Since the end of Reconstruction, following the Civil War, many black farmers have felt the twin pressures of hardship and neglect, reinforced by systematic discrimination from government agencies and financial institutions. The Center for American Progress, a left-leaning policy institute, issued a recent report advocating for policy changes to correct those inequities, many of which it says remain today.
“We need to make sure that the policies that we’re putting forward are actually addressing the legacy of structural racism and that we support black farmers,” said Abril Castro, who co-authored the report, “Progressive Governance Can Turn the Tide for Black Farmers,” with Zoe Willingham.
In 2017, 1.4 percent of U.S. farmers were African American, according to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture. In 1910, this number was about 14 percent. As the number of black farmers declined, so did the size of their farms. In total, black farmers lost 80 percent of their land from 1910 to 2007, according to a 2013 article in the Professional Agricultural Workers Journal.
Because of discriminatory practices by the USDA and private lending institutions, black farmers did not have equal access to the credit or crop insurance they needed to expand or even sustain their farms. As the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded in a 1982 report, this pattern of discrimination decimated black-owned farms, dealing a serious blow to rural black communities.
From 1920 to 1978, black farmers lost more than 36 million acres of farmland, the CAP report states. Today, rural black communities suffer from a poverty rate twice that of white communities — a disparity borne out in farm income as well. In 2017, the average full-time white farmer earned $17,190, compared with $2,408 for the average black farmer.
To address these disparities, the report said Congress should establish a public land trust for beginning farmers of color. It should also enact laws to protect heirs’ property, or land passed down to family members without formal title. These properties have been subject to forced sales. The report also advocated expanding technical assistance and outreach to black farmers as well as strict and sustained oversight of the USDA.
“If we want to make sure that our USDA policies are inclusive of all people,” said Castro, these measures are needed. “Rebuilding black-operated land requires that the USDA make an affirmative commitment to supporting black farmers.”
A recent example of legal redress was the enactment of The Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act by 11 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands, says Thomas W. Mitchell, a professor at the Texas A&M University School of Law, who was instrumental in writing the law.
“Where it has been enacted into law, the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act represents a game changer for heirs’ property owners — many though not all are African-American,” Mitchell said. “As a result, this historic property law reform is helping these families to stabilize their legally insecure ownership and to protect their real estate wealth, for their benefit and sometimes for the benefit of whole communities.”
Heirs’ property, or inherited land without legal title, is one reason black farms have declined so precipitously. If one heir decides to sell their share of ownership, no matter how small, the buyer, who may be a real estate developer, has the right to force a sale of the entire property in the courts, according to Tish Lynn, director of communications for the Center for Heirs Property Preservation, in Charleston, South Carolina.
FERN did an in-depth story on the heirs’ property issue in 2017, focusing on a parcel of land in Hilton Head, South Carolina, that an extended family was trying to protect. In addition to the legal reforms, the 2018 farm bill included new provisions that allow for heirs’ property owners to apply for farm programs. Once landowners prove ownership, they can access a farm number, a critical step toward receiving USDA support and loans. The bill also lays out certain conditions under which families can call on the USDA to help resolve family disputes concerning land ownership.
The Center for Heirs Property Preservation serves residents in 15 counties from the coast of South Carolina inland. It also provides forestland management education and services to heirs’ property owners. “Timber is a $21 billion industry in South Carolina,” Lynn says. “This combination of protecting land and providing an option to make that land a wealth-building asset for these families has been life changing.”
Edwin B. Lake is a freelance reporter based in Bowie, Maryland. He frequently writes about business.