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Black Farming in Michigan

Before discussing the history of Black farming in Michigan and the Midwest, I’d like to acknowledge that Black Lives Matter. The injustice against George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the countless other who have died at the hands of police brutality is sickening and we must do better.

Part of our story is that we’re a 7th generation family farm. When I tell people this, I usually get some sort of congratulatory or well done remark. I literally didn’t do anything to deserve that praise - I haven’t stood up and said I’ll take over the farm after my dad, I didn’t pinch pennies after purchasing another land parcel. I didn’t clear land of trees, stumps, brush and undergrowth without the use of modern equipment. I’ve barely done anything deemed risky.

That’s privilege. The opportunities we had as white farmers living in rural Michigan were and are not the same as Black farmers in Michigan. We had access to banking institutions and relationships with them. We've been able to hold on to the 2,300 acres we have with outside sources of income and being able to run other businesses and the farm. 

That’s white privilege. That isn't to say that white farmers don't struggle or deserve what they've worked incredibly hard for. It's just to say that Black farmers face different and more challenges than we did. 

I'm new to the unlearning and discovering the depths of my privilege. So if you see me saying something not quite right, please correct me. I am not perfect but I am here to learn and listen and be a better human. If you want to have a conversation or comment or anything else, email me! claire[at]teneragrains.com 

So - some things I've learned about Black history in the agriculture sector and specifically in Michigan. 

One of the first documented Black farmers in Michigan were Enoch and Deborah Harris. They were neighbors with Jonathan Chapman, or Johnny Appleseed as he's more known by, and more than likely brought some of his apple seeds from Ohio to Michigan. The Harris' first purchased land in Kalamazoo around 1830 and are attributed to planting the first apple orchard in Kalamazoo County. Their farm grew to 2000 acres by the 1880s* (source at bottom). You can read a bit more about them here.

This research article by Dr. Dorceta E. Taylor* is a great starting point (15-20 min read) to learn about the history of Black farming, some of the injustices against them and a few organizations created to help those farmers get access to services and supply channels across the state. 

Some facts from the article that I found particularly interesting are:

“At their peak [in 1920], black farm operators comprised 14.3% of the total farmers in the USA. They farmed approximately 41.4 million acres and their operations were worth an estimated $2.3 billion”. (clarification on date and bolding my own addition)

But then as of 2012, the Black farm operators dropped to 1.5% with the following stats:

 

Size - Nationwide

Size - Michigan

Average Value of Sales

Average Farm

434 acres

191 acres

$187,097

Average Black Operated Farm

125 acres

71 acres

$36,052

 

The article elaborates on specific examples, but some of the causes behind this decline in Black farmers include limited access to quality farmland in safe zones, prejudice when it comes to applying for credit, loans or mortgages, and documented discrimination against them from the USDA. 401 Black farmers brought a lawsuit against the USDA when it was discovered that between 1984-1985, they lent $1.3 billion to 16,000 farmers but only 209 of them were black.

There was frequent redlining in Michigan agriculture as well. "The Mitchells are a case in point. Four generations of them operate an organic blueberry farm in Grand Junction (Van Buren County) that produced more than 10,000 of blueberries in 2015. But when they tried to purchase land in the late 1960s, they were forced to buy a swampy area. They had to truck in a lot of dirt to fill in the area before they could plant on it. Black farmers in Michigan report that they find it virtually impossible to purchase land with highly rated soil and they were forced to purchase farms beside one another (Townsend 2016)." 

Trust me, you want to read this article. It is heartening to see that there has been a small increase in Black farmer operating farms in the entire United States since 1992 when it was just 1%. Data for Michigan specific numbers was not available. 

If food is your passion and you’re into things like sourcing local or sustainable agriculture or witnessing and being a part of a strong community, there are several concrete ways you can help Black farmers in Michigan. 

  1. Become a member of the Detroit People’s Co-op. They’re led by the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and will open soon! 
  2. Head to one of many farmers markets supporting the work of black farmers - consider a CSA! Oakland Avenue Urban Farm , Eastern Market, and Old City Acres are a couple that come to mind.
  3. Follow Black farmers doing awesome things: @leahpenniman, @soulfirefarm, @acresofancestry
  4. Get inspired by the Gangsta Gardener Ron Findley’s Ted Talk 
  5. Donate to work supporting these efforts: We The People Opportunity Farm (led by Melvin Parson), Detroit Food Policy Council, and Keep Growing Detroit 
  6. Plant your own garden - there are loads of herb and plant starts at farmers market (especially Eastern and Farmington Farmers Market). 
  7. Volunteer at D-Town Farms 

 

*Taylor, D.E. Black Farmers in the USA and Michigan: Longevity, Empowerment, and Food Sovereignty. J Afr Am St 22, 49–76 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12111-018-9394-8