Willie Patmon is straight-up old school. The elderly farmer gets up at 6 a.m., puts on his best sun hat and tends tirelessly to his crops until sundown. The rows of green beans, fruit trees and southern watermelon next to his house present a stark contrast to the empty lots in his east side Detroit neighborhood.
Houses once stood on the land where Patmon’s farm now grows, but once they were abandoned and torn down, Patmon got to work tilling. He started WJP Urban Farms eight years ago, but he’s been farming his whole life. He learned how to grow food from his grandparents, who passed the knowledge down through generations. In his hometown of Crescent, Oklahoma, if you didn’t farm, you didn’t eat.
“There used to be a house there,” Patmon said, pointing to an overgrown lot across the street covered in bright, knee-high grass. “If I could, I would buy up every empty lot and make this whole block my farm.”
Patmon is a 2020 awardee of the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund (DBFLF), a crowd-sourced fund that aims to provide Detroit’s Black urban farmers with financial support and resources to purchase land. In its first year, the DBFLF granted funds to 30 Black farmers. This year, they raised over $100,000 to support around 40 farmers in their journey towards land ownership.
But it has not been simple for last year’s awardees to purchase land. Only about half of the first-year awardees have completed the process so far. Patmon is one of them. With the fund’s support, he could buy five more lots to expand his crops to start selling his produce. Other farmers have faced obstacles like missing titles, back taxes, blight tickets, and confusing application processes at the Detroit Land Bank Authority.
The DBFLF organizers’ initial goal was to raise $5,000 the first year, but they ended up raising $67,000 as money poured in from crowdfunding and a few small grants. This year, financial support came in droves as local businesses, artists and restaurants held fundraisers — with donations coming from the likes of Eastern Market Brewing Company, Plus Skateboarding in Farmington, and chefs at Fried Chicken and Caviar and Taste the Diaspora Detroit who held mini-fundraisers.
The DBFLF was started on Juneteenth of 2020 in the wake of the tumultuous civil uprisings surrounding the repeated murders of unarmed Black Americans by police. The fund is organized by three local agricultural non-profits—Keep Growing Detroit, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and Oakland Avenue Farm. Together these groups formed a coalition to address the barriers to land ownership amongst Black farmers.
“These organizations have been deep in the agriculture game for a long time and noticed that the pathways for Black farmers to own their land was different from other growers,” Daguio said. “A lot of those barriers are simply just capital, but a lot of young farmers who happen to be white came into the city already knowing the process, or having a connection at the [Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA)].”
A lengthy process fraught with obstacles
When farmers apply to purchase a lot from the DLBA, which owns around 63,400 parcels of vacant land in Detroit as of Oct. 2021, they need to provide three key documents—a plot plan, a budget and proof of funds. Sara Elbohy, a project manager with the DLBA, said she sees many applicants struggle with providing those materials.
“It could be that their plot plan didn’t show us accurately what they were going to be doing with that space,” Elbohy said. “Some people say they are going to be applying for x, y and z grants, but we need to know something more concrete for proof of funds.”
Proof of funds can include an account statement or letter from the bank stating the account has funds above an estimated project cost provided by the purchaser. It can also include grant award letters or letters of support for donated labor or materials. This year, the DBFLF changed its application process to include these three documents so the farmers would have a head start.
Elbohy said another common problem is that farmers often apply for the wrong program. They apply to purchase a side lot when trying to buy an oversized lot, and then they have to start the application over.
The Side Lot Program allows Detroit residents to purchase a parcel of land next to a property they already own for $100, while oversized lots can be adjacent and cost more. A side lot is 7,500 square feet or less, while an oversized lot is over 7,500 square feet. This can be confusing for farmers, especially since the parameters defining a side lot have changed in the last few years.
In other instances, the City of Detroit has placed holds on parcels in specific neighborhoods because it’s under a planning study or development plan, or the land has already been purchased by a developer, according to DLBA spokesperson Alyssa Strickland. That is particularly frustrating for Tepfirah Rushdan, co-founder of DBFLF.
“The city would say a house is the best and highest use of a property, but we believe feeding us is the best and highest use of that space,” Rushdan, who is also co-director of Keep Growing Detroit, told Planet Detroit.
Erin Bevel, another DBFLF founder, told us about one case she found particularly disheartening. A block club that wanted to start a community garden in their neighborhood applied for the DBFLF in 2020. They had come together over growing produce during the COVID-19 pandemic and wanted to expand.
