Black farmers create community of urban growers to diversify Kalamazoo Farmers Market

KALAMAZOO, MI — A new farm and food network is looking to bring more representation to Kalamazoo’s food ecosystem.

Remi Harrington created Zoo City this year to fill the racial gap left in agriculture. The most recent Census Agriculture report from 2017 shows that Black farmers make up 1.4% of the country’s 3.4 million producers.

Similarly, Black farmers in Michigan make up less than 2% of statewide producers.

Harrington sees Zoo City as a pathway for the Black community to participate in both land ownership and the food economy — something she says is part of their cultural history.

“Black people came to America to tend the land, to be stewards of land, and we come from agrarian culture,” she said. “The fact that we cannot participate in the industry ecosystem in that way, it’s a travesty.”

For Harrington, being a steward of her own land isn’t just about the historical roots of her ancestors but also her immediate family and the agency its given her as a single mother.

Being able to literally get her hands dirty and grow her own food while teaching her daughter about the environment has been both empowering and therapeutic, she said.

In 2014, she began work on Tegan’s Hopeful Storybook Garden, named after her daughter. The Jackson Street community garden came to life two years later as a project of Harrington’s nonprofit The Urban Folk Art Exploratory.

The Storybook Garden is no longer operational but Harrington’s vision for the land and the neighborhood has taken new shape in the Zoo City project.

Throughout the Edison neighborhood Harrington has plans for a food cooperative, an educational space and a micro-nursery with raised planter beds for rent.

Through Zoo City, Harrington is looking to tackle equity in the food industry from a neighborhood, city and regional lens.

“I don’t know how else we could have done this work without thinking as comprehensively as that,” she said.

“Specifically, as it relates to creating space for people that have historically been underrepresented. We have had no choice but to organize in this way, to take into consideration all of the different layers of the food industry ecosystem.”

So far, the network of local growers includes six cottage food businesses, or homestead farms. Every week Harrington visits members to collect produce, teas and other commodities and then boxes them to be sold at the Saturday Kalamazoo Farmer’s Market.

This effort is a steppingstone for smaller farms that may not have the finances or the supply to be regular vendors. By collecting from urban farmers she’s also diversifying the vendor makeup at the market, she said.

“The bulk of the people that are at the farmer’s market are rural farms,” she said. “We are trying to occupy that space and do it in a way where we’re advocating for commodities together so that we can all win.”

The Zoo City has six tiers of membership. The initial entry points range from $100 to $500 in annual dues provide farmer’s market access or land rental. The longer and more expensive commitments are intended for larger institutions like local government and education, Harrington said.

Beyond the individual impact of getting more urban farmers working and represented in Kalamazoo, Harrington wants community buy-in from institutional partners to form a food policy council. This council would present equitable solutions for land acquisition and redevelopment in addition to supporting urban growers.

Her vision is to connect the dots of growers and stakeholders already involved in the food industry.

“We wanted to fill a niche in the community that didn’t exist,” Harrington said. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. We’re trying to participate in areas where there’s a deficit so that we can plug people in.”

Although Zoo City’s goals are far and wide, they are “divinely aligned,” Harrington said. In Battle Creek, Harrington inherited property from her late mother who owned a food business. Architectural plans are in the works to turn the site into a distribution and processing hub.

The Battle Creek hub will be an extension of her mother’s legacy while the local and neighborhood efforts solidify her commitment to Kalamazoo, she said. Harrington’s passion for food equity is deeply rooted in her faith and family values, she said.

“I think that the way that you connect to God is by loving his people and by loving the things that he made like the environment and people,” she said. “I think that that’s how we can be redemptive by honoring the things that are natural, the things that God made.”

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