President & CEO Devon Wilson hard at work with Sunlight Gardens volunteer. Photo courtesy of Sunlight Gardens
President & CEO Devon Wilson hard at work with Sunlight Gardens volunteer.

After being all but left out of COVID relief under Trump, Michigan’s 19 Black-owned farms finally are seeing support.

BATTLE CREEK, Mich.—In a city known for Kellogg’s cereal, it was hard for Devon Wilson to find quality food. Wilson, a self-described “chubby kid,” said he was often eating Cheetos and honey buns as a youth. As he grew older, he made it a goal to get fresh, quality food into the community he calls home and to create opportunities for those with a low socioeconomic status at the same time. 

Wilson, who founded urban farm Sunlight Gardens in Battle Creek, told The ‘Gander in October that though the city is racially and ethnically diverse, Battle Creek lacks opportunities for its residents. He offers youth paid internships each summer, helping to provide those opportunities on his farm.

“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. “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. I basically felt betrayed by the food I love.”

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Farms like Sunlight Gardens, managed by Black farmers seeking to solve this pervasive problem, exist across Michigan. But when farm aid to help weather the coronavirus came from the Trump administration, it left a lot of Black farmers behind. 

Getting Black Farms Needed Relief

Nationwide, about 45,000 farmers are Black, and that number continues to steadily decline at a rate disproportionate to white farmers.  In Michigan, 19 farms are owned and operated by Black farmers.

In a Washington Post interview published Thursday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack admitted only 0.1% of farm aid related to the Trump administration’s coronavirus relief went to Black farmers, despite Black farmers making up 1.3% of all farmers in the US. The overwhelming majority of the aid went to white farmers, said Vilsack. 

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By contrast, the latest round of coronavirus relief signed by President Joe Biden, the American Rescue Plan, does much more to support Black farms. Given how left out those farmers were before, addressing the gap in COVID-19 support is a priority for the Biden administration, explained Vilsack.

Socially disadvantaged farmers of color are eligible for a program that would cover up to 120% of the farm’s outstanding debt as part of the COVID relief package. The plan put aside $4 billion to cover those debts and another $1 billion for outreach efforts. Vilsack also committed to addressing the systemic inequities at the Department of Agriculture that have perpetuated the pre-existing gap.

But as to when that aid was going to be available, Vilsack wasn’t clear. Rushing the aid might create its own problems, he told the Post. For instance, identifying which loans have a prepaid penalty can take time, but knowing how that penalty is handled before covering the debt is important for both the Department of Agriculture and the farmers it tries to help.

“It’s more complicated than most people realize,” he said. “The point of this isn’t to suggest we’re going to delay, but that we need to think about this, and to be careful in how we proceed to make sure we’re not creating any more problems for these folks than we have already.”

Investing in Michigan’s Black Farms 

The pandemic was hard on farms in Michigan, many of which had already been struggling. Trade wars between the Trump administration and China had devastated the agricultural sector. Climate change’s disruption of normal growing weather wasn’t helping either. On top of that, some types of fruit were seeing plagues sweeping across their crops. Then, the pandemic came, closing restaurants and farmers markets, making it hard to sell produce.

READ MORE: ‘Blood, Sweat, and Tears’: Michigan Farmers Stay Committed to Healthy Food During COVID-19

Michigan farmers left behind by Trump’s 2020 stimulus, signed one year ago, had it hardest. 

Despite these challenges, nearly 20 Michigan farms, including Sunlight Gardens, are owned and operated by Black farmers and have provided food and jobs for Michiganders. For Wilson, that’s well worth the investment. 

“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