Lansing group works to secure farmland for marginalized

Kristan Obeng
Lansing State Journal

Lansing — Jasmine Hardy is losing the land she is leasing for her urban farm, Beulah’s Basket.

Ingham County Land Bank explained the one-tenth acre lot near Marcus Street and Fairview Avenue would be redeveloped to build a house, Hardy said.

“Just having space as a Black person and lesbian to grow food is super important,” Hardy told the Lansing State Journal. “It comes down to land access, the cost associated with it and just being in a community with people who look like me.”

Hardy is now part of Capital United Land Trust, also known as CULT, which was founded by two Lansing groups in fall 2019. Their mission is to raise money to ensure marginalized groups – including people of color and LGBTQ people – have farmland they control forever.

So far, CULT’s GoFundMe has exceeded a $2,000 goal. The organization is currently accepting applications from those who need land to grow.

So far, CULT’s GoFundMe has exceeded a $2,000 goal. The organization is currently accepting applications from those who need land to grow.

Black and indigenous people and other growers of color were historically denied access to land and LGBTQ people too faced barriers in rural areas. Some of today’s growers are also challenged by not being able to afford buying land outright, so they lease, which they can’t do forever. 

Morgan Doherty, one of CULT’s leaders, runs the queer and transgender growing organization Tender Heart Gardens. The organization and Beulah’s Basket comprise CULT.

“As a white person, I can’t speak to white supremacy,” Doherty said. “As a queer person, queers are forced out of rural areas where they have loss access to land. White queers are standing on the shoulders of Black people who loss access to land.”

Only one Black person owned farm land in Ingham County as of 2017, data from the Census of Agriculture showed.

That year, the majority of farms, nearly 1,600, were owned by white people. 

Over the past century, the number of Black-owned farms has dwindled due to racist policies. There were 926,000 farms in the U.S. owned by Black people in 1920. By 1978, just 6.2% of that number remained, according to a 1982 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

Even earlier, President Andrew Johnson reneged on an 1865 deal that would have given former slaves 400,000 acres of land along the Atlantic coast from from Charleston, South Carolina, to northern Florida. Some argue that land would be worth at least $6.4 trillion today. 

Hardy said she wouldn’t be able to afford to purchase land that costs thousands of dollars. She browsed listings for acres in the Okemos and Mason areas and didn’t see how she could ever make it work. 

“An acre of farm land is upwards of $50,000. I wouldn’t be able to afford that at this point in my life,” she said. “Historically, with banks not wanting to give loans to Black people around farm land and astronomical interest rates, that would be a barrier.”

Being part of CULT makes land ownership much more accessible, she added. 

Hardy also saw the benefits of growers working together collectively during the five years she spent in Arkansas, where she worked on a ranch.

“I am someone who grew up with a grandma who grew vegetables in her yard and traded vegetables and fruits with other farmers in the neighborhood,” Hardy said. “I have had this model of how to take care of each other in a community around food since I was small.”

Hardy is growing cucumbers, greens, melons, squash, beans and peas on the leased land. She doesn’t know when county officials expect her to leave, she said. 

“Access to land is so crucial,” Hardy said. “For marginalized people, being able to grow food and have control over something oftentimes is out of one’s control.”

Some LGBTQ people from rural areas in Michigan have left their homes, but not by choice, to come to the Lansing area, according to Doherty, who uses the pronouns they/them/theirs.

These people often have farming skills but nowhere to utilize them – not in the city and not back home, Doherty added.

“Farms are held together by family,” they explained. “Without a nuclear family, we don’t have access to hereditary land ownership that our heterosexual peers have.”

Doherty co-founded Tender Heart Gardens to provide queer and transgender people with a safe growing space in 2017.

They now manage the organization with a friend, Ana Wolken. The land is now located on three-tenths of acres on South Foster Street.

“We are open to others joining us,” Doherty said.

Hardy and Doherty each paid $35 for the first year of their land-lease contracts, which requires a yearly $10 renewal fee. Purchasing land from Ingham County Land Bank can start at $1,000 per tenth of an acre lot, Doherty believes.

“The lease program is wonderful for those who don’t want to commit to growing,” Doherty said. “You just can’t count on it always being there.”

The Land Bank tries to sign land leases for as long as possible, but there is “no implied permanence to leases,” according to County Treasurer Eric Schertzing.

“The east side is a rich blend of demand for rentals and homeownership as well as rich demand for urban ag space,” he said. “The urban context is buildings more than gardens, but we have room for gardens,” adding the bank has more land than it needs.

“When development is imminent, the Land Bank keeps those parcels out of the leasing program,” said Schertzing, who added that development happens “every once and a while.”

For Doherty, the coronavirus pandemic has driven home the importance of marginalized groups having access to land for growing food.

“It added a sense of urgency,” they said. “We saw so many things shutting down, empty shelves and people worried about food security.”

Doherty also noticed that many people relied on mutual aid to get food and that low-income neighborhoods were affected.

“It made me see how important this work is when everything is so uncertain,” they added.

The ability to give food away to those in need is important to both Doherty and Hardy.

Doherty donates food that Tender Hearts Gardens produces to the Breadbasket Food Pantry at the Allen Neighborhood Center.

Hardy believes in giving food away to other growers and those in need.

If she ends up having to move quickly from her leased land, she said, she’ll do what she has always done.

“I don’t plan to sell it,” Hardy said. “I will give away everything I’m growing.”