Keeping Black Farm Families Connected to the Land in Michigan

AP Photo / Gosia Wozniacka

Owning land provides families with a legacy and, hopefully, some stability, but how do farmers keep their family farming their land? At BuzzFeed, Bim Adewunmi talks with blueberry farmers around tiny Covert, Michigan, to see what life is like for farmers of color. Only 1.46% of America’s farmers are black. Many Covert growers inherited their profession and have enjoyed a rewarding rural life, steady income and something to give to their children, and land, as one farmer tells Adewunmi, is power. But they still struggle to interest their kids and grandchildren in the job.

Farming is physically demanding, financially risky, costly and tenuous, and the market, like the weather, is constantly shifting. When parents raise their kids to go to college, save money and have more opportunities at their disposal, it isn’t surprising that younger generations leave home to work instead of stay on the family farm. As one farmer said, “We worked hard to show our kids what we considered a better life, and they’re taking advantage of those opportunities. They’re doing exactly what we told them to do.”

“He worked on the Hawkins farm for a time,” she says of her husband. “He always loved blueberries, so when we bought this place, he put his own blueberries out there. They’ve been here since 2001, I believe.” Harold died of cancer a few years back, and Carol assumed responsibility for the business. It is safe to say, however, that she never wanted to be a farmer. “If this wasn’t right here at the house,” she says, gesturing out of her kitchen windows, “I would’ve sold it a long time ago, is all I can say. It was my husband’s thing. I was just… I didn’t wanna be a farmer.” She giggles, but it’s a laugh filled with resignation. When I press her about the potential significance of holding on to her late husband’s legacy, she holds firm. “Uh-uh. I keep it because it’s here at the house. You see, it’s a ‘U,’ right here. And I just don’t want anybody else out there. So that’s why I keep it. And it does pay for my son’s college, the berries. So…” This time when she trails off, her laugh is knowing.

Unsolicited family legacy aside, Carol Baber’s most pressing headache is labor. All her berries are handpicked. Blueberries are graded — the handpicked ones generally get the best price at market, but they are also the most labor-intensive to produce, and picking conditions must be dry (“Nobody wants a wet berry,” Steven tells me, sagely, when I ask), which means picking during the hottest, most arid hours of the day. And that’s before the other maintenance issues that concern a blueberry farmer: weeding, pruning, fertilizing, spraying, and so on. “It’s hard for me because I don’t have any equipment,” Carol says. The Hawkinses help out with spraying (she buys the materials), but “it’s really hard to keep the grass down. So I’m working on trying to get a tractor.”

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