Above: Steven Hawkins and Carolye Hawkins.
Steven Hawkins is younger than a good number of his blueberry bushes.
We are standing in the space between rows of Bluecrop berries, and he is scratching his chin thoughtfully as he tries to work out how old this particular section of his farm is. “This was the first field he planted,” he says, referring to his father. “You see how tall these are? They don’t handpick these. These are big bushes.” He gestures vaguely. “Sixty-three years old. Everything over here pretty much is 63, give or take a year. I wasn’t even around when these were planted.” Steven is himself 58 years old and his earliest memories are wrapped around these bushes; he has never known a world in which blueberries were not a part of family life and preoccupation.
In the town of Covert, Michigan (as well as the neighbouring towns of Watervliet and South Haven), blueberries are cheerfully ubiquitous. “Wherever you go in Covert, there’s blueberries. And the county we live in, Van Buren County, has a lot of blueberries,” says Steven as we drive over to another of his family’s farm sites. By the time I leave, several days later, I will have learned to spot blueberry fields from the window of a speeding car, and I will be able to discern varieties by taste, if not appearance. Casual visitors to Covert can’t miss the blueberry “propaganda” leading them into this small town. Even before they arrive, they are primed: Mixed in with the billboards bearing ads for gentlemen’s clubs and anti-abortion messages along the I-94 that brings you here are notices to suggest this part of Michigan is a veritable fruit basket, waiting for you to come along and pick your own colorful selections. Fruit and vegetables — pears, peaches, grapes, apples, cherries, and of course, blueberries — form the bulk of the economic farming backbone of this town (population: 2,888, according to 2010 census figures).
Covert is very country — there are signs advertising “fast rural internet” affixed to utility poles, no traffic lights, and bunny rabbits literally gamboling in the brush — and there is a sleepy feel to the place that belies the motto on the town marker: “A COMMUNITY ON THE MOVE!” It is a place where simultaneously very little and very much has changed over the years. In summer 2017, I spotted at least two Confederate flags flying proudly.
Black farmers in Covert are at an interesting tipping point.
A cursory look at population data over the last couple of decades tells a clear story about a shifting demographic in line with America at large: Between 2000 and 2010, the population of Covert decreased from 3,141 to 2,888 (black people were proportionally the highest decrease) while the Latino population almost doubled, from 478 to 881, in the same period. In 2014, the Detroit Free Press named the town as “the most diverse community in Michigan.” It’s important to say: Covert is not — and has never really been — a black town. But with its long history of integration, and its proximity to summering black middle-class Chicagoans over the years, it sure feels like it is.
A quiet slide has happened in this farming town, and black farmers, who make up only 1.46% of the national figure, are at the forefront. Second- and later-generation black landowners and farmers like Steven Hawkins are not as common as they used to be here. Driven by a number of factors including immigration reform, the changing whims and forces of a global market, and, perhaps most pertinently, lack of family interest from younger generations, black farmers in Covert are at an interesting tipping point. With an aging population — and young people with their eyes on the nearby urban enclaves of Ypsilanti, Chicago, and Detroit, among others — a very specific kind of civic agreement, built on decades of familiarity, is disappearing alongside title deeds and family legacy.
American communities like Covert may never recover. And one has to wonder if the US is set up to support these kinds of jobs anymore. Farming has never been solitary work, and requires a hands-on approach that an increasingly globalized world does not make room for, especially for generations not necessarily weaned on farming practice.
Farming as an occupation is a romantic American notion. The onward march of modernity — in which people trade malleable rural earth for unyielding urban concrete — has gifted the farming community a certain level of unknowability. What we do “know” is largely idealized: Farmers work long hours, the work is backbreaking, they are the best, most salt-of-the-earth people, and they deserve all the praise, because they’re a big part of America’s economic backbone. The mean salary for a farmer in Michigan is just over $66,000, while the national annual mean is $75,790. Figures from 2012 suggest farming is slightly less robust than it was at the 2007 census: The total number of US farmers declined, and while farming was more ethnically diverse, there were fewer new farmers altogether.
