Black Farmers in the USA and Michigan: Longevity, Empowerment, and Food Sovereignty

Journal of African American Studies volume 22, pages49–76 (2018)

OKT is sharing this important journal article in parts over the next weeks. Here is part six.

Black Farmers in Michigan

Black farmers in northern states like Michigan are often overlooked because they comprise a small portion of the nation’s black farmers,Footnote11 and they make up a modest share of the farmers in their state. Nonetheless, Michigan is important and interesting state to examine black farmers’ experiences because of the complex relationships that has evolved over time between southern black farmers, black rural Michigan farmers, and black urban farmers in the state. The relationships are both competitive and collaborative and are rooted in kinship ties and culture, as well as the rhetoric of black empowerment, food sovereignty, and environmental justice.

Historical Context

Blacks have been farming in Michigan since the antebellum period. The earliest black farmers were either recruited to Michigan or followed the Underground Railroad to the state. A steady stream of blacks settled in the southeastern and southwestern portions of the state. Records from Pittsfield Township (near Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti) indicate that abolitionists collaborating with the Underground Railroad settled in the township in the 1820s. Blacks seeking their freedom settled in the area on the Old Sweet Briar Farm located on or nearby Jacob Aray’s property (Richards n.d.).

Some of Southwest Michigan’s early black residents worked for their Quaker benefactors as share croppers and in other capacities till they amassed enough money to purchase their own land. Quakers, some of whom were farmers in places like North Carolina, moved to Michigan to establish farms in the early nineteenth century. The Quakers were ardent abolitionists, hence Cass County—especially Calvin Township, Vandalia, and Ramptown—became strongholds of Underground Railroad activities (Ben and Wilson 1986, p. 22; Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History n.d.).

Enoch Harris and his wife, Deborah, were the first black farmers to settle in Kalamazoo County; they did so around 1830. The Harrises, who were originally from Virginia, settled in Knox County, Ohio in 1813 then moved to Michigan to live on an 80-acre farm. The Harrises, who brought apple seeds with them, is said to have established the first apple orchard in Oshtemo Township and Kalamazoo County. By 1860, the Harrises raised horses, cows, sheep, and pigs. They also grew wheat, Indian corn, oats, peas and beans, potatoes, barley, hay, and orchard crops. The family owned about 2000 acres of land by the 1880s (Kalamazoo Morning Gazette 1902; Santamaria 2002; Praus 1960, pp. 61–66; Ben and Wilson 1986, p. 23).

Black farmers in Calvin Township in the southwestern tip of Michigan trace their lineage in the area to 1839 and the free blacks who traveled from North Carolina to settle in the area. Some blacks moved with Quakers and settled in Southwest Michigan. A former slave, Lawson, arrived in Calvin Township in 1836; he took up farming. Another runaway slave, Jesse Scott, who arrived 2 years later, raised tobacco once he settled in the township. Bill Lawson’s great-great-great-grandfather, Gault, arrived in Southwest Michigan from North Carolina in 1838 or 1839. Another 43 free blacks who settled in Cass County between 1845 and 1846 purchased farmland. At one point, blacks farmed as much as 38% of Calvin Township; some of their farms were more than 200 acres in size. For instance, Littleberry Stewart owned 240 acres of land in the township during the 1860s (Worthington 1987, p. 3; Ben and Wilson 1986, p. 24; Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, n.d.; Thierry 1997, pp. A1, 10).

Black Michiganders embraced the opportunity to own land and operate their own farms. As one black farmer put it, “…it was easier to get along by farming one’s own land than it was to manage by working for meager wages in the white man’s field…but just as importantly, land was a symbolic goal of freedom…a necessary and complimentary part of becoming equal in society.” Despite being recruited to settle and farm in Michigan, once blacks arrived in the state, they faced similar forms of discrimination meted out to blacks elsewhere. There were relegated to marginal lands and had difficulty receiving financing. Consequently, blacks did not have an opportunity to farm the best lands in Michigan (Quote copied from Ben and Wilson 1986, pp. 23–24). Notwithstanding, black farmers settled in throughout the southern part of the state. They could be found in small communities in Covert, Idlewild, Benton Harbor, as well as in Mecosta, Isabella, and Montcalm counties (Old Settlers Reunion 2017).

By 1900, there were 626 black-operated farms in Michigan; 75.4% of these were owner operated. That year, blacks farmed a total of 38,259 acres in Michigan. The average black-operated farm was 61.1 acres (DuBois 1904, pp. 69–98, 296–302, 332). Blacks continued to move to Michigan during the Great Migration as cities like Detroit—with its booming auto plants—were attractive destinations. The black migrants brought to Michigan agricultural skills they had honed on southern farms.

Blacks from Baltimore and New York were recruited to purchase large tracts of abandoned farmland “of good quality” in Michigan in the 1920s. One article noted that blacks were being tricked into purchasing land unfit for agriculture. To prevent swindling, the state of Michigan created a Division of Negro Welfare and Statistics in the Department of Labor and Industry to investigate complaints (The Baltimore Afro-American 1925: A8; The New York Amsterdam News 1926, p. 15).

