CHICAGO — The goal at Pembroke Township is to take the farming community from fallow to fruitful.
“Pembroke Township was once the largest Black farming community north of the Mason-Dixon Line,” said Jifunza Wright-Carter, co-founder and president of the Black Oaks Center.
“It’s estimated there were 20,000 acres cultivated by Black farming families around the turn of the century and that began to taper from the 1970s to 1990s,” Wright-Carter said during a presentation at the Agriculture Conference hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
“Our commitment is to do what we can to help maintain and restore that legacy,” said the speaker who is a descendant of a Mississippi sharecropping family.
“In 2011, we had a community meeting and the community declared it wanted to be an agricultural hub once more,” Wright-Carter said. “That started our journey on this road to identify barriers, address barriers and come up with solutions.”
Black Oaks Center is a nonprofit that has a mission to facilitate communities to be resilient. “One of the ways we could do that is with the Healthy Food Hub Wealth Creation Wheel,” she said. “This is a holistic systems approach where we can address both health and economic disparities in our community.”
The Pembroke Farmland Restoration has been nearly a 10-year process, she reported. “We learned a lot from the storytelling of elders to unlock the history, richness and stories of Pembroke and how fruitful it was,” she added.
“Not only were there infrastructures for direct markets created as far as the northwest suburbs in Maywood, but the Black farmers of Pembroke fed the region,” the speaker reported. “From these 20,000 acres, tons of food was flowing into Chicago and the surrounding area.”
History shows that fruit production was profuse in Pembroke Township, Wright-Carter said. “One thing that grew a lot was blueberries and a number of the land owners have done their farm training for business with the Food Finance Institute to develop their farm business plans,” she explained. “We have 10 farms and another 10 parcels for a total of 20 farms that have been enrolled this year and we will be aiming for 20 additional farms next year.”
There are three parcels in the land loss prevention program, she reported. “Two of the parcels are turning into blueberry patches. The third parcel was marsh-like so the plan is to grow upland rice on that parcel.
“We have found there are particular soils types where orchards and blueberry patches are 50 to 70 years old that have been unattended but are still fruiting. So we are looking for those soil types on our landowner farms and wherever we can, plan for diverse farming opportunities particularly with growing perennials.”
Regenerative farming was important to farmers in Pembroke Township, according to information gathered from talking with elders, Wright-Carter reported. “They did rotational grazing, cover crops and they rotated crops in a way that took the Black Oak Savanna to a fertile sandy loam. Our goal is to train the next generation of Black farmers in regenerative agriculture.”
There are a number of rare plants that grow in the Pembroke Township area, the speaker said, including mushrooms and sumac. “Sumac is an important spice in Mediterranean cuisine. We want to look at those markets as opportunities for our farmer to be able to make a good living.”
Black Oaks Center is working to retain and regain farmland for Black farmers. “In our 100-year plan, our vision is for 2,000 acres,” she said. “We feel that’s an attainable goal.”
Wright-Carter identified some barriers including equipment needs. “In terms of scale-up and being able to be profitable, oftentimes equipment is the greatest debt burden after land. We’ve been working on equipment shares and lease as well as purchase programs.”
The struggle to repay debts, the speaker said, has a lot to do with access to markets. “We are constrained to who we can sell our products to at what price. This is where a lot of work needs to be done because our small farms have a diverse range of products they can contribute to wholesale as well as direct markets.
“If we can shore up our farmers so their land cost is affordable, equipment is not a major debt and they have access to markets then they can retain more money,” Wright-Carter stated. “And then the ability for them to pay their loans back successfully is much greater.”