Facing a long shadow of racism in agriculture, a Battle Creek farmer is inspiring change ⋆

Standing amid the tomatoes growing on a two-acre plot of land in one of Battle Creek’s lowest-income neighborhoods, Devon Wilson looked at the small, orange plant nestled in his hand. This, he explained, gesturing towards a sea of green — a melange of kale and cucumbers, collard greens and summer squash — growing under the sweat-inducing July sun, is his dream.

Situated in Battle Creek’s Washington Heights neighborhood — a place that not long after the turn of the 20th century was a wealthy part of the city but, in the face of systemic racism and redlining, became one of the poorest — this land constitutes Wilson’s urban organic farm known as Sunlight Gardens

For the past three years, Wilson, a 26-year-old Battle Creek native, has been tending to this plot to create the space it has grown into: a place of community, of art, of food that will leave people empowered.

It is, Wilson said, a place for the people of Washington Heights — a predominantly Black area in the Southwest Michigan city that’s faced decades of disinvestment — to gather, eat and explore topics like the impact of racism on food access and how to grow and cook healthy food in a neighborhood that’s long been a food desert.

“Very little farmland — less than 2% — is owned by Black or Brown people,” Wilson told the Advance. “That’s very, very low, and if you look at the demographics of America, that’s not even close to what it actually should be. So that’s something we’re trying to change.

“Representation matters,” Wilson continued. “For kids to be able to see that farming isn’t just rural, just an old guy sitting on a tractor driving all day, matters.” 

Devon Wilson walks among his tomato plants at Sunlight Gardens in Battle Creek on July 27, 2023. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

The number of Black farmers in the United States has plummeted over the past century, falling from its peak of 949,889 in 1920 to approximately 45,508 today, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Census of Agriculture. That means, of all the farmers in the United States, just 1.3% are Black, and Black farmers own .52% of the country’s farmland. 

In Michigan, there are 31,744 white-owned farms, compared to 172 Black-owned farms, according to USDA data. Breaking that down further, there are 64 Michigan farms that are between one and nine acres — Wilson’s is two acres — where the “principal producer” is Black. (That’s essentially bureaucratic speak for the person who makes the majority of the decisions on the farm).

Black farmers also make far less than their white counterparts, on average earning less than $40,000 annually while white farmers make more than $190,000 each year, the USDA reported.

“Blacks have been farming in the USA for about four centuries and in Michigan since the 1830s. Yet, for blacks, owning and retaining farmland has been a continuous challenge,” Dorceta Taylor, one of the country’s preeminent scholars in the field of environmental justice who previously taught at the University of Michigan and is now at Yale University, wrote in her 2018 paper, “Black Farmers in the USA and Michigan: Longevity, Empowerment, and Food Sovereignty.”

There’s a complex web of reasons behind these numbers but they’re largely rooted in racial violence — lynchings, threats and intimidation, for example, pushed Southern farmers to more manufacturing-based jobs in the northern United States — as well as systemic racism, biased government policy and often endless harassment from white neighbors. 

In the 1930s, for example, white politicians in Congress began killing public assistance for Black farmers, who had built up land ownership in the decades following the end of slavery, while increasing subsidies for white farmers.

House Agriculture panel probes ‘systemic’ USDA discrimination against Black farmers

The USDA would then for decades go on to refuse federal loans to Black farmers — something which Black farmers filed a class-action lawsuit over in 1997. A 1999 settlement in that case, Pigford v. Glickman, resulted in payouts of $50,000 per farmer but critics said many of those involved in the suit did not end up receiving any money because of confusing paperwork. Additionally, they emphasized that, even if farmers did secure the money owed to them, the funds fell far short of addressing the federal government’s history of discriminatory lending.

In the decades following the settlement, Black farmers have continued to face high loan rejection rates from the USDA and last year sued the government over promised federal aid never received by farmers. Some recent efforts by the federal government to address racial inequities in agriculture were thwarted by former Trump administration officials and conservative and libertarian nonprofits. During the pandemic, the federal government in 2021 secured $4 billion in debt relief for minority farmers in the American Rescue Plan. However, the former Trump administration officials and right-wing nonprofits filed lawsuits to stop that money from going to farmers of color.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who was appointed by President Joe Biden, has said his department, which did not respond to a request for comment, is focused on correcting its historical wrongs and increasing access to funding and other resources for Black farmers. 

In June, Vilsack visited Detroit to promote the USDA’s focus on urban agriculture; during that trip, he highlighted the millions of dollars the department has made available for grants to support urban agriculture. The USDA has also launched efforts to partner with urban farms, and in 2021 began working with Wilson and Sunlight Gardens to help him build practices like cover cropping and composting. 

