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Black farmers in cities and small towns preach the importance of growing your own food

Melvin Parson sits among plants and squints his eyes in a white t shirt and jeans
Courtesy of Melvin Parson
Melvin Parson is founder of We the People Opportunity Farm, a nonprofit in Ypsilanti Township that works with formerly incarcerated people to teach them agricultural skills.

From who grows it to who cooks it, systemic racism has a major impact on the food that we eat. Take, for instance, farming. Less than two percent of America's farm owners are Black.  Many long time Black farmers are working to shift that number. We talked to three of them about their experiences in the agriculture world and how they think about the relationship between race and food. 

Barbara James Norman is a fourth-generation blueberry farmer in Covert, Michigan. She explains that all farmers face some major barriers and challenges, but those are often intensified for Black farmers.

“The barriers are the same, maybe they squeeze us a little harder, but that’s because Black culture has such a strength to them,” Norman said. “We are survivors, we are strugglers. And you have to instill that pride in people of color too.”

Malik Yakini is the executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Networkand DTown Farm, a seven-acre organic operation in Rouge Park. His organization is focused on bringing the means of food production into the hands of the community.

Growing food in a city is different than rural farming. But from the exclusionary lending practices at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to the difficulty of obtaining empty plots in Detroit, Yakini says that Black people face barriers in the farming world wherever they are. That why Yakini helped launch the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund to help residents of Detroit purchase land for food production.

Stateside’s conversation with Melvin Parson

Melvin Parson is founder of We the People Opportunity Farm, a nonprofit in Ypsilanti Township that works with formerly incarcerated people to teach them agricultural skills. Their mission is to break the cycle of incarceration in Washtenaw County. Parson says that, in addition to the institutional barriers of farming, one of the things holding many Black people back from joining the agricultural industry is that they associate farming with slavery.

“Part of the reason they fled from the south was because of their time on plantations and being forced to grow food for other people,” Parson said. “Even today, even two generations beyond my grandparents, I’ll talk to young Black folks, folks my age, and they’ll associate growing food with slavery. There’s still a huge need for land reconciliation and food reconciliation that flows through my community.”

Besides teaching them new skills, Parson says, the chance to grow food also creates an opportunity for the formerly incarcerated people he works with to contribute meaningfully to their local community. For instance, during the pandemic, Parson’s nonprofit was able to shift its business model to give a bulk of the food they grew to their neighbors experiencing food scarcity.

What can farming offer someone beyond food? Lessons for other kinds of social justice work, for one, says Yakini. He sees food as one part of a larger push for social and racial justice. And unlike the the years-long efforts needed to make major change in political or social systems, farming produces a harvest the same year you plant your seeds.

“With farming and gardening, generally there’s some relationship between the amount of effort you put into it and what you get out of it,” Yakini said. “You get some tangible outcomes. So that’s tremendously motivating for people.”

Food itself is an issue of social justice. One of the goals of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network is to build food sovereignty for residents of Detroit. That means that those people have control over food production and reap the economic benefits of the local food economy. That will take time to achieve, but Yakini says that being a successful farmer means thinking long term. 

Credit Courtesy of Melvin Parson
When the pandemic hit, Parson shifted his farm operation to providing food to those experiencing food scarcity.

“People are living in the short term. And farming really is a long-term commitment. So, you know, changing our mindset from this culture of instant things happening to beginning to thinking in years and decades is the advice I would give to new farmers,” Yakini said.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Catherine Nouhan.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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