In the popular imagination, the farmer is also white; think of Grant Wood’s 1930 painting “American Gothic,” reproduced over and over with only slight tweaks. On the one hand it is right to think of American farming in this way: The 2012 US Agriculture Census reported just over 2 million white farmers, operating on almost 855 million acres of farmland. But American farming has many faces, as ordered by powers greater than just a will to till the land. The majority of farming may be white, but that’s not the whole story, especially not in a town like Covert.
The mean salary for a farmer in Michigan is just over $66,000, while the national annual mean is $75,790.
From 1844 until 1877, Covert was called Deerfield, which becomes self-explanatory when you consider that Steven gets to indulge his bow-hunting hobby during hunting season. (He showed me a photo on his phone of a young buck he shot last summer.) The small township has a curiously integrated past, with its earliest black settlers leaving the South in search of free living, and finding themselves living cheek by jowl with white people. The integration of Covert was a blip in the national picture in the 1860s, but its schools were racially mixed, as were its politics — in 1868, at a time when black men were unable to vote in the state of Michigan, the population of Covert elected one to the office of highway overseer. While the history of Covert is one of startling white and black coexistence, the reality of integration is a little more complex (see, for example, A Stronger Kinship: One Town's Extraordinary Story of Hope and Faith by Anna-Lisa Cox for details of the “emancipation festivals” held in the 1870s).
“I won't say harmoniously,” says Steven, laughing, “but they did live together and weren’t forced to. School was integrated, and you know, in other towns, they were forced to integrate, there was busing and all that. Covert didn’t have to go through all of that.” He talks about the town’s proximity to the Indiana border, and the Underground Railroad. “You've got a lot of blacks that came up from the South that was runnin' away, they came in through the Underground Railroad: towns like Cassopolis, Vandalia, Niles, Berrien Springs. Those are all border towns, and the Quakers would house…hide the blacks.”
Steven is a jovial man with a relaxed mien; it is difficult to imagine a situation that would ruffle his feathers. It is a handy disposition to have as a farmer, since, as he puts it, “the weather determines everything. It’s timing, and Mother Nature controls all that.” When I call him a farmer, he issues a gentle protest. “I’m not a farmer!” he says with a laugh. “I’m a play-farmer. I play-farm. Real farmers do it year round. They live it year round, in my opinion.”
Real or not, 2017 marks Steven’s 31st year of involvement in the family farm. But the Hawkinses have been in Covert for substantially longer than the farm has been operational. Steven’s grandparents, Octavia and Charlie, lived in Chicago, and like a swath of Chicago’s black middle class, treated Covert as something of an annual summer retreat. Octavia Hawkins was a leader of the United Auto Workers Local 453, and a cofounder and first treasurer of the National Negro Labor Council. “My grandmother was an activist, politically conscious and always fighting for the cause, for the people,” Steven says proudly. His grandfather Charlie was a chef. “Most of the people when I was young, they moved here from the Chicago area — they would come down here with relatives in the summertime.” Eventually his parents, Sylvester and Carolye, joined them. Steven is the last of their four children, and the only boy. Alongside his farming, Sylvester poured hot steel at Bohn Aluminum for decades, and died of brain cancer in 2003; Ms. Carolye, now 88, is a retired teacher who taught in Covert’s integrated schools, and who still lives in the farmhouse close to the family’s original fields. She plays bingo every week, and still plays the piano in her church choir. Before I leave, she tells me that she’s a member of the “CRS Club” — the “Can’t Remember Shit” Club — before adding faux-demurely, “I don’t curse, I’m a church girl.”
Back in the 1950s, when the Hawkins family moved into Covert for good, they were at the vanguard of a small but tight movement of black farmers. “There was always black farmers,” recalls Steven, “but never a lot. My father was one of the few at that time, one of the first black farmers in Van Buren County that had blueberries. Everybody else might have had what they refer to as a patch — you know, 50 plants on your property, that's a patch. We've got a lot more than 50.”
“If you live here, what else are you gonna do? You might as well buy some blueberries, make some extra money.”
