Black entrepreneurs look to change Missouri’s farming landscape through urban agriculture

Missouri ranks 11th in the nation for agricultural production, but less than 2% of Missouri farmers are Black, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Some Missouri entrepreneurs are looking to change that with small-scale urban agriculture.

In St. Louis, Tyrean “Heru” Lewis grows vegetables, fruits, herbs and much more at Heru Urban Farming. He has found a way to connect with his community through food production.

“Heru means ‘liberator king,’ so I came with that name because I want to liberate my people through food,” Lewis said. “For the first three years over here, no one said nothing to me. I started growing food, and people started talking to each other.”

Tyrean “Heru” Lewis | Courtesy of Lewis

After establishing himself and his farm in the community, Lewis started seeing the interaction and community he sought for.

“I had neighbors even come up to me saying, ‘Man, you see the community really coming together because of you,’” Lewis said.

Lewis practices Community Supported Agriculture and will offer subscription boxes providing fresh food to customers on a weekly basis starting this spring. But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. He had some trouble securing funding for his farm at first, especially because of the complexity of federal loan programs.

“I might eventually have to go to loans, but I don’t want to,” Lewis said. “I don’t want to owe nobody no money, and I don’t like interest. You know, that’s a backwards game to me.”

In January, Lewis was awarded a grant of $50,000 from the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ Diversity Equity and Inclusion Accelerator program in order to help continue supplying produce for families in food deserts. Despite his own success in getting funding, he knows it can be a confusing process.

“The point is, is somebody gonna tell you where to find it? That’s the key, right? Especially if you look like me,” Lewis said. “They ain’t gonna tell you everything. You got to go first and search for it.”

Hear more: The Speaking Startup podcast digs into urban agriculture

Searching for funding is not just a modern problem. Valerie Grim, a professor of African American studies at Indiana University, said that, historically, Black farmers have struggled to gain access to government programs and funds.

“The barriers that Black farmers face today are the same ones that they faced in the 1860s and 1870s,” Grim said.

Both then and now, farmers’ access to funding is crucial to their success in the field.

“What it takes to farm, first of all, is capital and credit,” Grim said. “You need a line of credit at a bank that probably would allow you to buy farm equipment. You need the loans from the USDA so that you can buy seeds, chemical herbicides, whatever you need in order to get a crop in the ground.”

This proves difficult for many aspiring Black farmers. Grim said that some of the qualifications to get funding can be exclusionary.

Although Lewis recently secured funding for his operation, he said he sees other disadvantages Black farmers face.

“Is it a level playing field? Maybe not, but it’s trying to get there,” Lewis said. “So I hope that that movement, that push keeps going, and we can see some type of level playing field here with Black growers and our counterparts.”

Like Lewis, Marion Pierson is trying to help cultivate an urban farming community in Missouri.

Across the state in Kansas City, Pierson runs her own urban apiary, called Mo Hives KC, which raises bees and sustainably harvests honey on six vacant lots. She founded the organization in 2019 by applying for a nonprofit status for beekeeping and broke ground in 2020.

MO Hives KC raises bees and harvests honey on a number of vacant lots in Kansas City. | Courtesy of Marion Pierson

“I’m incredibly proud,” Pierson said. “I’ve never started a nonprofit. I’ve certainly been a part of nonprofits before, but I’ve never started one. And it was super scary.”

Despite not having vast acreage to work with, Pierson was able to find land for her apiary in the city.

“What can I do in my tiny space in the world? I don’t own rural property, I don’t own a large tract of land,” Pierson said. “I’m in the middle of a city, like lots of urban residents find themselves, but wanting to do something environmentally, that’s important.”

To Pierson, who works the apiary with about two dozen volunteers, the project represents a lot more than just urban agriculture.

“What I do represent for people of color, especially Black people and Black women, is a person who decided, ‘I’m going to do something, and I’m going to learn something, and I’m going to bring other people with me,’” Pierson said. “And that visibility invites other people, even when I’m not explicitly inviting them.”

Pierson said she hopes that her participation in urban agriculture opens the door for others to try it out.

“People are recognizing ‘Well, what do I have historical strength in?’” Pierson said. “And luckily, people are recognizing that that agricultural history that they have, that familial and foundational knowledge that they have, really can be employed, even in an urban setting.”

For Lewis, taking part in agriculture is fueled by history. It’s not just a current job — it’s a connection to his past.

“I always call on my ancestors, too — I include them in my work,” Lewis said. “So, for example, my ancestors was farmers. So any time I put into my farming, I’m paying homage to them.”

Lewis recently discovered he is a fourth-generation farmer. His great-uncle helped establish a co-op of Black farmers in Texas in the 1930s. Although it hasn’t been easy, Lewis is motivated to expand his farm and inspire others to do the same.

“I really believe, you know, it’s gonna be a life-changing thing,” Lewis said.

Whether harvesting honeycomb or pulling peppers, both Pierson and Lewis hope to inspire others with their agricultural work. And that starts with having a farmer that looks like them.

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