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Farming In The City: Black Farmers In Baltimore Are Growing

Mary Rose Madden

Next to a dilapidated hundred year old house in Northeast Baltimore, there’s an old rusted tractor that’s twisted in vines, its metal warped. It looks more like a sculpture than a piece of farm equipment. And it sits on ten acres of land with trails and ponds behind it.

It caught the eye of Atiya Wells three years ago while she was exploring in her neighborhood and it kicked off her vision for BLISS Meadows – a community farm, just off busy Moravia Avenue. 

Now, between rehabbing the abandoned house and reclaiming the unkept acres of forest, Wells, a pediatric nurse and a parent, says she sometimes asks her husband, “Why did you let me do this? This was a terrible mistake.”

But the farming life called out to her, she says, when she began to look into her ancestry. 

“I did a deep dive into where I came from,” Wells says.

Credit Mary Rose Madden / WYPR
Atiya Wells points to the acres of unkept forest that is part BLISS Meadows, her community farm

Both sides of her family have documented their histories as far back as they could. Wells learned that her ancestors were enslaved in Georgia and South Carolina before her great grandfather became a sharecropper growing mostly vegetables and some cotton. They came north during The Great Migration.

“I was reconnecting to who I am and to who my family was,” Wells says.

She says she started looking for a way to bring her family’s past into her present and told her husband, “We need to start a farm.”

Wells quickly enrolled in classes and workshops to learn more. But she soon noticed she was often the lone Black person in the room.

“I was like, ‘where are all my people at?’” 

Credit Mary Rose Madden / WYPR
BLISS Meadows

While urban farming is taking off around the country, from Detroit to Cleveland to Baltimore, few of those farmers are people of color.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census data,in 2017, the latest figures that are available, only1.4% of all Maryland farmers are Black. Nationally, it’s only 1.3%.

In Baltimore, there are community gardens and farms that range from half an acre to eight acres in size on about 300 lots, sometimes run by neighborhood associations, churches, or schools.

According to The Baltimore Office of Sustainability, the city has at least three times as many Black-led farms as it had ten years ago, but it’s still a small fraction of the total farmers in Maryland.  

And in terms of income, the USDA says Black farmers in Maryland made only 0.26% of the total for all farms in 2017.

That’s not surprising, says Eric Jackson, an organizer for the Cherry Hill Urban Garden and founder of Black Yield Institute.

Considering generational white wealth combined with years of housing and land policies that discriminated against Black people when they tried to take out loans, Jackson says those who have had control of the land have had access to that wealth. 

Credit Mary Rose Madden / WYPR
Eric Jackson, an Organizer for The Cherry Hill Urban Garden and founder of Black Yield Institute, walks through the acre and a half which sits on federally-owned land.

Jackson, who grew up a few blocks away in the projects in Cherry Hill, takes pride in his neighborhood; he calls it an “urban village.” And that village, along with his work as a social worker and organizer, influence the acre and a half garden.

“This is more than a farm,” he says, sitting next to a couple of raised beds, wheel barrows and a hoop house. “It has to be.”

Even though the garden produces much needed food for the community, he says it’s only part of what they do.

“If we’re going to address the complexities of imperialism and white supremacy, [this] has to be more than a farm,” he says.  “Our work is equally about political education, reconnection to the land, spiritual practice, and a cultural celebration, as it is about producing eggplant, tomatoes, and leafy greens.”

By building relationships through that work, he and others hope a social movement will take shape. 

“My overall goal is to organize Black people to build power, so that we can control resources in our community,” Jackson says. “And if nothing else, if folks can’t hear it any other way, to live the American Dream. If the American Dream is controlling your destiny, that’s what we’re talking about. And farming is just an aspect of that.”

Though the number of Black farmers is growing in Baltimore, most of those farmers don’t own the land they’re working. There’s only one or two Black –owned farms that the Office of Sustainability knows about.  

Mariya Strauss, executive director of the Farm Alliance of Baltimore, which supports urban agriculture, says leasing the land – be it a meadow, a forest, a vacant lot – leaves the farmer vulnerable because the lease could be terminated after the farmer has invested years of sweat and money.

“That threat is always, always present,” she says.

Strauss says the Farm Alliance’s members want a comprehensive urban agriculture policy to protect farmers. “We want transparency in the acquisition and disposition and availability of city-owned property.”

She says the city maintains a data base of vacant properties, but city planners often have discussions with developers with deep pockets and they take priority over the community’s plans.

“We don’t have access to that [database],” she says. “We would love access to that.”

Kevin Nash, a spokesman for Baltimore’s Department of Housing and Community Development said there are almost 20,000 vacant lots in the city, but not all are available for farming. 

Credit Mary Rose Madden / WYPR
Back at Bliss Meadows, Wells unlocks the door to the abandoned house she purchased from the private owner. She’s cleared and tilled part of the meadow she’s leasing and has been taking bids to rehab the property.

Back at Bliss Meadows, Wells unlocks the door to the abandoned house she purchased from the private owner. She’s cleared and tilled part of the meadow she’s leasing and has been taking bids to rehab the property. 

Wells dreams of having quilting, cooking, farming classes in this space – and bringing more people like her closer to the land. 

Mary Rose is a reporter and senior news producer for 88.1 WYPR FM, a National Public Radio member station in Baltimore. At the local news desk, she assigns stories, organizes special coverage, edits news stories, develops series and reports.
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