New Farm Bill could help Southern black farmers tap loans, keep land

Heirs property headaches a major cause of African American land loss
Farmer Sedrick Rowe talks farming at a 10-acre property he is leasing to own in Albany. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Farmer Sedrick Rowe talks farming at a 10-acre property he is leasing to own in Albany. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

There is no barn at Sedrick Rowe’s farm on the outskirts of Albany, only a modest storage shed. Vintage equipment lies idle nearby.

Rust, about the color of the soil where Rowe plants his organic peanuts and watermelon seeds, covers each piece of machinery. Weeds, green and persistent, grow up through the blades. The dated equipment isn’t decorative. It tills the soil and gets his seeds in the ground. He paid about $1,000 for the implements, sure he could make them work based on what he learned on his own family’s small farm near Bluffton, two counties away from Albany.

“My granddaddy grew up with one just like this,” Rowe said, touching an old cultivator.

As he surveyed the land in front of him, his deep brown face was shaded from the morning sun by a baseball cap. He is 28 and in the second year of farming a 10-acre plot that he is leasing to own. Rowe would have preferred to start his farm on the family land in Bluffton. But he has found himself tied up in a little recognized but pervasive problem called heirs property.

Heirs property is created when a person dies and leaves land to family members, but with no paperwork or will to make the transfer official or to designate which family member should hold clear title. When descendants have differing opinions on how the land should be used or whether it should be sold, the uncertainty and chaos can have dire consequences and families can lose their land. It’s a problem that often goes back generations.

The recently enacted federal Farm Bill finally addresses the issue. The legislation makes it easier for heirs property owners to be eligible for USDA loans, a financial lifeline for many farmers. It also creates a $50 million fund to help those with heirs property farms or ranches to get legal assistance to resolve their land title issues.

While the changes only affect farmers and ranchers with heirs property, they have special importance for African Americans like Rowe. Over the last century, heirs property has been a leading cause of African American land loss and the decline in the number of black farmers across the U.S.

Vintage farm equipment sits at Sedrick Rowe’s farm in Albany. Rowe was getting ready in late April to plant peanuts and watermelon on a 10-acre plot of land. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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“Your property is up in the air and you don’t have the title to do something with it,” said Rowe, who is also the greenhouse manager at Fort Valley State University. “The new rules, it will force people to pay attention to what’s left behind.”

It will take months, though, for the United States Department of Agriculture to draft, vet and approve new procedures including an application process. That means farmers such as Rowe will find no easy relief this growing season.

“A way to level the playing field”

From Hawaii to South Carolina, from Montana to Texas, heirs property crosses racial lines, though it tends to plague those with low incomes.

After Hurricane Katrina, heirs property owners in New Orleans struggled to obtain disaster funds or collect on insurance. Without proof of clear title to their homes, their eligibility for FEMA assistance in rebuilding was hampered. A number of black families in Atlanta’s Vine City and west side face similar obstacles because their modest homes were handed down through the generations by verbal agreement only. The lots those houses sit on now interest developers looking to build more expensive housing.

But while heirs property plagues cities, its rural roots run deeper. The popular narrative of African Americans and land revolves around sharecropping and tenant farming, yet those aren’t the only stories. From the outset of Reconstruction well into the 1920s, African Americans purchased at least 15 million acres across the South. Land ownership gave thousands of black farmers and their families a measure of independence and the potential to build generational wealth. Rather than bequeath the land to one person, owners often left it as a resource and refuge for descendants, scholars say.

As legal segregation, predatory lending and land theft by competing white farmers forced millions of black people to move North, the rising tide of Southern black farmers ebbed. Many who remained in the South lost land as well. In some cases they sold it. In others, they may have failed to pay the annual taxes because no one farmed it or lived on it anymore and their property was sold at auction.

The USDA also played a major role in black land loss and the demise of black farmers. It is paying roughly $2.25 billion to thousands of black farmers who were part of the landmark 1999 Pigford v. Glickman class action lawsuit and 2010 Pigford II settlement. A federal court found the agency had for decades enforced a pattern of racial discrimination against black farmers in lending, subsidies and access to programs.

Organic Farmer Sedrick Rowe rides his tractor at his 10-acre organic farm in Albany. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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African Americans now own just under 2.9 million acres of farmland, mostly in the South, according to the 2017 USDA Agricultural Census released in April. In Georgia, of the 9.9 million acres of farmland, African Americans hold just over 218,000 acres. The census doesn’t give an heirs property estimate.

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund, which helped write the Farm Bill’s heirs property provision, estimates that 60% of black-owned farmland is in the precarious status. That estimate is based on five decades of its case work and limited studies by smaller, community-based organizations that assist black farmers.

“We see this as a way to level the playing field for farmers who historically have already been discriminated against,” said Monica Rainge, the group’s director of land retention. “It might not have benefited granddaddy who couldn’t get the loan, but it can benefit his great-great grandchild who’s out there on that land today still trying to farm it.”