When blueberries were designated a “superfood” by trendy foodies in the mid-’00s, the Hawkins family had been growing the fruit for decades. “When [my father] started, blueberries weren’t as popular,” says Steven. “Trying to sell your berries was difficult. None of these processing places were around. He had to be part of a co-op.” Sylvester was, for quite a few black blueberry farmers in Covert, a spur. Steven gestures to a blueberry field that belongs to one of his friends, Leroy. “He started farming all because of my father. He would tell the young guys, ‘If you live here, what else are you gonna do? You might as well buy some blueberries, make some extra money.’”
Glover Dandridge, 83, was Sylvester’s brother-in-law and friend. He’s lived in Covert for almost 50 years and, until recently, ran a bar, the Blue Star Lodge. He helped Sylvester plant some of his first blueberry bushes “on weekends, and after work.” He told me Sylvester’s ambition was simple: “to be the largest black grower of blueberries in Covert.” And so Sylvester began by buying a parcel of land opposite his parents’ house in 1954. That expanded over the years to what the family holds now: some 150 acres growing 11 varieties of highbush blueberries, across four sites. “We would be considered a medium-sized farm, right on the edge of being a big farm,” says Steven with no false modesty. Steven was 27 when he bought into the farm along with his sister Paula (who now runs payroll); his two eldest sisters declined a partnership offer. As the farm has grown, his role has evolved correspondingly, moving seamlessly from lender to copartner.
“I’m not a big fan of farming. This is what my father did,” Steven says with another easy grin. “Do I understand the fact we got the land and do I appreciate that this is what he left us? Yes, I do appreciate that. But the idea of being a farmer? That’s not something I really enjoy.” He chose early retirement and is now self-employed, running an emergency medical transportation company with his wife in Ypsilanti. “My father would say this is God's country,” he says. The family legacy has hung over him as long as he’s been alive; Steven has had time to come to this conclusion, and make peace with it.
In 1945, a man from Mississippi by way of Chicago came to Covert, and being an enterprising sort of man, decided he could make a life there. He wanted to make this corner of Michigan look more like home, eventually going as far as planting nine apple trees for his nine sons, some of which are still standing. “My great-grandfather was here in ’45,” says Barbara James Norman as she gestures at the original farmhouse on the property, “and paperwork says he didn’t buy it, but rented it. I came in ’48.” She still lives in the farmhouse she grew up in, more than a hundred years after it was built.
Barbara’s own ancestors were comfortable with the outdoors. Her grandfather was a keen shooter and hunter, and also a canny businessman. “He owned a cab company in Chicago, and he had a restaurant in one of our buildings, and he tried other stuff up here too – he had as many as 200 pigs. He was an entrepreneur, and he’d say, ‘Baby, while you're sleeping, the cabs are making money.’ My grandfather was always telling me when I was a teenager, ‘Plant these, baby, these are for your grandkids.’ And I was like, ‘I don't even have a boyfriend.’” She emits a raspy laugh, her puckish face scrunching up. “Once he planted the blueberries, that was it. His thing was a business that would make you money 24 hours a day.”
A fourth-generation farmer, Barbara cannot remember a life in which she was anything less than at peace with her decision to be a farmer. To make sure her descendants never lose that connection, she’s tending to what she hopes will be the sixth generation: her grandkids. On the day I visit her, she’s just returned from Chicago, wearing a National Farmers Union baseball cap, and beside her is her 91-year-old great-uncle Leo Simmons (one of those nine sons).
“Some people think money is power. I think power gets you money, and I think land is power.”
Barb’s Blueberry Batch is doing just fine. “With farming, you work five, six months out of the year, and then you can live the rest of the year, you know? I think it's good...but people don’t think farming is a business. They’ve got that stereotype of slaveowners or whatever, but I do all right, you know?” She huffs out a laugh. She grows organic Bluecrops and Jerseys on 25 acres of a 53-acre farm, but doesn’t sell to the usual processors and markets anymore. Instead, her biggest client is Detroit Public Schools — a partnership now in its sixth year — and she also sells to a food co-op in Plymouth, Minnesota. Barbara does almost no hand-picking, but rather sells directly off the bush. “I don’t need labor, not really. If you want my berries, you bring your crew.”