“The USDA has a troubled history, and there’s a lot of documentation of them being very racist,” Wilson said. “But it seems like, in the government right now, they’re kind of waking up to the fact that we need more small farms, and there’s been more support for urban agriculture. They’ve been pretty awesome to work with, honestly. But, still, there’s more work that needs to be done. A lot of their programs are based around rural farming, and there needs to be more partnerships with urban farms.”

It’s this focus on urban farming that Wilson is especially passionate about. After all, Battle Creek — a place that’s often referred to as Cereal City and is home to the Kellogg Co.’s headquarters — is his home. 

And he knows what it has meant to his family and friends to be separated from agriculture and healthy food here. (Extensive research has shown that Black and brown neighborhoods nationwide are far more likely to be food deserts, or areas where it’s difficult to find affordable and healthy food).

“Growing up, I saw a lot of my family dealing with health issues,” Wilson said. “I started doing more research on what actually was in the food that was available to us in the corner stores, and even in the grocery stores a lot of times, and I found out it’s not very nutritious. There’s a lot of processed foods and things that are just bad for our bodies. 

Representation matters. For kids to be able to see that farming isn’t just rural, just an old guy sitting on a tractor driving all day, matters.

– Devon Wilson, the owner of the Sunlight Gardens farm in Battle Creek

“I saw my family going through a lot — diabetes, cancer,” he continued. “Basically, your body is degrading because of the food you put in your body. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it creeps up on you, especially later in life. I feel grateful I saw that from a young age, and I was like, ‘OK, well, I want to eat things that are making me healthier, making me have more energy.’”

Now, Wilson wants his entire community to be connected to healthy food. He wants people to see his rows of vegetables spread across his plot – a space across the street from modest homes and a church, and not far from the ornate building that once housed Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s 19th century health resort known as the Battle Creek Sanitarium — and not only be able to access what he’s grown but learn how to cultivate their own food gardens. 

Wilson doesn’t solely want to farm — although that’s certainly one of his passions and something he has long worked hard at, including crowdfunding resources to attend Michigan State University’s organic farmer training program. He sees his farm as something even bigger than the vegetables now populating his land — he views it as a way to lift the people around him, from Battle Creek-based artist Jaziel Pugh painting a mural on the side of his farm store, Farmacy, that recently opened at Sunlight Gardens, to offering cooking tutorials for the neighborhood at the farm. He’s also starting to partner with area schools to provide them with vegetables grown on his farm. 

On the back of Wilson’s Farmacy building — the last physical remnant of the church that once stood on the property — is a painting of Nelson Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid leader who would go on to become the country’s first Black president. The painting — the work of artist Loic Ercolessi and funded by the Battle Creek-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation — takes up an entire wall of the store’s building and can be seen far beyond the borders of the farm. 

In a neighborhood that is 67% Black and where the median household income is about $25,000 — 41% lower than the city average — it’s a reminder, Wilson said, of the battle for freedom and the triumph over oppression.

“Nelson Mandela is a symbol of fighting for what’s right,” Wilson said.

Sunlight Farms is a two-acre urban farm in Battle Creek’s Washington Heights neighborhood. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

Devon Wilson stands with his tomato plants at Sunlight Gardens in Battle Creek on July 27, 2023. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

Sunlight Gardens is a two-acre urban farm in Battle Creek. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

Battle Creek-based artist Jaziel Pugh, left, and Sunlight Gardens owner Devon Wilson stand in front of the mural that Pugh painted Wilson’s urban farm in Battle Creek. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

Devon Wilson opened his Sunlight Gardens farm in Battle Creek’s Washington Heights neighborhood in 2020. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

Devon Wilson grows a variety of vegetables at his urban farm, Sunlight Gardens, in Battle Creek, including kale, zucchini, collard greens, and summer squash. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

Devon Wilson at his urban farm, Sunlight Gardens, in Battle Creek on July 27, 2023. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

Devon Wilson at Sunlight Gardens on July 27, 2023. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

A painting of Nelson Mandela fills one wall of Sunlight Gardens’ Farmacy store in Battle Creek. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

Homes in Battle Creek’s Washington Heights neighborhood. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

Battle Creek-based artist Jaziel Pugh, left, and Sunlight Gardens owner Devon Wilson stand in front of the mural that Pugh painted Wilson’s urban farm in Battle Creek. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

Linear Park in Battle Creek | Photo by Anna Gustafson

A mural in downtown Battle Creek | Photo by Anna Gustafson

Sunlight Gardens is a two-acre urban farm in Battle Creek’s Washington Heights neighborhood. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

Sunlight Gardens’ farm store, named Farmacy, in Battle Creek. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s headquarters in Battle Creek | Photo by Anna Gustafson

 

Rooted in community

That idea of “what’s right” for Battle Creek is one that deeply resonates with Jeremy Andrews, who hired Wilson as an intern at Bright Star Farm — a community farm that operated on the land where Sunlight Gardens is now and was owned by a group called Sprout BC.

