GRAND RAPIDS — When the Great Recession roiled Michigan in 2008, Takidia Jenkins-Smith started a garden at her home in southeast Grand Rapids to stretch her grocery budget. She was 24 years old at the time with three young sons to feed, so she kept at it, eventually growing food for friends and extended family.
In 2017, Jenkins-Smith spun the hobby into Fresh Beets Urban Farm, a commercial venture selling quick-growing household vegetables like greens, tomatoes and peppers via a community-supported agriculture model.
But as she scaled the business, reliable land became an issue.
Sometimes she leased parcels in southeast Grand Rapids. Others, private landowners let her cultivate for free, turning underutilized lots into urban farms — for a time.
“One of my largest plots that was volunteered to me, they ended up putting houses on it,” said Jenkins-Smith, now 39. “People would be excited about the project, and then they would change their mind.”
Jenkins-Smith’s is a common refrain among younger urban farmers, who often face the choice of competing for valuable land in cities or financing larger rural plots.
As the average age of U.S. farmers nears 60, advocacy groups and industry leaders are pushing for policy changes that remove barriers to entry for the next generation — namely, the cost of land.
Kellogg Co. and Meijer Inc. announced recently that they will provide undisclosed sums to the National Young Farmers Coalition to send a group of young farmers, including five from Michigan, to Washington, D.C. Their task is to lobby members of Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to shift power and resources to their generation of farmers in general and people of color in particular.
The companies, both of which declined interviews, said in a joint statement that access to land and capital are the two biggest barriers to entry for young people, especially those who don’t come from farming families.
Grand Rapids resident Alita Kelly, land organizing director for the National Young Farmers Coalition and chair of the West Michigan Young Farmers chapter, said real policy shifts are needed for that to change.
The West Michigan Young Farmers chapter is specifically concerned with improving access for farmers of color and women. And because farmers of color typically live in urban areas, her chapter is primarily focused on Grand Rapids.
Access to capital
The West Michigan chapter, which has about seven members ages 35 and younger, launched the West Michigan Farmers of Color Land Fund about a year and a half ago with a GoFundMe campaign. The group is raising $55,000 that will go toward securing land and infrastructure for people of color who want to farm in West Michigan.
The fundraiser was modeled after two successful efforts in Southeast Michigan. The Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund, launched on Juneteenth in 2020, has funded 37 awardees who are now landowners, while The Washtenaw County Black Farmer Fund raised $100,000 in its first round after launching a year ago.
Kelly describes the West Michigan fund as “a mutual aid framework” for farmers on the local level.
“(It will help) us to work with our community and find creative, tangible solutions that are impactful — even though we know that federal policy change is going to be the thing that moves the needle the most,” she said. “But we can’t really wait for federal policy change to advocate and support our local BIPOC growers.”
One federal olive branch that has been extended: The USDA is working to establish an Office of Urban Agriculture in Grand Rapids and another in Detroit. Kelly is hopeful the Grand Rapids branch will connect farmers with grants and loans to fund their ventures.
“That’s something that we've needed desperately in this area,” she said.
Land hurdles for urban farms
Although acquiring urban farmland is theoretically more affordable than buying a large rural plot, city farming comes with plenty of hurdles. As chair of the Urban Agriculture Committee for the city of Grand Rapids until December, Kelly saw the lack of available land firsthand.
At last count, she said there were only about 60 vacant plots in Grand Rapids, most of which are too small to scale an urban farm. Churches or developers own other green space in the city that might be ripe for agriculture, she said.
There’s also tension between urban farmers and developers about the most appropriate use of vacant land, especially given Grand Rapids’ housing shortage. Kelly said the city of Grand Rapids has indicated it’s willing to allow urban farming on some vacant lots, but those wrinkles have yet to be ironed out.
Jenkins-Smith was ready to give up on urban farming altogether after turning over so many lots.
“(It) was OK, because I didn’t want to lock people into something that they didn’t believe in anymore, but it was disheartening,” she said. “I would have put in all of this input into the soil and used all these resources, manpower and everything to get it ready for production and then ... have someone change their mind the following season.”
Jenkins-Smith had decided to start shopping for rural land when she learned of USDA grant funding opportunities for urban agriculture. She’s exploring starting a packaged produce line or selling directly to households instead of running a CSA. She also recently acquired 0.7 acres in the Comstock Park area of Plainfield Township for an urban farm, and hopes to buy more in Grand Rapids.
Alternatives to private urban farmland
Liz Visser, a member of West Michigan Young Farmers, serves as farm manager for the Blandford Nature Center Farm in Grand Rapids. The nonprofit nature center’s farm is on land cultivated under an agreement with the city of Grand Rapids.
Visser’s situation allows her to farm for Blandford without having to buy her own land. But that’s a rarity for most young farmers — “especially if you want to farm close to your community, and your community happens to be in an urban area,” she said.
Visser said her advocacy work is about pushing to preserve land for farming so it doesn’t all get swallowed up for building projects.
“There are midsize cities that have a different approach to urban agriculture, and I think it’s just about, where are the priorities?” she said. “Right now, it seems like the priority is trying to get as much housing as possible (on) vacant lots in the city. And I want to be clear, I don’t think that’s a bad goal. … But something that I would love to see is if there was just a priority made on making some land accessible for if people wanted to grow on it in an urban area.”
Boosting the talent pipeline
West Michigan Young Farmers notes on its website that people of color are “drastically underrepresented” in farming in the U.S. About 1.4 percent of farmers nationally are Black, according to the most recent USDA Agricultural Census, and that percentage is lower in Michigan.
Kelly and Visser believe that can change, not only through friendlier government policies, but by fostering interest in farming among young people.
The Blandford Nature Center Farm tries to hire as many young people as possible and allows them to explore a variety of interests within farming, like beekeeping, cut flowers and sugar-sap collecting, as well as raising crops, Visser said. The nonprofit also routinely hosts young volunteers from schools and community groups.
Kelly in 2021 launched the Freedom School, a community garden behind the MLK Park Lodge in Grand Rapids where children learn how to grow and harvest food.
That same year, she and several community groups, including Visser at Blandford farm, won a grant from the USDA to launch the Freedom Farm Collective (now called Grow Collective). There, they plan to provide mentoring for young growers at the elementary, middle and high school level, as well as an incubator for BIPOC growers, Kelly said.
“We’re still at the beginning stages of really figuring out what that looks like and how to get funding to get that off the ground … but that's the direction that we would like to take things in the future,” Visser said.
From Crain’s Detroit Business.