Barbara’s a Covert mainstay, and so she’s had a front-row seat to all sorts of change: She knows who’s passed on, who’s selling, and who’s potentially buying. She knows farming isn’t nearly as attractive to her grandkids’ generation as it was for her 50 years ago. “To attract them into anything,” she says, “you need to start in the womb. Just like you read to them in the womb, you need to start teaching them the value of the land. My grandsons have had a garden since they were 3.” The divorcing of black Americans from the land — something that was sped up drastically by the Great Migration — smacks of a cruel symmetry, considering the history of how they came to arrive en masse on this continent. Land ownership among black Americans peaked more than a century ago, and various factors – from discriminatory practices by official bodies such as the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and arcane laws to mass migration and industrialization – are to blame for that. For Barbara, helping people gain a deeper understanding of the potential of the land is her passion. “Some people think money is power. I think power gets you money, and I think land is power,” she says. “Go back to the land — they're not making anymore.”
Barbara’s mission is to make sure people are exposed to this way of life. She regularly invites Michigan and Illinois schoolchildren to the farm — “They walk the land, they pick berries, they're just loving it. I do it every year” — she’s a vocal advocate of the USDA’s many programmes and she teaches farmers about risk management, and how to diversify to survive. “The Agriculture Department is the second-largest budget in the nation, second only to the Department of Defense,” she says with a sharp smile. “And it's kind of a well-kept secret.” (She’s not exactly correct, but the USDA is certainly in the top 10 highest-funded government departments.) Barbara tells people about the 1890 scholarships to HBCUs, and has personally taken Covert students on college tours. The pride is evident in her voice when she says, “I've had maybe four not-successes, but I bet I got about 19 or 20 success stories.”
Barbara’s mission is clear, and she is a steadfast champion for this way of life: More than just a means to an end, farming is about legacy, and specifically black legacy. But holding on to her family’s blueberry farm legacy — and helping others to build up theirs — is one thing. Barbara’s farm operates differently to many others in this township. She no longer needs pickers, but so many farmers still rely on seasonal labor. What use is a family legacy of a few acres if no one is around to farm the land? Selling becomes the obvious choice.
The two issues of labor and legacy are inextricably linked, as is perfectly illustrated in the story of another black Covert farmer less than a mile from the Hawkins homestead, Carol Baber.
What use is a family legacy of a few acres if no one is around to farm the land?
A soft-spoken woman raised in Eau Claire, a village about 30 minutes from Covert, Carol is a 20-years-strong transplant to Covert. She worked for 18 years as a supervisor in the kitchen at Covert Public Schools before retiring and had been planning to open a daycare centre. When I ask what brought her to town, she laughs before saying, “I married Harold Baber, and he brought me here.” She is the proprietor of Baber’s Berries, a six-acre farm that grows two varieties of blueberries, Bluecrops and Elliott’s. Their little holding was all Harold’s idea, with the encouragement of one Sylvester Hawkins.
“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.”
Most acutely, she needs pickers. “It's really very difficult because you don't have anybody to pick the berries,” says Carol. “My family helps me out a lot.” Her 9-year-old niece, unable to be a picker due to labor laws, helps by cleaning the berry buckets. Carol is herself one of nine children, and her siblings pitch in every summer. I join them in the midday sun to fill a pail with late-season Elliotts. It is careful, boring, and uncomfortably hot work. Carol’s sister Rheba Bell tells me being in the fields at midday is love as a verb: She says, laughing, “If she wasn’t my sister, I wouldn’t help at all!”
But of course, Covert’s picking was never done just by local hands. There was a time when migrant workers rolled through town with their specialist ability (usually honed over a period of years) and kept things running smoothly. When I visited Covert in late July and early August, there were signs up all over town and in neighbouring areas bearing the legend “PICKERS WANTED.” All the farmers I spoke to lamented the turnout. Steven recalls up to 60 pickers a day when he was a child. “Now we’re lucky if we get 20, or 25 on a good day,” he says. “Growing up, we used to have families out,” Barbara tells me. “Most of the kids who grew up in Covert picked in these fields before half these people around here had blueberries. Now some of them won’t let their kids come out and pick.”
