First five Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund grantees...

First five Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund grantees finalize land purchases

“I want to train as many young Black children as possible to grow and maintain a garden, to be self-sufficient, and learn how to support themselves."

Nurturing Our Seeds farmer and Fund recipient Erin Cole with farm manager Magnetic Sun and Donnie, another Detroit farmer holding his daughter, in Eastern Market, Detroit.

Five of the 30 Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund grantees recently completed deals to purchase properties from the City of Detroit, ushering in what funders hope to be a major uptick in land ownership for Detroit’s Black urban farmers.  

These five awardees are the first to secure with their DBFLF grant money land they had been cultivating or had identified to grow on. Last year Tepfirah Rushdan, co-director of Keep Growing Detroit, rallied urban gardening colleagues to launch the fund on June 19, Juneteenth. While some white-led organizations made financial contributions to Black-led groups as restitution for their institutional inequities magnified in 2020, Rushdan decided to initiate this Black-led effort.

“It’s been harder in some years to buy land in the city. Land was hard to figure out, who owned it, how to get it. We worked to help people figure out how to acquire the land,” Rushdan said. As she saw more white farmers than Black farmers able to obtain land, with money being a big hurdle, she launched The Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund to combat their obstacles.

Keep Growing Detroit, Oakland Avenue Urban Farm and D-Town Farm each had representatives to serve on the application review committee to determine which applicants receive funds. After a rigorous application process, they selected 30 winners who received grant funds to purchase land and technical assistance. Grantees make a five-year commitment to grow on the land.

Tracy Harris, 55, one of the first five to close on land this month, said she is grateful for the DBFLF. “We’ve received counsel from the fund, helping us understand the contract with the City. For them to provide counsel free of charge is an incredible benefit. I can’t stress enough how important that is.”

Produce from Willie Patmon’s east side garden. Courtesy Willie Patmon.

Harris, who has been gardening mostly in her backyard on Westmoreland in Detroit for about eight years, has purchased two corner lots on 7 Mile and Clarita with a goal to “be a hub for the food pantries like Gleaners and Forgotten Harvest.” 

Harris has worked to teach gardening to young women in transitional housing at Vista Maria and was head gardener of a program at the Northwest Activities Center. She hopes to extend that work history by creating a neighborhood hub for food pantries, providing produce from her own garden.

“I’ve always been about food independence, from farm to table,” Harris told Planet Detroit. “Nobody should be able to dictate whether you should eat or not. As long as there is sunshine and rain, which is free, and soil is under your feet, you should be able to eat.”

Willie Patmon, 86, is another of the first five land grant winners to purchase land. Patmon, a lifelong farmer who grew up in Oklahoma and moved to Michigan after serving the Army, plans to more than double his six lot farm with seven new lots on Detroit’s east side.

“I want to train as many young Black children as possible to grow and maintain a garden, to be self-sufficient, and learn how to support themselves,” Patmon told Planet Detroit. “All of this learning takes a lot of discipline. It teaches the children discipline.” Patmon also grows flowers and plans to teach that too. “If a person owns the property and beautifies it, they will be proud of it. They will proud of the city.”

Patmon’s gardens are encircled by fruit trees like plums, apples, and peaches, “just about everything I can get in them, from collard greens to peanuts.” He said he’s even had success with growing warm-climate fruits like watermelon and cantaloupe. He has given his produce to family and the community around Gratiot and Van Dyke. With the new lots, Patmon plans to continue to give away his produce and expand his free gardening program.

East side farm of Willie Patmon, 86, who plans to more than double his six-lot farm with seven new lots using proceeds from Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund.

“The Black farmer’s organization has been great,” Patmon said. “The biggest hurdle is getting through the city’s bureaucracy.”

Patmon affirmed the need for the funds’ intermediary work, but Rushdan noted the recent efforts of the Detroit Land Bank Authority to be more accessible to the community, including hosting Lunch and Learn programming on Facebook.

“They’ve been really accommodating.. and assigned a contact person for us to work with. It’s a bit of a hurdle to get everyone through the process,” Rushdan said. Even with the hurdles, like certain items only being processed on the first of the month, Rushdan is hopeful, saying they’re on target to get half the winners in possession of their land by early spring, and to have everyone in possession before the second year of the fund launches this Juneteenth.

“The City has come leaps and bounds in terms of their transparency and process, but we have a little ways to go,” Rushdan said. “I will just keep pushing.”

Rhonda J. Smith, a lifelong Detroiter who resides in the Russell Woods-Sullivan area, where she has served on the neighborhood association board, written for its newsletter, organized activities in its parks and provided residents with tax foreclosure prevention information. With a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in communication, she has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years. Her work has appeared in outlets including The Detroit News, Newsday, Chicago Tribune and Wayne County Community College District publications. She was a 2019 Detour Detroit Emerging Voices Fellow.