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Here's why this Black farmer chose Galesburg as the place to sink his roots

Dana Cronin
Illinois Public Media

Demarkius Medley, 37 lives in Galesburg with his wife and four children, hoping to succeed as an African American farmer despite growing up in the inner city with virtually no experience in the field. Medley moved to Knox County from Chicago some 20 years ago, but didn’t get the farming bug until 2011, while recovering from back surgery.

Off work and wanting to stay active, he volunteered to work in a community garden before joining a Knox College trip to Milwaukee to observe Will Allen’s Growing Power program, at the time one of the nation’s most successful urban farms. The latter included an aquaponics program, which involves raising fish and plants without soil. Plants are fed the aquatic animals’ waste while the vegetables clean the water that goes back to the fish.

“I thought this was amazing — setting up a farm in the middle of the ‘hood,” said Medley, who returned to Galesburg with aspirations of setting up his own farm operation. In 2017, he started a small farm with his brother. That included the purchase of a four-acre plot in Galesburg to facilitate the aquaponics project.

Medley soon got a crash course in zoning laws and building permits.

“I needed a site plan and drawings and I wasn’t getting a lot of help from the city or health department,” he said.

While experimenting with aquaponics, Medley decided to try his hand at raising industrial hemp, a crop that would allow him to continue working a day job. But farming, he would find out, is not without its challenges. He recalled an incident in 2019 when he was tending to his small crop early in the morning, while it was still dark.

“I was out in the field before I had to go to work with my car’s headlights shining on the plants. The police arrived and told me they got a call that someone was trespassing,” recalled Medley. “They asked if I had any way to prove I was the owner.

“Then about five other police cars pull up. The officers are all around me. My heart’s racing now. The police start walking around in the field with flashlights. I don’t know what’s going on,” he said. Ultimately, he produced a license and problems were avoided.

“I got a big response online to my ‘farming while Black’ post but I wasn’t trying to bash the police. I think it was all a mistake,” he said. “We’ve got it all worked out now.”

In fact, a photo of Medley and his family recently graced the cover of the latest issue of the Galesburg visitors’ guide.

One Galesburg official who’s been in Medley’s corner from the start is Mayor Peter Schwartzman, the Knox College professor who organized that initial trip to the Milwaukee urban farm.

“We go back pretty far,” said Schwartzman of his relationship with Medley, acknowledging that while minority farmers are a scarce presence in Galesburg and around the state, urban farms may represent a new pathway for those desiring to work the soil.

“I’ve seen a number of urban farm projects around the country,” said Schwartzman, citing Detroit as an example of a city where residents, many of them African Americans, are reclaiming city land for farming.

Schwartzman ticked off a half-dozen potential crops for the urban farmer such as microgreens, fruit trees, compost, vermiculture (worm castings sometimes referred to as black gold), herbs, wheatgrass and chickens. Galesburg recently created an urban agriculture pilot program for residents, he said.

Galesburg’s mayor credited Medley for his fortitude.

“He has that focus. Demarkius is a good example of someone who’s worked through the system and laid a pathway for others," he said.

Medley hopes to set an example for other minority farmers in the state. In Illinois, the department’s 2017 Ag Census recorded only 188 African American farmers, compared to 890 Black producers that were active in the state 100 years earlier.

Steve Tarter retired from the Peoria Journal Star in 2019 after spending 20 years at the paper as both reporter and business editor.