Washtenaw County Black Farmers Fund to distribute funds to area farmers

The Washtenaw County Black Farmers Fund is a coalition of non-profits, farmers and community members who aim to build a more equitable food system by investing in the region’s Black farmers.

Pictures of various Black farmers from Michigan, along with the logo for the Washtenaw County Black Farmers Fund.

The Washtenaw County Black Farmers Fund (WCBFF) is a coalition of non-profits, farmers, and community members who aim to build a more equitable food system by investing in the region’s Black farmers. In the fall of 2021, the group launched a fundraising campaign with the goal to raise $50,000 to support five to ten Black farmers with capital for which to purchase property, reduce debt, purchase equipment, develop infrastructure, and to cover other operational needs. The fundraiser exceeded its goal and raised over $100,000, including $25,000 for capacity building.

Funds will be distributed via a holistic application process that includes both a written application followed by interviews with candidates. The application is available on the WCBFF website. Current or aspiring Black farmers living or farming in Washtenaw, Jackson, Ingham, Livingston, Oakland, Wayne, Monroe, and Lenawee counties of Michigan are encouraged to apply by February 18, 2022. Awards will be announced by March 18, 2022. The focus is on supporting farmers who produce nutritious food and supply the Washtenaw County foodshed. 

Why support Black farmers?

Black farmers historically and currently face greater challenges than their white counterparts in accessing the capital needed to start new farms or expand their current operations. The famous “Pigford v. Glickman” class-action lawsuit, which illuminated the racial discrimination Black farmers faced in United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) loan allocations between 1981 and 1996 and impacted their ability to acquire land, is one of many examples of historical discrimination that directly impacted Black farmers. Evidence of loan officers refusing to work with Black farmers, throwing loan applications in the trash, taking longer to process loans, and offering Black farmers less capital than their white counterparts all contributed to the settlement. In the process, many Black farmers lost their land due to foreclosure or had to sell it to pay off their existing debts.

The work of MSU researcher Shakara Tyler, PhD, illuminates Black farmer perceptions on federal credit institutions in Michigan. When seeking a farm loan from the USDA, Black farmers reported race-based inaccessibility and lack of outreach as specific barriers to accessing credit. In a community program hosted by Ypsilanti-based non-profit Growing Hope titled “Justice for Black Farmers: A Local Perspective,” farmers shared their frustration around accessing the capital necessary to start or sustain their farms. They reported distrust with lenders, aversion to debt and lack of collateral as major barriers.

In addition to overt discrimination by the USDA and other challenging aspects to accessing credit, Black families have eight times less wealth than a typical white family, according to new data from the 2019 “Survey of Consumer Finances” conducted by the U.S. Federal Reserve System. A century of discriminatory home lending practices, inequitable access to education and employment discrimination has led to a substantial racial wealth gap in the U.S. With less access to funding from friends and family, access to the start-up capital necessary to start a farm is more difficult for the Black farmer. With many lending institutions, including the USDA, requiring three or more years of experience operating a farm before becoming eligible for a loan, access to start-up capital is crucial for beginning farmers.

The History of Black Farmers in Washtenaw County

In the 1900s, there were 626 Black-operated farms in Michigan, most of which were owner-operated. The earliest Black farmers who settled in Michigan were either recruited or followed the Underground Railroad north to settle in the southeast and southwest regions of the state. As explored by Dorceta E. Taylor in her article “Black Farmers in the USA and Michigan: Longevity, Empowerment, and Food Sovereignty,” advertisements of “good quality” land were used across Michigan to attract Black farmers, despite the land often being marginal and poor quality. In Pittsfield Township of Washtenaw County, records indicate that abolitionists helped Black farmers settle on the Old Sweet Briar Farm in the 1820s.

Between 1920 and 1970, farmland loss accelerated for Black Michigan farmers. Much of the acreage was lost as heirs sold off the property due to high taxes and limited profits. For Michigan’s Black farmers, non-participation in farm programs, low representation on agricultural committees and reports of blatant discrimination by agriculture lenders attributed to the disproportional rate of farm loss, as found in Shakara Tyler’s research thesis “Michigan Black farm owners perceptions about farm ownership credit acquisition: A critical race analysis.” Today, according to the USDA Agriculture Census, of the 2,134 farmers in Washtenaw County, just 18 identify as Black.

The WCBFF was inspired by the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund, whose leaders continue to provide guidance to the organizers. Michigan State University Extension supports community food systems in Michigan by providing research and resources to communities across the state, including to the Washtenaw County Black Farmers Fund.

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