Keith Colombel, a Hawkins family friend, worked on the Hawkins farm after high school in the late 1970s. For the last six summers, he’s been back in Covert after living all over the region, working the harvesting machine, driving berries to the receiving and processing areas, and spraying pesticides and fertilizer. He remembers a time when whole families would take to the fields come picking season. “When summertime came, you knew you was in the berry field,” he says in a voice reminiscent of the singer Lou Rawls. “You know, that was your money for school clothes. That was just the norm for all the families back then.”
Rick Anderson has been a blueberry farmer since 1973, when he relocated to Covert to start the farm with his parents. The plan had been to stay for a single summer before returning to Chicago to teach. He ended up working full-time, joining his parents on the farm in the evenings and on weekends. Their initial 40 acres — with roughly 15 dedicated to blueberries — was a fruit basket: cherry trees, McIntosh apples, Glohaven peaches, and about 200 Stanley plum trees. Eventually, the Andersons began experimenting with breeding their own blueberries. “Our very first propagations were done in a cold frame on the side of that chicken house. We made some cuttings that winter and started maybe five or six hundred.” They survived, and thrived, thanks to Rick’s mulching.
The growth of the Andersons’ operation occurred gradually, over a period of years. And a big part of their success was the picking workforce that Rick used to be able to rely upon. “It's difficult to find good farmworkers now,” he says. “We used to have families that would come from Texas and Florida and made the circuit every year, but we don't see that migration anymore.” There’s a wider issue of immigration and seasonal workers — mostly from Mexico and other North American nations — that will only become more and more troublesome in the current political climate. For Rick, who machines most of his berries these days, eliminating his need for human labor, it predates President Trump. But the background terror of the Clinton and Bush Jr. years has given way to something even more visceral in recent months.
“I can't tell you how many times — even before Trump took office — how many times we had people working, back when we handpicked, and then the police show up. And we were friends with the police here, they've always been good to us and a lot of times, they would just stop to say hello, and our workers would just…” He splays his hands and makes a “poof” sound. “They'd disappear into the woods. And that was before there was any question about illegal immigration. I'm talking 15, 20 years ago. So you can about imagine what it's like now. The ones that are here are scared. And they're very insular, they stay to themselves, they really don't mingle, and you can't blame 'em. It has definitely affected our workforce.
“It’s a shame, it really is, because we need our farmworkers. And there aren't a lot of people who are actually willing to do this kind of work for the kind of wages that we're paying and can afford to pay.”
There is a less depressing side to this tale of uninterested younger generations and a much reduced workforce: Some of those initially migratory workers have chosen to settle here — as suggested by the jump between censuses in the proportion of Covert’s population listed as “Latino or Hispanic.” (The 2012 Census of Agriculture recorded a decrease in Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino farm operators in Van Buren County between 2007 and 2012, but an overall increase in average farm size, from 39 acres to 69 acres. That acreage shrank for black or African-American operators over the same period. The number of farms decreased for both groups.) “Some of those families have settled here, and they bought their land, and they’re now successful berry farmers,” says Rick.
Covert is exactly the sort of place that most people just leave.
Steven concurs. “The Hispanics are really the only ones getting into blueberry farming on this end. So all the homes that when I was a kid were occupied by [black] people that I knew, the majority are Hispanic now. And they're farming — they still farm. The African-Americans? Not so much.”
Steven knows what he’s talking about. On his family’s farm, Benny Enriquez lives with his wife Guadeloupe in the (now expanded) two-bedroom house Sylvester and Carolye first moved into in the 1950s. Benny is Mexican-American, and began a working relationship with the Hawkinses as a migrant worker almost 40 years ago. He speaks almost no English, and he is among the most trusted pairs of hands in the operation.
