Candius Elliott of Workin’ Roots was one of 50 Detroit farmers selected to receive an award from the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund. The fund launched in 2020 to help Black farmers purchase land and address historical land ownership disparities. (Photo by Jewel Dotson)

Dozens of the city’s Black farmers will share in $100,000 in financial assistance from a fund created to promote food sovereignty in Detroit. 

The Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund was created on Juneteenth in 2020 by members of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, Oakland Avenue Urban Farm and Keep Growing Detroit to address the historic and ongoing challenges Black farmers encounter in purchasing land. 

“We’re supporting intergenerational Black farmland ownership, supporting people owning their farms in the City of Detroit, taking up this vacant land and turning it green,” Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund co-founder Erin Preston-Johnson Bevel said during an Oct. 29 harvest festival at D-Town Farm as organizers announced the awardees.

A total of 50 farmers from the east, west and southwest sides of the city, and in Highland Park, were selected for this year’s awards. The amount given to each farm varied depending on the cost and amount of lots each applicant was seeking to purchase. Many farmers applied for both land and infrastructure grants offered by the land fund, Preston-Johnson Bevel said.    

Nationally, the number of Black farmers are at an all time low. In the early 1900’s, Black farmers made up 15% of all farmers. Today, they account for less than 1%. In Wayne County, Black farmers owned just 7% of farmland in 2017, despite representing 37% of the population, and more than a third of Black farmers in Wayne County made less than $2,500 a year, according to the U.S. Census. 

The Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund, or DBFLF, seeks to alleviate some of the barriers. All of the money raised goes directly to farmers in the form of a land or infrastructure award. In the first year, the fund provided funding awards to 30 farmers and, in the second year, 40 farmers were selected for grants. This year, there were 50 recipients. 

Candius Elliott of Workin’ Roots, a farm on Danbury Street, north of Highland Park, has received funding for the second time. In 2021, she also received help from the fund that enabled her to purchase two lots that she had been farming on.

“This new grant will help us continue building infrastructure on our current lots. We actually are in the process of purchasing more lots, so we may use the funds for that as well,” Elliott told BridgeDetroit. 

Workin’ Roots formed to address a lack of food access in the community, and the farm gives away all of its produce. 

“The people that live in the neighborhood don’t have a grocery store within a five-mile radius,” Elliott told BridgeDetroit. Next year, Workin’ Roots hopes to offer neighbors a community supported agriculture box for purchase. The plan is that purchase of a food box will sponsor a free box for a family in need. 

This year, the farm also started a youth farming apprenticeship program. Five youth were employed throughout the summer, and once school started the program continued on the weekends. 

Elliott said she’s “forever grateful” to the land fund for its help in purchasing lots. 

“There are a lot of roadblocks and just miscommunications within the process and things continue to change as the process is going,” she said, “so I’m really grateful that I have their support in my endeavors of giving back to my community.” 

Not all awardees have been successful like Elliott has in getting land. To date, a little more than half of the fund’s past awardees have purchased land. Detroit farmers have raised concerns over time about trouble acquiring vacant lots and a lack of transparency in the process. 

“We certainly want the city as a whole, including the land bank, to acknowledge more the reality that Detroit really is a mecca of urban agriculture,” Preston-Johnson Bevel said. “So, some old, outdated policies around the ability to grow in the city have to change.” 

Jon Kent at Sanctuary Farms, a farm started in 2020 on the lower east side, got his second infrastructure grant from the land fund. Sanctuary Farms grows produce that is sold at farmers markets and it has a composting operation. With the award, Kent said the farm is hoping to make changes to its hoop house. 

Jon Kent and Parker Jean co-founded Sanctuary Farms in 2020, a farm and compost operation on the east side. (Photo by Mehreen Pervez) 

“This work is needed and really should be supported by the city. Detroit is on the cusp of what urban farming could look like around the nation. What the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund is doing is empowering Black people to be able to reclaim the land,” Kent said. “There’s so much trauma that’s attached to the land in this country because this country has yet to atone.” 

The DBFLF, he added, is changing Detroiters’ connection to the land, bridging people together, and creating community. 

Last year, Sanctuary Farms purchased a shipping container with its grant, which he said was monumental in the farm’s ability to scale up and avoid hauling tools back and forth. 

Detroit Hives, a nonprofit urban beekeeping organization, is another recipient. The group hopes to buy a parcel of land to add to its collection of 15 parcels throughout the city, Tim Paule, Detroit Hives co-founder said. 

“Our goal is to help make Detroit a bee city by reducing the blight but also by educating communities on the importance of conservation,” Paule said.

When Detroit Hives first bought land in 2016, it was much cheaper, Paule said. But now, the price is often quadrupled, so the land fund is especially important to support farmers, he said.

This is also the beekeeping group’s second award; with the first they were able to purchase five parcels of land. 

Paule said the DBFLF allows farmers of color to take control of their narrative and create opportunity for themselves. 

“That allows us to be empowered and also to empower other people,” he said. 

In total, nearly 17 acres of land have been purchased through the land fund and 10 infrastructure projects have been completed. This year, the DBFLF piloted a Black farmers cooperative to help the land fund awardees work together to bring produce to market. 

Due to COVID-19, this year marked the first time that the land fund announced its awardees in person.

“It was really exciting to see so many people coming together, networking with each other, connecting with each other around intergenerational Black farmland ownership in the City of Detroit, and building that together,” Preston-Johnson Bevel said. “It was really beautiful.” 

Jena is a BridgeDetroit's environmental reporter, covering everything from food and agricultural to pollution to climate change.

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