Devon Wilson learned about farming, produce, and nutrition from a local nonprofit organization. Then, he started his own to help even more people.
In celebration of Michigan’s Argritourism Month, The ‘Gander is highlighting Black farmers from across the state in this three-part series.
BATTLE CREEK, Mich.—Devon Wilson is President and CEO of Sunlight Gardens in Battle Creek. Many Michiganders think of the small town as the home to the Kellog cereal empire, but Wilson describes it as ethnically diverse, but lacking in opportunities for its residents of lower socioeconomic means.
“We have a lot of Burmese people, Black people, white people, Asian people, but people kind of stick to themselves in a way,” he told The ‘Gander, noting that community and heritage are important. “That’s something I’m trying to change.”
Columbia Street divides the city’s haves from its have-nots, but Wilson wants to see a community that is brought together by produce. He admits to a deep love affair with food that began when he was a boy visiting the local stores in his neighborhood.
“Growing up in the ‘hood, surrounded by food that was bad for me, [and having access to] liquor stores, corner stores, and the occasional [grocery] market,” he said.
Wilson recounted his trips to purchase his childhood favorite foods—honey buns, hot cheetos, and Arizona Iced teas. The self-described “chubby kid” said that discoveries about his food sources led him to change his own habits.
“I started to realize, as I got older, that all the stuff I was eating, and what was available to me and my community had no nutritional value,” he said. “I basically felt betrayed by the food I love.”
Wilson decided that the taste of satisfaction from a good meal or a hearty snack was no longer good enough for his body—or for his community. He wanted to learn how to nourish himself from the inside out, and how to pass the knowledge along to his Battle Creek community.
“All this food in my neighborhood and that my community has access to is harming us,” Wilson, 23, said. “It’s keeping us full, but it’s not feeding us. I want to take pride when I eat, I want to know where my food is coming from, have it taste good.”
A love of community and a desire to see his own cared for better led Wilson to Sprout, a local food distributor that connects the Battle Creek community to fresh, local produce. He first volunteered with the group, but his dedication helped him climb the ranks to paid employment. The young entrepreneur tells The ‘Gander that all he ever needs is an opportunity.
He eventually purchased land from Sprout to start his own program, Sunlight Gardens.
Wilson’s dream of bringing people together is already coming true. He has regular customers who are health-conscious or want to support local commerce, a sizable network of volunteers—including youth, and even regularly attracts business from passers by.
He’s also one of the few Black farmers in the state. He works to intentionally partner with other Black businesses in his area.
“The Black dollar leaves its own community so quickly, so we need more opportunity to support each other and to build with other communities too,” Wilson said, who supplies local fare for restaurants like Torti Taco, Umami Ramen, and Kitchen Proper.
The Farm Squad—Sunlight Gardens’ youth volunteers—help with harvest and other duties, but have paid internship opportunities each summer.
“They’re really good about working and they get stuff done,” Wilson said of the teens. He hopes to pass the farm down to them, in an effort to allow it always be a youth- and community-driven project.
Sunday, Oct. 25 — Community Giveback
Sunlight Gardens will give away prepared, hot food, produce bags, and school supplies. Come prepared to enjoy cider and donuts.
Saturday, Oct. 31 — Halloween Party
The family-friendly event will have a DJ, maze, and food for everyone. The day will be made “pure Michigan” with apple cider and donuts.
Wilson says he is not incredibly politically involved outside of local and state politics. He wants to help the community fill gaps where government is currently lacking.
“Don’t always look to the government right away, you can look to your community.”