It’s an easy conclusion to come to, but the shift in ownership is not necessarily about a tribal, racial animus. Even though it’s never been majority black, Covert was a sort of black town. Like with many rural American communities in the age of globalization, there’s been a drift to urban centres. When she was a child, Carol Baber’s aunt and uncle used to live close to where she lives today, and she remembers Covert had a commercial strip: a grocery store, and other shops. These days she has to go to South Haven (7 miles away) or Coloma (9 miles out) for her groceries. “We used to have stores downtown,” says Keith Colombel. “We had a bank down there, a barbershop, about three or four gas stations. The Greyhound used to stop in Covert, and you could go anywhere you wanted from there. And once all that stopped…” He doesn’t have to finish his sentence. Covert is exactly the sort of place that most people just leave.
But sometimes, and increasingly in recent years, it is also a place where people — like Benny, like all the other recently arrived Latino fruit farmers buying farmland — are coming to settle down, and thrive.
On the Saturday morning before I leave, Glover Dandridge drives me around town to show me all the previously black-owned blueberry farms. Some are overgrown and look abandoned. He points out farmland that used to belong to a Jamaican by the name of Brown, one of the first black blueberry farmers around here, by Glover’s estimate; another farm that once belonged to a surgeon called Wilson from Chicago; yet another that was owned and run by a trumpeter from Chicago. Many of these farms have been purchased by Latino people, he tells me.
On one of the Andersons’ farms, Glover points to a conspicuously staked realtor sign swinging in the breeze on the frontage, a smiling white man above the words “For Sale.” “Selling everything,” says Glover, sombrely.
When I speak to Rick Anderson, he is resigned. He’s had many careers alongside farming — running secretary of state offices, rights representative in the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, security personnel at a nuclear plant, and car salesman. In his forties, he moved to the nearby city of Holland, where he still lives, and retrained as an electrician.
But at 65, he is finally thinking of what he wants for his future, and selling makes sense for his circumstances. The blueberry market has exploded, and farming, even aside from picking labor, is not inexpensive. “Everybody is raising blueberries now,” he says. “They're raising them in Chile, in Argentina, in Australia even. Georgia, Florida. There was a time when this part of West Michigan was the premier blueberry growing spot. It no longer is. We don't have that market share anymore. It's just a matter of supply and demand. You got oversupply, you got less demand, and less money.” He recalls something Sylvester Hawkins told him several years back. “He said, ‘Rick, you know, blueberries are a good thing to get into if you can afford it.’ I never forgot that. If you have the wherewithal, you can do pretty well. If you don’t, then you'll die on the vine.”
He wants to spend time with his wife, who is a cancer patient, and he wants to make sure his two younger sisters are taken care of. “If I survive another five years, I'll be 70. It's time to kind of let it go,” he says.
The presence of black blueberry farmers, growing this crop, in this part of Michigan, is no accident. Men like Sylvester Hawkins encouraged and built up the community, and all the farmers I spoke to had benefited from the presence of other black farmers. But if their descendants are selling up and moving on, particularly as a response to better educational and economic prospects, who can blame them? Certainly not the Latino farmers who appear happy to take over and maintain farming as the business of Covert. The new owners of Rick Anderson’s farm may well be Latino. That’s just what Covert’s (admittedly not infallible) demographic data and anecdotal evidence suggest.
“We're gonna disappear,” says Steven. He has two sons in their twenties, both of whom live in Ypsilanti, a city two hours east of Covert. “We're gonna become extinct as farmers because there's no connection.” That lack of connection is a bit of a self-made problem, he admits. “It's a twofold thing. 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 laughs ruefully. “Can you be mad at them about it? No. But do you hope and pray that some of it rubbed off? Of course.” His sons are now at the age he was when he first bought into his father’s farm. But his children are millennials, and the world economy is very different. “The job market in our era was a lot better, the pay rate was a lot different,” he says. “By the time I was 27, I’d been working at UPS for five years and they paid well. Rent wasn’t as high as it is now, I made a lot more money than [they] make, and I was able to save.”
