Black Michigan farmer carries on his family legacy with an eye toward the future
Bruce-Michael Wilson, was raised on 160 acres of farm land in Hopkins—a small town in Allegan County, Michigan. As a child, Wilson loved the ample space to roam and passed the time by helping his family with farm work. But as one of the only Black families who owned land in the area, Wilson knew they stood out.
“It wasn't necessarily an inviting place, you know, to begin with. But, with all that said, it turned out to be the best thing and the best place that we could have ever moved to,” Wilson said.
After college, Wilson went on to a career in real estate and investing, but he always felt the same connection to land that he did as a child. So in 2019, he bought a USDA-Certified Organic Farm called Groundswell Farm in Zeeland, Michigan. Now, he is using the farm as a business and as an opportunity to teach the next generation of children, particularly Black children, about the rewards of farming and being a steward of land.
Wilson bought Groundswell Farm in the middle of July, which is the middle of the harvest season. Still, he managed to get the business up and running. He says he was working around 80 hours every week, farming 200 different varieties of 40 different vegetables to provide to his CSA share members and other customers.
Less than 2% of Americans farmers are Black. It wasn't always this way, though. Back in 1920, there were nearly one million black farmers working the land. Today, that number is fewer than 50,000. That has had major consequences when it comes to Black families’ ability to build generational wealth.
“How many Black farmers have lost land and lost property? At one point in the 1920s, there were 16 million acres of land being farmed by Black farmers, and now it's less than three million acres that they're farming,” Wilson said. “And so you see the decline in just being able to hold on to those lands.”
There is momentum at the federal level to try and rectify the historical discrimination against farmers of color when it comes to federal programs for land and lending. President Joe Biden Thursday signed into law the COVID-19 relief bill. In it was a provision for $5 billion dollars in aid to disadvantaged farmers, including $4 billion in debt relief. About a quarter of those who qualify are Black. That support is long overdue, says Wilson, who notes that it was the work of Black farmers during and after slavery that helped to build the foundation of American wealth.
“And so I wanted to pay homage to that and kind of show my ancestors that they were worthy. They continue to be worthy of their work. And I'm here to kind of follow up and make sure I pay my dues and I play my part.”
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Catherine Nouhan.