Farm bill aids black farmers and heirs’ property owners

The farm bill contains crucial improvements for black farmers and increased funding for historically black land-grant universities, members of the Congressional Black Caucus said on a media call Monday. The bill also includes provisions for heirs’ property owners — land passed down without formal title — that allows these landowners to apply for farm programs.

“What we were able to accomplish in this year’s farm bill is just the latest example of what the CBC does,” said Louisiana Rep. and CBC chairman Cedric L. Richmond. “We use the legislative process to right historic wrongs and to give a voice to the [traditionally] voiceless.”

The bill includes $40 million in mandatory funding and another $40 million in discretionary funding to expand scholarships to 19 historically black land-grant universities. It also includes funding to establish new research centers at three of those universities that will focus on food insecurity.

“We know that farmers are aging out and trying to get young people interested in the field,” said North Carolina Rep. Alma Adams. “Our hope is that the research coming out of these institutions will result in less food deserts around the country,” said Rep. Richmond.

The bill also includes landmark provisions to aid heirs’ property owners in accessing programs and loans through the Department of Agriculture. FERN covered the possible provisions when they were introduced in July by Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio.

The final bill makes it easier for heirs’ property owners to prove ownership without having clear title to the land, a difficult benchmark when the land can be co-owned by several or dozens of heirs. Once landowners prove ownership, they can access a farm number, a critical step towards receiving USDA support and loans. The bill also lays out certain conditions in which families can call on USDA to help resolve family disputes around land ownership.

Heirs’ property is common among lower-income families of all races, but in the Southeast, unclear land ownership has had a particularly devastating impact on black farming families. In a 2017 investigation, FERN showed how heirs’ property ownership exposes families to the risk of having their land acquired, and details how black farming families have lost generational wealth as a result.

Members of the CBC discussed their efforts to retain provisions for low-income people and disadvantaged farmers in the farm bill, despite heated and partisan debate.

“We have been the strongest fighters for protecting the food stamp program—not a handout but an opportunity for people to live a decent and healthy life,” said Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. And when it came to provisions to support black farmers in the bill, “it was the CBC that not only led but insisted when others wanted to compromise or to yield a much more meager response.”

The farm bill has been passed by both the House and Senate and awaits President Trump’s signature.