Each farmer I spoke to is either hopeful of a future in which their children will want to remain involved in their birthright, or they stoically envision a reality in which black Americans’ bond with the land dissolves entirely. For many, the farm is a jewel in their family’s crown, a rite of passage for younger members of the family, earning their first paychecks alongside migrant workers as well as being part of the societally valued “job creator” class. The challenges faced are recast as the building blocks of pure American grit, aka an asset in the world. But that earlier noted aversion to picking is only exacerbated as the younger generations in these farming families become adults. Why become a farmer? What does it mean if there’s no new blood to take over?
Carol Baber’s son is at college, and she knows he has no interest in working on the family farm. “My son? Uh-uh. He likes air conditioning!” She laughs uproariously. “If I pass away, he’s probably gonna sell it. It’s not attractive to young people. You have to have that farmer in you to want to be a farmer, you know?”
“I say I didn't do as good a job brainwashing with mine as my grandfather did with me,” says Barbara James Norman. “And right now, we’re rounding up the next generations, trying to see who will partake. Who will do something?” Concessions are being preemptively made. “You don’t have to necessarily farm all of it, or as much as I do,” continues Barbara. “But if you need to eat, you don't know what's going to happen with the economy. Just as much as you can, wherever you can.”
Rick Anderson’s three daughters live out of state, working as a law librarian, human resources specialist, and engineer respectively. Despite some interested sounds from his eldest, he says his children are “not really equipped” to be farmers like he and his parents were. Selling had never been the intention, until it was. “I don't like it,” he says heavily. “I would have rather my daughters were able to just take this over and run it.” Blueberry farming cannot be done from a distance. “It takes a lot to do this,” he gestures at the fields behind him. “You have to totally… You’ve gotta burn your ships. It’s a tough way to make a living.” All his daughters are single, and the reality, Rick says, is that that makes life as a farmer harder. With uncertainty built into the job, you need all the backup you can get.
“All the blueberry farmers I know, their spouses all worked. My mother worked while my dad worked the farm because they needed the insurance, they needed the extra cheque, [for] their retirement.”
“It gets difficult to operate because in farming a lot of things are done on the barter system.”
Money is as important as familiarity with the crop and locale, and the fact is, absentee farmers spend more. Steven and his sister Paula struggle with their weakened bonds to Covert as is, relying on family friends like Keith Colombel or Lorraine Cunningham (who has worked on the family farm for decades and looks in on Carolye Hawkins as needed). “I’ve been gone...in another year, it’ll be 40 years," Steven says. "I know a couple, a handful of people, a few senior citizens that are still around. People can say ‘I know your family’ but they don't know me and vice versa. It gets difficult to operate because in farming a lot of things are done on the barter system. Used to be, when I came up, it wasn’t so much money exchanging hands, it was: You do this for me, I’ll do that for you.” With familiarity comes a discount. “Sweat equity. It was always give and take, and you don’t have that with the farmers that are here now. Everything from a distance, you’ve got to pay. And that's money out your pocket.”
In the meantime the first set of Hawkins siblings have started having some tough conversations. “We’re both in agreement that we don’t wanna sell the land, but maybe the farm is too much for us based on our lifestyles,” says Steven. Both he and Paula work full-time jobs wholly unconnected to farming, elsewhere in Michigan. Land leasing is an option, at least up to a point: “Keeping [the original plot] and the farm by the house intact, and leasing out the other parcels to other people who want to farm it.” The key is maintaining ownership, even though there is no guarantee it will remain in the family after he and his sister are gone.
“If my sister and I gave this up, my kids, Paula’s kids, they might say, ‘OK, we could sell all this land and make some money.’ They don’t have the same ties here that we did. They loved coming down here in the summer — my sons still love coming down here in the summer. They come, and they enjoy themselves, but I haven’t heard them talk about coming back when they get older.”
Barbara Norman has hope, though, that her grandchildren will keep things going on the family land. “We always had family togetherness,” she says, “and it is trickle-down. We're not as mighty as that generation there” — she smiles and points at her great-uncle Leo — “but we got a lot of traits from them. It takes family togetherness.”
“I think I've been blessed,” Barbara says softly, looking around at her blueberry bushes. “Because all my life, I've been able to walk on the land that my family owns. I'll die right here.” ●