“Not a lot of movement”

After surveying his fields in Albany and lamenting the lack of rain, Rowe drove the 50 miles to visit his aunts who still live on the family’s 30-acre farm in Clay County.

“When I was growing up, my aunties would send us out here to pick peanuts, then we’d sit out up under these trees over here,” said Rowe, pointing to a cluster of oaks shading his aunts’ small houses. “Every weekend I came down here. This is home.”

His mother, his grandparents and great grandparents worked the land, first for a white family that owned hundreds of the surrounding acres. That family left his grandmother a 30-acre plot as a thank you for caring for their elderly family members, Rowe said. When his grandmother died, she left the land to her eight children and a nephew she raised as a son, with no single family member owning clear title to the land, according to Rowe. Some of Rowe’s aunts live on about an acre of the parcel. The rest is rented to a peanut farmer.

The home where Sedrick Rowe’s mother and her sisters were born in Bluffton. Rowe, who grew up in Albany, would often visit his family’s 30-acre farm in Bluffton as a child. The farmland is heirs property, meaning that it was left to his extended family instead of one owner. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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Before Congress passed the new farm bill in December, families such as Rowe’s found it next to impossible to get USDA loans. Rainge and other land retention advocates, including the Rural Coalition in Washington, D.C., helped write the bill’s heirs provisions and lobbied the Congressional Black Caucus to push it through.

The new rules allow families with heirs property to use several types of documentation to qualify for USDA programs by issuing them a farm number, a key designation they couldn’t get before. Now, no one person has to have clear title to the land for a family farm to qualify, but it does require the farm or ranch to be active at the time of application.

The bill also authorizes the creation of a loan fund to help families pay for the legal fees incurred clearing up land title issues or developing succession plans. But Congress hasn’t approved the $50 million earmarked for the fund, which would be issued in $10 million increments over five years, said Lorette Picciano, executive director of The Rural Coalition.

“There is not a lot of movement yet,” Picciano said. “Once the money is appropriated we have to figure out who wants to run a loan program.”

A spokesperson for the USDA’s Farm Service Agency told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution it could be at least several months before new programs for property owners are drafted and rolled out.

$2 billion of Georgia land flagged in study

Georgia Appleseed, an advocacy group that works with under-represented communities, published a 2013 analysis in an attempt to quantify the state’s heirs property by screening tax records. Appleseed examined five counties in Southwest Georgia—including Dougherty where Rowe now farms and Clay where his aunts live—as well as five east or central counties, including Athens-Clarke, Bibb and McIntosh.

Out of the 900,000 acres of land in the southwest cluster, about 34,500 acres were identified as heirs property valued at $766 million. The east-central counties had 38,000 acres of heirs property out of a total of 800,000 acres. Those parcels were assessed at $1.4 billion by Georgia Appleseed because land values were higher.

Georgia has tried to make it easier for heirs property owners to keep their land. In 2013, the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act went into effect, offering some protections. Among them, a family member who is a qualified buyer can have first right of refusal if other members want to sell the land. Eleven states and the U.S. Virgin Islands have passed the partition act, originally written by Thomas Mitchell, a Texas A&M University law professor and heirs property expert.

“By enabling these heirs property owners to be eligible for this range of USDA programs, all of a sudden you’re taking these disadvantaged farmers and ranchers and enabling them to potentially thrive, not just to hang on, but to actually be able to use their farm operation to build wealth,” said Mitchell.

Organic farmer Sedrick Rowe (left) hugs his aunt Joyce Harris before saying goodbye at her residence in Bluffton. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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“It’s your turn”

Even if Rowe decided to abandon his Albany farm and restart in Bluffton, he’d still have to get the signatures of his aunts and his adult cousins to be eligible for assistance under the new federal law. And his aunts would have to back out of the leasing agreement with the current farmer, something they are reluctant to do.

“It’s so inspiring that he’s getting into farming and in the long run, we hope he can be out here and have just as many tractors as the people now working on the place,” said Rowe’s aunt, Joyce Gibson Harris, sitting in her living room across from Rowe. “But it wouldn’t be right to just pull the lease from out from under (the current farmer) and here Sedrick is just getting started. So, after he gets established, then maybe all of us could get together and say, ‘Okay. Now Sed, it’s your turn.’”

In the meantime, Rowe hopes to own his 10 acres in Albany next year. He’s on track to get USDA organic certification for his crops. One day, he’d like to own 10,000 acres of land. Whether his family’s parcel will be part of that dream is no guarantee, but the new legislation could make it more likely.

“Land is power,” Rowe said. “When you got land in your family…”

Before he could finish his sentence Harris jumped in: “You got something to lean on.”

Why it matters: The federal government has acknowledged practices that unfairly discriminated against African American farmers for decades, causing a huge loss of family farms. Of those that survived, many faced additional hurdles if they did not have clear land titles. The most recent Farm Bill aims to fix the problem, known as heirs property, with an infusion of tax dollars to help clear titles and facilitate federal loans. The change is potentially huge for remaining African American farmers, more than half of whom have heirs property, according to one estimate.