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Battle Creek man sees farming as form of protest

Alyssa Keown
Battle Creek Enquirer

Battle Creek – Winter’s final frost came and went as May drew to a close. It was time to get to work at Sunlight Gardens, an urban farm in Battle Creek’s north side Washington Heights neighborhood.

The owner, Devon Wilson, tilled his land for the 2020 growing season the day after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis.

The video of the murder filled him with anger.

The following Sunday, Wilson was among the hundreds assembled in Battle Creek for an 11-hour rally and protest march. He invited attendees to his farm to learn about gardening.

Sunlight Gardens Battle Creek

The 23-year-old Black farmer believes growing your own food is a form of protest.

“It’s a way to reclaim our power, and you know, I think that’s why we protest, because we feel powerless,” Wilson told the Battle Creek Enquirer. “Self-sustainability is the revolution.”

Michelle Salazar, a Battle Creek transplant from Miami, heard about Sunlight Gardens at the rally. She came to help.

“I thought it was a great way to get to know people in the community who shared the same vision as I did,” Salazar said. “It was so overwhelming just chanting ‘I can’t breathe’ and ‘don’t kill us,’ remembering that video of George Floyd dying, it was so traumatizing… even though I wanted to be involved in the protests, I had to take a day, so when I heard this was another way to be active with the movement, a sense of relief came over me.”

The Friday following the protest march, Wilson taught Salazar and other community members about urban gardening. They planted seeds together and ate food donated by Torti Taco.

“I feel like our government, whether it was intentional or not, they stripped us of a lot of our power,” Wilson said. “We don’t know how to grow our own food, we don’t know how to capture and clean our own drinking water, and we don’t know how to create our own energy.”

The community effort has transformed Wilson’s urban farm into a classroom where he passes on his knowledge of organic farming and his sense of mission and shows by example that all farmers don’t fit the same mold.

On a hot Wednesday morning in July, Wilson delicately untangled strings for tomato plants. Five teenage boys watched as he told them about his journey to becoming a farmer and owning his own land.

Lori Rodriguez Geiger rushed inside the hoop house to tell them a bald eagle had flown over the urban farm.

“It’s an omen from the creator,” said Geiger, who is of Huichol heritage, an indigenous people of Mexico. Geiger said her cousin from the Gun Lake Tribe taught her that the eagle means the creator of life is sending a blessing and approves of your “hard work.”

Geiger, who owns and operates Puddingstone Farm in Johannesburg, has been teaching her great nephews about farming since they could walk. She read about Wilson’s movement on Facebook and contacted him.

Wilson invited her and her great nephews, who are Black, to visit Sunlight Gardens.

“It’s important for them to see someone closer to their age, a person of color, doing what they’re doing,” Geiger said.

Kalifornia Bey, 13, said his earliest memory of being on Geiger’s farm is falling asleep in his uncle’s arms as they rode a tractor down the driveway.

Bey and his twin brothers, Keegan and Kenyan Bey, 15, along with their friends from Pennfield Middle School, work at Puddingstone Farm each summer to earn money for football equipment.

Wilson and his new friends planted green peppers together and bonded over rap artists Rio Da Yung OG and SahBabii. He also taught them how to use a walk-behind tractor with a tiller attachment.

Geiger’s leadership and her nephew’s work ethic inspired Wilson so much, he asked her to become head of operations at Sunlight Gardens. Together, they are starting a gardening club for youth with her nephews, Devon’s little cousins and other neighborhood friends.

Wilson and Geiger named the club Sun-Stone Gardening Club, a marriage of the two farms.

Geiger’s relationship with the crew is built on her mission to “decolonize business.”

“When we think about how the colonies were formed, it was about making sure certain people had the wealth and others were in servitude,” said Geiger. “There were always barriers created that kept people from creating their own wealth…When we decolonize business, we look at our whole model of how we’re doing things, right down to how I have those conversations with the crew, and I need to be prepared to go in and give them enough space and voice to give me feedback to how I can show up to help them succeed.”

The 2017 Census of Agriculture showed 47,641 farms in Michigan. Of those, just 330 were operated by Black producers.

The data also says, while the average market value of products from a Michigan farm in 2017 was nearly $173,000, the average Black-operated farm only brought in about $51,000.

“My main goal is to inspire other people and to kind of be the role model I needed when I was little,” Wilson said. “I didn’t have farmers around me, I want to be the farmer that isn’t just John Deere and endless cornfields. We can have fun out here, party, dance, rap, but get work done and make a difference in the community.”

In high school, Wilson grew eager for learning opportunities outside the classroom. At 15, he landed an internship with Sprout, a nonprofit that sells locally sourced produce. At the time, Sprout’s headquarters were located at the Kendall Street property he now owns.

In 2016, Wilson founded Sunlight Gardens, which operated as an incubator farm on a field Wilson leased from Sprout. It was there that he honed the skills he acquired at his internship and through a nine-month organic farming training program at Michigan State University.

Last year, Sprout stopped operating the Kendall Street farm. Thanks to a grant from the Battle Creek Community Foundation, money from winning a business pitch contest at the Burma Center and his personal savings, Wilson purchased the property in its entirety.

Today, he is making the land where he learned to grow food a place of his own.

By September, Wilson envisions running a food stand inside the structure on his farm. While he renovates the space, customers are able to purchase his produce from Farm Estar, an app that connects local farmers to consumers.

Wilson’s farm has been approved for electronic benefits transfer, so customers will be able to use food stamps. Once the stand opens, Wilson said, he will participate in the federal program “Double Up Food Bucks” where Bridge Card customers earn $2 in SNAP benefits for every $2 they spend on Michigan grown produce.

Some Washington Heights neighbors are already enjoying the fresh food.

“I was excited to see the farm getting started back up,” Washington Heights resident Victoria Taylor said. “I believe this farm in my community can bring us all together. I’m thankful Devon delivered my last two orders and I feel he has a true heart for running his farm and helping others.”