all about joy and healthy well-being. When a community produces its own food, it builds pride and self-determination that yields ecological benefits as well as economic.”

Johnson also is a co-lead with the Michigan Local Food Policy Network alongside Liz Genzler, Kolia Souza, and Jordan Lindsey. They support advocacy efforts by local food policy councils and health equity organizations.   

Building local food systems

“My role is to develop and implement strategies to support equitable local food systems and agricultural initiatives,” says Johnson. “The Michigan Local Food Council Network advocates for policies that promote sustainable farming practices and ready access to nutritious, socially just, locally grown food. The councils facilitate collaboration between the people who grow food, distribute food, and the buying public. 

“We also run learning cohorts, coaching groups, legislator education days, and racial equity workgroups to enhance community awareness of agriculture and food sovereignty.”

Johnson recalls learning that the United States never has had a just and equitable food system. As a graduate student, she did her research at the University of Michigan campus farm, where she was the first ever DEI manager, a role created in partnership with Dorceta Taylor, a world-renowned environmentalist, and Jeremy Moghtader, the U-M campus farm program manager. 

“I learned about ecological economics and the importance of how food production affects our community well-being and the environment,” Johnson says.

Johnson says some Michigan residents have experienced “food apartheid,” which describes what happened when decades of “industrial farming” allowed huge, government-subsidized growers to sell cheaper than small local farms, driving many out of business. It also describes what happens when local zoning policies favor corporations, she says.  

As a result, she says, high-quality foods are not distributed equally, and people marginalized by race, income, or location have not had dependable access to nutritious food.  The farmers’ funds were developed to create a new ecosystem where Black and brown farmers thrive.    

Photo is courtesy of Keesa Johnson.

This story is part of a series that explores access, equity, and sustainability through Good Food in Michigan’s thriving food economy. This work is made possible by Michigan Good Food and is supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

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