Blacks found it challenging to obtain credit to purchase land and develop farms in Michigan.

This was so ubiquitous that it made national headlines when Clarence Haines of Calvin Township in Southwest Michigan obtained a loan from a black-owned lending agency that was insured by the Farmers Home Administration of the USDA in 1949. This might have been the first government-insured loan made to a black farmer in Michigan. Upon receiving the check of $5500 from the Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Company of Chicago, Mr. Haines commented, “…My only hope is that this kind of help can reach a lot of other folks like me” (Quote copied from The Chicago Defender 1949, p. 4; New York Times 1949, p. 63).

However, the number of farms operated by blacks in Michigan and the number of acres they farm declined precipitously during the twentieth century. The loss of black-owned farmland accelerated between 1920 and 1970. The disposal of heirs’ property played a role in the decline as the children of black pioneers sold off farmland. Roughly 12,545 acres were lost this way. Heirs sold the property because of high taxes, limited profits, and legal malfeasance (Ben and Wilson 1986, p. 25).

As the loss of farmland became more noticeable, civil rights and black power activists sought to stem the tide by acquiring land to farm collectively. Land acquisition was also seen as a mechanism for reducing food insecurity in black communities, striving toward food sovereignty, controlling the means of production and distribution of food, and furthering the economic development of blacks. Black nationalists in the Nation of Islam and other groups also saw land ownership as a means of furthering black empowerment. Consequently, the Nation of Islam tried to purchase 3600 acres of land in rural Alabama. This infuriated the Klu Klux Klan and other whites opposed to black land ownership.Footnote12 Despite the opposition in Alabama, the Nation of Islam acquired large tracts of land not only in Alabama, but in Georgia, Illinois, and Michigan (Reid and Bennett 2012, pp. 248–249; Waldron 1969; Associated Press/New York Times 1970; United Press International 1969).

It was during this era that young Wilbur Minisee of Niles, Michigan decided he wanted to farm. In 1968, Minisee, then 15 years old, secured a $300 loan with the aid of his father, and started farming on 10 acres. A decade later, he operated 600 acres of farmland. Minisee’s ancestors were free blacks who moved from Upstate New York to Southwest Michigan in the 1850s (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1980; Thierry 1997, pp. A1, 10).

The twin practices of segregating black farmers in particular locales and forcing them to farm on undesirable, hazard-prone land occurred in Michigan too. The practice of redlining minority urban neighborhoods, refusing to grant home loans to residents living in such areas, and the refusal to sell such residents property in desirable white neighborhoods was mimicked in the agricultural sector (Taylor 2014). As a result, black farmers had difficulty purchasing land in desirable areas and could not get funding to develop their existing acreage (Townsend 2016). 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).

The Contemporary Context

As Table 3 shows, there were only 110 black farm operators in Michigan in 1997 and they accounted for 0.2% of the farm operators in the state (U.S. Department of Agriculture 1999). This marked the nadir of black farming population in Michigan as well as the nation. But the following year would be pivotal. In 1998, the National Black Farmers Association organized a National Black Farmers’ Conference.Footnote13 The Michigan Coalition of Black Farmers, the state chapter of the National Black Farmers Association, hosted the conference. Hence in May of 1998, more than 1000 black farmers from 29 states descended on Detroit for the conference that was organized around the theme of “Saving the Black Farmer.” At the time, black farmers were losing an estimated 9000 acres of farmland per week because of foreclosures. The conference focused on strategies for influencing federal policies, halting the land loss plaguing black farmers, promote urban agriculture amongst blacks, and strengthen institutional infrastructures to help black farmers work collectively to maximize their impact (New York Beacon 1998, p. 10; Stone 1998: A1). A month later, the Michigan House and Senate passed a resolution to end years of discrimination in the state against black farmers (Amick 1998: A4).Table 3 Number and race of farm operators in Michigan; 1982–2012Full size table

The Michigan Coalition of Black Farmers helps black farmers to collaborate with each other, promote the sale of their produce to retailers, and market the farmers. In August 1998, the Michigan Coalition of Black Farmers joined forces with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the Nation of Islam (founded in 1930 in Detroit) to work out an agreement with Eastern MarketFootnote14 in Detroit to sell food grown and distributed by blacks. This allowed black Detroiters to support black farmers in the South since the Nation of Islam planned to sell food grown on its Albany, Georgia farm and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives purvey food grown by black farmers all over the South to consumers in Detroit (Long-Bey 1998: A1; 1999: A1; Stone 1998: A1). Blacks viewed the agreement among themselves as mutually beneficial because from it southern farmers got access to a northern market while northern farmers got the branding, support, and resources of nationally recognized groups and important actors in farming and political issues.

