For the last four years, Cary Junior has been working to create a market for a small group of black farmers not far from Detroit’s city center.
As general manager of the Southeast Michigan Producers Association, or SEMPA, Junior has been leading an effort to build the capacity of these farmers and get their greens, tomatoes, corn, squash and other vegetables into the hands of fellow Detroiters who lack access to healthy, fresh local food.
“There are a lot of food insecure neighborhoods here,” explains Junior. “We want to get these farmers’ products into these neighborhoods.”
SEMPA (originally called the Coalition of Black Farmers) is a farmer cooperative of small and limited resource producers in southwest Wayne County, southeast Washtenaw County and northwest Monroe County with a single mission: underserved farmers serving underserved community.
“A lot of these guys have been farming for 30 years,” says Junior, noting the average age of the farmers is 68. And while the farmland is there, the markets for these farmers haven’t been – most sell their produce at roadside stands, and a few take it to rural farmers markets.
But now by collaborating and working as a cooperative, the plan is to give these farmers strength in numbers and be able to get these fresh vegetables to neighborhoods that lack access to fresh, quality produce and to also supply local restaurants and maybe even a small school.
“There is a lot of idle farmland here,” Junior says, adding these farmers have the ability to grow more produce but just need access to larger markets. “We want to bring that farmland back into production to help create a small, local food system.”
Junior, with his economic development background as well as work with other food system organizations in the state, is also trying to connect these farmers with resources to help them expand their operations and ultimately to make farming more profitable.
Seven farmers are officially part of the cooperative with another 15 or so in a “wait and see” position and another couple dozen to hopefully bring into the fold once the network gets up and running.
“If we can get the network going, create these ‘mini-markets,’ hire local people to work … then we can create some local economic stability for these farmers and these communities,” Junior says.
Contact SEMPA: sempafarms.com
Lynn Geiger is a writer for Traverse City Business News and The Ticker. This article was originally printed for our 2016 Guide to Local Food in Southeastern Michigan.