After being awarded, they found several vacant lots they wanted to purchase collectively and went through the DLBA application process, only to find out those lots had already been slated for development. The group then found a different vacant lot and restarted the process but found that the lot had also been sold to a developer.
“We recognize that the land bank is the one making decisions on what’s more appropriate in a neighborhood — a development or a garden,” Bevel said. “But we want to hold them accountable to the communities that they are supposed to be serving.”
Then there’s the issue of the first right of refusal. When a farmer utilizes a neighborhood lot that’s not next to their house, whoever lives beside the lot has the right to buy it first through the Side Lot Program. A farmer then has to get approval from the neighboring household to purchase it. Sometimes the neighbor has no interest in buying the lot. However, in other cases, a neighbor has purchased the land for themselves upon finding out a farmer is trying to buy it, according to Daguio.
Even without issues over ownership, planning studies, side lots and oversized lots buying parcels from the DLBA is a lengthy process from start to finish. According to Strickland, from submitting a plot plan, budget and proof of funds to finally signing the deed, it can take anywhere from a month to a year or longer. And that’s if there are no liens on the property or other issues.
The farmer’s relationship with the DLBA does not end at purchase. The agency requires farmers to meet the terms of sale, which include a development agreement, within 18 months. Farmers must report their activities and the parcel’s condition to the DLBA regularly. The DLBA releases its interest in the property once the project is complete.
Farmer Roxanne Jones and her husband of Occupy Yourselves Agricultural Academy successfully purchased land from the DLBA, and now they must show proof every 90 days that they are maintaining it, even though they’ve been gardening there for years.
“They said we have to show that we cleared the land of debris, and I’m like, ‘hello, we already submitted photos when we were in the process of buying it. You saw that it was already maintained, how big our garden was and everything,’” Jones said. “We had to sign an agreement that says if you don’t meet the conditions, they can take the land back from you.”
Though the process of purchasing land in Detroit can be frustrating, Bevel said putting land ownership into the hands of Black farmers is sacred work that she’s honored to do. The DBFLF does more than just give farmers money to purchase lots. The organization provides ongoing support and resources to the farmers as their struggles don’t often stop at land ownership.
“Each one of these 30 awardees had 30 different cases,” Daguio said. “Some of them had already been in the process with the land bank and just got stuck, so we’re now helping them complete that process.”
Patmon admits he is not computer savvy (he still uses a flip phone from the early 2000s). Without the support of the DBFLF, he said he would never have been able to navigate the DLBA application, which is primarily online.
Several of the lots that Patmon purchased were riddled with concrete from walkways and foundations of the demolished houses. He said the contractors who performed the demolition were supposed to clear out all the concrete and lay topsoil, but they didn’t. Now he’s left to pick up the pieces before he can farm there.
Another lot he bought through the DBFLF has contaminated soil and is not suitable to grow on. Patmon has Bevel, Daguio and Rushdan at his side trying to figure out a solution, but it’s challenging, time-consuming work.
When I visited WJP Farms, Daguio was there dropping off garlic transplants for Patmon through Keep Growing Detroit’s Garden Resource Program, which provides seeds and transplants to local gardeners. The fund also helped provide Patmon with a water tank.
Bevel said many 2021 DBFLF awardees applied for help with improvements on their farms like aquaponics and water catchment systems if they already own the land. Being a DBFLF awardee isn’t a one-and-done deal either. Farmers must agree to grow on the land they purchase for at least five years or pass it to another Black farmer if they’re no longer able to take care of it.
“We see ourselves as stewards of this community pot,” Bevel said. “We believe in generational Black farm ownership, and we want to make sure that [awardees] are committed to the rest of the farming community in Detroit. That’s one of the most important things. Maybe they help harvest at each others’ farms or share a tractor or other tools.”
For Jones and her husband, farming isn’t about making money, although they provide some produce to CSA boxes through the City Commons co-op. Jones said Occupy Yourselves exists to educate others about food sovereignty, and the farm is open for people to come and plant their produce.
“First and foremost, this garden is here for our children to learn more about growing their food and eating healthy,” Jones said. “There are so many lots [in this neighborhood], so if you want to come and grow something or help us maintain what we have, you can do that and learn about gardening. We just want the community to have something nice.”
Jones said it’s heartwarming to see farmers dedicated to supporting one other.
“It just shows we weren’t into urban farming for a trend. This is something that we want to do for the city,” she said.
This story was produced with support from the Race and Justice Reporting Initiative at the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University.