The following year, Hank Reed, president of the Michigan Coalition of Black Farmers and owner of Metro Foodland Supermarket,Footnote15 reported that produce grown by southern black farmers was being sold in his and the other black-owned Foodland Supermarket in Detroit. Reed and his collaborators were being intentional about building a supply chain in which produce from southern black-owned farms was being trucked to and sold in black-owned supermarkets to black customers. Reed assessed the initiative this way, “We are setting up an opportunity for black folk to help themselves.” He continued, “The farmers are black, and the transportation system and supermarket[s] are black.” James Hooks, owner of the second participating Foodland Supermarket explained further. He said, “…black people have to build vertical enterprises controlled by blacks from bottom to top” (Long-Bey 1999: A1).

A similar partnership focused on black economic empowerment, food sovereignty, and increased consumption of healthy foods was attempted with the launch of Freedom Foods in Detroit in 2002.

Freedom Foods sought to facilitate the sale of produce from black farmers in Michigan and the South.

The organizers took this approach because they argue that grocery store owners rarely purchase products from black farmers. The partnership also materialized because a Detroiter with farms in Georgia wanted to sell the produce grown in Georgia in Detroit (Akwamu 2002: B1).

There has been a resurgence of black farmers in Michigan. Since 2002, the number of black farm operators has increased from 243 to 356. In 2012, black farm operators account for 0.5% of the farm operators in Michigan (USDA 2014). Despite this milestone, Michigan’s black farmers continued to seek compensation for discrimination suffered at the hands of the USDA between 1981 and 1996. As a result, black farmers collaborated with the Land Loss Prevention Project, a North Carolina-based nonprofit, to file claims by the 2012 deadline. Of the roughly 89,000 claims filed, 1456 were from black farmers in Michigan (Lersten 2012). Michigan’s black farmers were not a part of the original law suit.

Of the 52,194 farms in the state in 2012, 271 were operated by blacks (see Table 4). That year, there were a total of 356 black farm operators in the state and together they farmed a total of 19,369 acres. All told 9,948,564 acres are farmed in Michigan in 2012. Black-operated farms tended to be smaller than others in the state. While the average size of black-operated farms is 71 acres, the state-wide average for farms is 191 acres (USDA 2014). Despite the resurgence of farming by blacks, in 2012 Michigan’s black farmers were farming just over half the acreage they did in 1900. So, what is most commonly found on Michigan’s black-operated farms? Most often, these farms are used to grow forage, oilseed and grain, berries, soybeans, corn, fruits, and vegetables. Their top livestock inventory items are horses and ponies, laying hens, cattle and calves, and bees (USDA 20092014).Table 4 Characteristics of Michigan farms and farm operators as well as black farms and farm operatorsFull size table

Michigan’s rural black farmers have worked closely with black urban growers to establish farms in cities like Detroit and Flint. Food sovereignty and self-empowerment through food production are themes that unite them. As Barbara Norman, whose family has been farming since the 1930s, said before delivering the 2014 keynote address to the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference in Detroit, “He who owns the land makes the rules.” Norman operates a 53-acre blueberry farm in Covert, located in Southwest Michigan (Blount-Dorn 2014: A8). Kadiri Sennefer agrees. She says of D-Town Farm, “It’s a self-determination project. We’re not looking for anyone to do it for us. We come out here and do the work ourselves. We dig for ourselves and we do for ourselves” (Michigan Public Radio 2012).

Researchers have documented the extent to which food sovereignty, food security, and empowerment have infused the discourses of Michigan’s black urban growers (Taylor and Ard 2015, pp. 102–133; White 2010, pp. 189–211; White 2011a, pp. 406–417; White 2011b, pp. 13–28). For instance, Bianca Danzy, a student farming at Earthworks in Detroit says, “Growing your own food is self-determination, food that you put in the ground, you grew and then prepared…[it] nourishes you and detaches you from the need to go and pay a food bill” (Public Radio International 2016). Michigan’s black urban growers have also articulated these themes as well as the challenges they face acquiring land on which to grow (Yakini 20102013: A10).

Despite the publicity surrounding discriminatory lending practices, access to reliable and adequate financing for farming activities continue to bedevil Michigan’s black farmers. A recent study the farmers’ perceptions of credit availability found that black farmers were reluctant to use government loans to finance their operations and only turn to this source as a matter of last resort. This is by design; the Farm Service Agency provides financial assistance to farmers only after they have exhausted other credit options. Michigan’s black farmers are cautious about using Farm Service Agency loans because of a history of discrimination against black borrowers and lack of outreach to them. A farmer in the study explains why his experiences lead him to bypass the Farm Service Agency. He told the researchers, “I went to production credit…he’s never loaned money to a Black man so it ended up that I didn’t get the money…now I just don’t bother with it.” Another farmer expressed frustration with the limited information that black farmers receive. He said of the agency, “…they’re not forthwith with information when you go in there…the information is not really made available to us [African-American farmers] (Quote copied from Tyler et al. 2014, pp. 232–251; Escalante et al. 2006, p. 62). In spite of these challenges, Michigan’s black farmers exhibit great fortitude. In 2012, 59.1% of them had operated their farms for 10 years or more (USDA 2014).