Black-run urban farms thrive — until they have to fight for their land | environment

For the past 10 years, residents of the southern Baltimore neighborhood of Cherry Hill struggling to access affordable groceries have had a reliable port of call.

Visitors to Cherry Hill Urban Community Garden, a 1.5-acre urban farm, would find cheap, fresh vegetables and a strong sense of community.

But in the spring of 2021, the farm received an eviction notice. It was a heavy blow to Eric Jackson, director of the Black Yield Institute, which governed the country. The farm’s impact went far beyond kale, peppers and other fresh produce, which it sold at 50% below market price, he says.

“It gives people hope. I know hope is a cliché, but it gives people a glimpse of what we can be by providing concrete skills and opportunities to build relationships,” says Jackson. “It has been called a church without walls.”

Built in 2010 on a vacant lot, the urban farm had an expired lease with the Baltimore City Housing Department and operated on what Jackson calls a “gentlemen’s agreement,” which would be renewed year after year. In June 2021, the authority suddenly decided it was time to take it back to build apartments on the property.

By December 2021, BYI had been vacated and the Cherry Hill Urban Community Garden stood vacant.

Eric Jackson of the Black Yield Institute says the urban farm has given people hope while providing nourishment to the community. Photo: Courtesy of the Black Yield Institute

What happened in Baltimore is not unique. Urban farms in the US are becoming increasingly important, particularly in “food desert” neighborhoods, but they face major rural security challenges. It’s a struggle that particularly affects black farmers: people of color own only 3% of all farmland in the US, and black farmers make up just 1.3% of farmers.

Oral and fixed-term leases are common, says Neith Grace Little, an urban agriculture educator at the University of Maryland Extension in Baltimore. This can disadvantage urban farmers, especially if developers show interest. Farmers can easily be forced to relocate, losing years of investment.

Little advises urban farmers to buy land if they can, but property remains out of reach for many as gentrification drives up prices and complex urban bureaucracy locks farmers out. A third of participants in a University of Maryland survey of more than 400 urban farmers in the Northeast said access to land is a major barrier, with just a third saying they own the land they farm.

Finding ways to give urban farms land security is one of the most efficient ways to improve the food ecosystem, says Baltimore City Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, especially as Covid disrupts supply chains and food prices soar. “You go to the supermarket and see the empty shelves. With shipping delays and labor shortages, food insecurity will become more evident,” he says.

Burnett is pushing for action to support urban farms, including incentivising land ownership through models such as community land trusts, in which nonprofit organizations buy and hold land in trust for the benefit of the community.

A free vegetable sign outside of the Victory Garden Initiative in Milwaukee
The Victory Garden Initiative in Milwaukee offered free food during the pandemic. Photo: Courtesy of the Victory Garden Initiative

It’s an ownership form that works well for an urban farm nearly 800 miles from Baltimore. Milwaukee’s Victory Garden Initiative is home to several community gardens and a 1.5-acre urban farm owned by a Community Land Trust. Land ownership gives the organization more freedom to serve the community, says its executive director, Michelle Dobbs.

Founded in 2009 in the predominantly black neighborhood of Harambee, the organization was inspired by the Victory Garden efforts of World War I and II, where people grew fruits and vegetables in whatever outdoor space they had.

The context might be very different now, but the sense of urgency is the same, says Dobbs. During waves of the pandemic, many people have struggled to access basic necessities. “Urban gardens have proven to be a saving grace,” she says.

“We have so much food on our land that we just started giving it away.” The farm has been converted into an emergency food supply center. They made canned spaghetti sauce from tomatoes and placed them in grocery boxes along with berries, vegetables, potatoes, and other items from the garden.

For Dobbs, keeping the land safe has helped the farm better serve the community. “I feel safe because our land is held in trust that developers can’t develop the neighborhood right under our feet for other uses,” Dobbs says. “People need and want this food that we grow.”

It’s the same strong community need that drives Detroit’s efforts to make ownership a priority for black urban farmers.

Detroit has had a thriving urban farming movement for decades. In the majority-Black city notorious for rot, urban farmers saw abandoned lots as an opportunity to feed the community. But until recently, most remained illegal, usually because the farmer did not own the land or due to zoning laws. It wasn’t until 2013 that a municipal agriculture ordinance gave some protection.

But black farmers in Detroit are still losing out, says Jerry Ann Hebron, executive director of Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, which grows more than 33 fruits and vegetables in the city’s North End neighborhood. They cannot compete with top dollar offers from speculative land developers. “We were farming land that we didn’t own and could be evicted any day,” says Hebron.

In recent years, several city farms in Hebron have been evicted by city authorities and private landowners without explanation or compensation. It cost a farm $40,000 to move when it was evicted. People with more resources were able to navigate the system to buy land, leading to widespread gentrification, she says.

To change that, Hebrons Farm, along with the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and Keep Growing Detroit, formed the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund, a coalition dedicated to increasing land tenure for black farmers in the city. In its first year, the fund managed to raise $55,000 through a crowdfunding campaign, ten times its original goal.

Jerry Anne Hebron and her husband Billy stand in a greenhouse on their urban farm in Detroit
Jerry Anne Hebron and her husband Billy run Oakland Avenue Urban Farm in Detroit. Photo: Courtesy of Oakland Avenue Urban Farms

“The donations were pouring in and that’s when we could help our black farmers,” says Hebron. The Black Farmer Land Fund distributed $2,000 to 30 urban farmers and bought some vacant lots in run-down neighborhoods for just $500.

The Black Farmer Land Fund has begun working with the Detroit Land Bank Authority, a public agency that manages the city’s derelict lands, to create an easier path to ownership for black urban farmers.

Black farmers have been socially disenfranchised, says Hebron: “We are focused on bringing justice, land ownership and economic security to their families.”

Detroit now has more than 200 acres of urban farmland, and those farms are an essential part of the food chain, she says. While contributing to community well-being, Hebron also believes they can be a source of generational wealth for black farmers.

Back in Baltimore, the Black Yield Institute now farms a new piece of land in the Mount Clare neighborhood. Moving equipment, uprooting crops, and other moving expenses cost the organization nearly $30,000, not including the cost of setting up the new farm. “Not only did they evict us, they left us a bill,” Jackson says. “Now we need to raise money to buy land. Who is going to pay for that?”

The organization has a two-year right to use the land and has started a fundraiser to buy it.

Growing healthy food that is accessible to people living in food deserts isn’t just a service, it’s a movement for Jackson and other urban farmers like him. But the movement remains vulnerable.

“There is no policy that protects land or provides land that is available for farming and supports urban farming,” Jackson says. “If we could secure land reparations, we would be in a better position to have the money, resources and power to expand and advance urban agriculture for Black people, Black farmers and Black families.”

For now, Jackson says, “We will continue to be an institution of faith without walls. Wherever we are, we will farm the land to the best of our ability and continue the work.”

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