Agroup of West Michigan growers is proposing a solution to solve two problems around equity and unentitled land assets that currently affect the state’s agricultural industry.
The West Michigan Farmers of Color Land Fund launched last year to champion equity in the state’s thriving agriculture industry. Modeled after successful funds in Detroit and Washtenaw County, the fund aims to bridge inequities in agriculture by financing land opportunities for underserved growers of color.
“We’re talking about that equitable evolution of our food system,” said Alita Kelly, land organizing director of the National Young Farmers Coalition and co-founder of West Michigan Farmers of Color Land Fund. “We have to acknowledge that only two percent of growers are growers of color and unpack that.”
Farmers of color make up less than 1 percent of total agriculture sales across the country, according to a 2017 report by the U.S. Census Bureau. In Michigan, those numbers are even bleaker, with farmers of color making up just 0.5 percent of the state’s roughly 47,600 farms.
While the U.S. Department of Agriculture sought to ease the burden placed on farmers by the COVID-19 pandemic with targeted loans, only 37 percent of Black applicants were approved for the loans, compared to 71 percent of white applicants.
Among numerous struggles, a National Young Farmers Coalition survey demonstrated that a lack of access to land remains the largest stress point for farmers of color. With the average U.S. farmer approaching 60 years old and the ranks of young farmers rising too slowly to acquire land, the West Michigan Farmers of Color Land Fund eyes an opportunity to elevate Black farmers while minimizing the loss of farmland.
Kelly, who co-founded and helped launch the South East Market in Grand Rapids, spoke with MiBiz about how the fund wants to create a supportive network for farmers of color while easing the burdens of land access, as well as the unique problems farmers of color face in West Michigan compared to other regions of the state.
You’ve worked in food security at multiple levels, from the South East Market to the Freedom Garden at MLK School. How did you get involved in the Land Fund?
A group of growers banded together to start this chapter of the National Young Farmer Coalition here in West Michigan because we needed that organizing done in this area. They put out a call on social media asking if anyone wanted to get involved. I was deep in my work with the South East Market, but they needed representation by a person of color. It’s important that there’s someone representing those communities with lived experience to bring that voice to the project. Once we formed the chapter, it was easy for us to come to an agreement on our main priority, and that’s empowering growers of color by increasing their access to land.
Matching underserved farmers to land that would otherwise be lost seems to be a pretty clear-cut solution to these two problems that, at first glance, may seem unrelated.
Yes, and right now, we’re seeing so much land loss — about 2,000 acres of farmland is lost every day to development. Farmers are getting older and a lot of those farmers have families or heirs who aren’t interested in farming. Then you have this other group: Growers that don’t have that inheritance of land and don’t have access to the kind of capital you need to have a viable farm. So, how do we connect these growers who are interested and motivated to this land? It really starts with the historical exploitation of Indigenous communities and their land. There’s this whole issue based on so many events, and we have to figure out ways to make it right and move the dial in the right direction. The land fund was created to be one avenue of that movement.
How does your work on the federal level with the National Young Farmers Coalition affect your work with the Land Fund on a local level?
I’m excited to be able to do these things, learn more about systems, and figure out the best way to use my skills to make a better impact. It feels really good to be able to do that. And also, it’s powerful that now I’m coming into work that’s done on a federal level, but I am still situated in Grand Rapids. I’m still doing a lot of food systems change advocacy work at a local level, but now I have a bigger perspective to bring that back to Grand Rapids. I’m excited to see how all of this work intersects with urban agriculture, my Freedom School program, and how even this Land Fund is going to grow as a result of the new connections that I’m making and this new understanding that I have working on the federal level.
Other land funds are popping up across the country and in Michigan. How are you learning from them?
We’re taking cues from Detroit and Washtenaw County. Both have Black farmer land funds. They’ve awarded over $100,000 to growers to acquire land to hold onto their land. This is the best direct action that people can support because it translates to tangible results.
We’ve been so moved by how Detroit and Washtenaw communities have rallied together to support this cause. We have even greater needs here in a certain way because the climate is tough for farmers of color to get started here. There’s no community for them, and it’s hard for them to have solidarity with each other because they’re so spread out.
We’ve only raised $10,000, and in Detroit and Washtenaw, the funds took off so much faster.
Why do you think that is?
I think it’s because there are so many growers there, it’s clear who they’re supporting, and there’s momentum around the urban agriculture movements. People in cities are seeing this work being done — you can actually see it. In West Michigan, you can’t really see it. We need visibility, and I’m hoping that the community can rally around this because the farmers of color that I know in West Michigan, they’re all struggling. In the next 20 years, 50 percent of farmland is going to change hands.
Coupled with us losing 2,000 acres a day — it’s just a recipe for disaster. We need to come up with some solutions that allow us to support these folks fast.
Part of the mission statement mentions the fund being a means for practicing cultural agriculture techniques. There seems to be a more widely recognized intersection of the agricultural economy and cultural preservation.
The farmers we’re talking about supporting are generally more likely to grow culturally appropriate foods for communities of color. And they’re also more likely to use sustainable practices and fight climate change in how they operate. In both spaces, they’re providing some insight into the resilience of our community.