Farming While Black in West MI: Groundswell Community Farm
Groundswell Community Farm in Zeeland is planting a new seed in the West Michigan farming community. BruceMichael Wilson is a Black and Native farmer who took over Groundswell Farm from its previous owners in July 2019 and started a mid-season CSA. Even though his first full season occurred with the onslaught of the pandemic in 2020, his CSA had 30 members and he supplied to diverse outlets across West MI. This is exemplified by Wilson’s collaboration with South East Market, a new women and BIPOC led and supplied market in the Southeast neighborhood of Grand Rapids which is a historically underserved area. Groundswell has also sold at the South East Neighborhood Farmers Market, the Holland Farmers Market, and a market in Saugatuck. In addition to being a CSA farm, they also supply produce to food pantries, Doorganics, and restaurants.
Additionally, Wilson has a greater goal to break the ‘poor farmer’ stereotype and show people that farming can be a successful career aspiration. Once people see farmers running successful businesses, that will entice and encourage the next generation of farmers. Running a farm takes many hands though, and paying employees is a challenge for many farms, hence the common low-stipend internship models or reliance on WWOOFers, who work for free in exchange for housing. Wilson is focused on fair labor practices and wants to eventually be able to provide his employees with year round work and a living wage of at least $15/hour.
Growing in 2021
In 2021, Groundswell hopes to do more intercropping, use tunnels for longer growing seasons, microgreens, and create an online marketplace. They may be partnering with the United Methodist Community House (UMCH) as an anchor farm. Even more exciting is their upcoming nonprofit organization, Dunyun, CDC, whose mission is to break the cycle of BIPOC communities being underserved, and combat racism in the community. Wilson hopes to inspire and educate the next generation of Black farmers amidst the predominantly white farming landscape of the US, especially in West MI. Wilson says, “I don’t feel the need to be out front, but it’s left up to me to be up front as a Black farmer to be there for the next generation.”
Dunyun CDC aims to educate children and adults on Black history and to introduce skill sets that they are not used to, like getting back to their survival instincts through cooking, using equipment, and to help them grow into better people far away from the “asphalt jungle”. The new organization is preparing for new programs for the 2021 season which will include areas surrounding health, education and hand on experience. The hope is to give youth and others a connectedness to nature and the outdoors by storytelling in front of a campfire and preparing a tent for overnight stays on the farm.
Blackness and Farming
The dynamics of being Black in a rural, mostly white community are not new to Wilson. He grew up on a 160 acre farm in Allegan County, where his was the only Black family in the area to own a sizable property. He grew up hearing stories of his family’s history sharecropping in Mississippi, and has worked in the garden since he was a little boy. While some farmers go through formal training to gain the skills to run a farm, for Wilson it comes naturally. He has Native and African ancestors, peoples who have held the most valuable agricultural knowledge for centuries. As Wilson describes it, “I’ve never grown in greenhouses or grown vegetables to this magnitude before, but farming is in my DNA, it’s instinctive.”
In Zeeland, another predominantly white community, some people do not take Wilson seriously as a farmer. He says he is “always prepared for the rearing ugly head of racism.” This often stems from an idea rooted in the times of legalized slavery, that Black land workers should be farmhands and not land owners. This narrative led to the theft of land from Black farmers, which was exacerbated upon the formation of the federal and state farm agencies in the 1950s, but continues today. Millions of Black farmers had their land illegally taken from them and saw it put into the hands of white people, reducing Black farmers to only 2% of the farmers today.
“Discriminatory loan servicing and loan denial by white-controlled federal and state agencies forced Black farmers into foreclosure, after which their property could be purchased by wealthy landowners, almost all of whom were white. Many Black farmers who escaped foreclosure were defrauded by white tax assessors who set assessments too high.” The USDA maintains systemic racism today, with over 14,000 unresolved claims of discimination from farmers filed since 2006.
White supremacy culture infiltrates all aspects of society from the federal government down to local dynamics. For many Black and Brown farmers, this often leads to discrimination from other members of the farming community, government agencies and sometimes their own employees.
In Michigan, Groundswell is one of few USDA Certified Organic Black-owned farms, along with Agape Organic Farm. Uplifting the historical knowledge that Black farmers hold, and reviving Black farming communities is crucial for a sustainable and equitable future – and Wilson is doing just that.
Support Black Farmers in Michigan
• Donate to Agape Organic Farm here.
• Learn more about Groundswell farm on their website.
• Learn more about the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network here.
• Find a Black Owned or Operated Farm New You here.
• Read more about the history of land theft in the US here.
• Learn about the Obama-era, and now Biden-era Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack and how his administration has ignored discrimination claims here.
Payge Lindow is the former West Michigan Local Food Coordinator for Taste the Local Difference. Contact her at [email protected]
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