Andrews, who’s from Battle Creek, is the founder of Sprout, which once focused on connecting community gardens in the city to resources like farm tools and planting workshops and now operates as a food hub that distributes local food and will soon open a co-op in downtown Battle Creek. 

After purchasing the land on which Bright Star Farm was located for $1 from the Calhoun County Land Bank Authority — which the county treasurer’s office launched in 2007 and which buys dilapidated properties with the intention of selling them at a very low price to local residents doing work to empower the area — Andrews went on to ultimately sell it for $1 to Wilson after Sprout left to operate a food hub in nearby Springfield.

Now, he said, to see Wilson continue to invest in the Washington Heights neighborhood is incredibly meaningful. 

“That neighborhood has been historically disinvested in, and we chose it … because it had been neglected and pushed aside for so long,” Andrews said, referring to setting up the Bright Star Farm community garden. “This community is a really impoverished community, so taking back the food system, decentralizing the food system and making it owned by more people is a great thing.”

This community is a really impoverished community, so taking back the food system, decentralizing the food system and making it owned by more people is a great thing.

– Jeremy Andrews, the owner of Sprout BC

Washington Heights, state Rep. Jim Haadsma (D-Battle Creek), said, is “an area rich in African-American community history” that is undergoing a “renaissance but still has a lot of community poverty challenges.

“Devon is really doing a substantial part of this renaissance,” Haadsma added. 

It’s important that this shift, Wilson is careful to point out, is rooted in empowering the local community. Gentrification — when wealthy, and often white, individuals will purchase property in a typically Black and Brown area that’s low-income — should not be a part of the neighborhood’s changes, he said. That then results in rents increasing and longtime residents — who had invested in the area but often were unable to purchase property because of systemic racism in real estate and home loan lending — being pushed from their homes. 

Gentrification, Wilson said, directly ties into food security because Black, Brown and low-income individuals will have to leave their longtime homes and will frequently be forced to go somewhere with fewer resources, such as grocery stores.

“It happens all over, where people of low-income get pushed into a certain area,” he said.

Krista Trout-Edwards, the executive director of the Calhoun County Land Bank Authority, said her organization is working to connect people who historically have had few resources with property that will benefit the community — such as with Wilson’s farm. Property ownership can help mitigate the effects of gentrification, protecting people from steep rental increases and providing them with financial stability if they do decide to leave the area because they can sell their property.

“He purchased the farm during the pandemic and began investing in the property and the neighborhood,” Trout-Edwards said of Wilson. “Our team has worked with him since the Sprout days, and we were excited for him to purchase the site and make it his own. We are currently exploring new options with him, and also assisting with a site cleanup project.

“He is a catalyst for change and investment through positive actions,” Trout-Edwards said. 

Urban farms are especially important vehicles for this kind of community change, in Battle Creek and beyond, said Florencia Colella, an educator with the Michigan State University Extension.

“Urban farms put fresh food on kitchen tables that otherwise struggle with getting fruits and vegetables,” Colella said. “Urban farmers not only provide the fresh produce where it’s needed but, through their community involvement, provide education to communities that otherwise lack the time or resources to get that nutrition education.”

Colella works with a program, “Farm Business Record Keeping for the Global Majority,” which is run in part by MSU’s Center for Regional Food Systems and Extension and which Wilson enrolled in during 2022. That program holds “conversations around topics from how to keep farm records to the inequities and barriers that Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Southeast Asian, new immigrant/new American and farmers of color in general have faced,” Colella said.

A painting of Nelson Mandela fills one wall of Sunlight Gardens’ Farmacy store in Battle Creek. | Photo by Anna Gustafson

For people of color who have faced racism, segregation and other barriers to working on or owning a more traditional farm, urban farms provide an important agricultural home, Colella said.

“Others would like to farm in rural areas, but these areas have been notorious for excluding [people of color], both by racist individuals and also because the USDA has redlined them out, taking away the opportunity to get loans for land and equipment,” Colella said. “The USDA is trying to change that, and an example is the new Farm Service Agency office they opened in downtown Grand Rapids specifically to support urban, small and new farmers, but the systemic issues remain still.”

Wilson is determined that his farm will play a part in breaking down those barriers. The less people are relying on corporations for food and the more they have the ability to grow their own food, the more power they will have, from better health to increased financial stability, he said. 

For now, Wilson said he is taking it step by step, focusing on growing his farm store, holding more events and “getting more healthy food in the community.

“Beyond that, hopefully we’ll be able to provide food to more institutions – schools, hospitals,” he said. “But, really, our future plan is just to continue to increase access to local food and inspire the next generation of farmers.”



authored by Anna Gustafson
First published at https%3A%2F%2Fmichiganadvance.com%2F2023%2F08%2F06%2Ffacing-a-long-shadow-of-racism-in-agriculture-a-battle-creek-farmer-is-inspiring-change%2F

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