In early July, the webinar “Roots of the Soil: Land Succession Issues Among African-American Farm Families” highlighted the historical journey of African-American farmers and laid bare the stark truths and challenges faced by their farming community since the end of the Civil War.

“We’ve lost quite a bit of farmland due to practices where African Americans were excluded,” said presenter John Jamerson, the founder and project manager of Legacy Taste of the Garden and Legacy Farming & Health Group.

Hosted and sponsored collaboratively by several groups, the Legacy Innovation Farming Economics Project is sponsored by USDA’s Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers & Ranchers and the Veteran Farmers & Ranchers Program. These groups, partnered with the Purdue Institute for Family Business, made for a powerhouse of collective knowledge and presenters.

Featured presenters included Jamerson and his wife, Denise Greer-Jamerson, a fifth-generation farmer who was born and raised in Lyles Station, Indiana, an African-American farming community. She is operations director for Legacy Taste of the Garden LLC and is co-founder of Lyles Station Historic Preservation Corp. and Lyles Consolidated School Museum.

Her family farm, Greer Farms, is operated by her father, Norman Greer, who is recognized by the National Museum of African-American History and Culture as the last known African-American farmer farming land that has been in his family since before the Civil War.

Greer-Jamerson remarked during her introduction that she was taught by her father that “the land is the pathway to sustainable living; the land is everything.”

The third presenter in the webinar was Frank Taylor, a tree farmer in the unincorporated town of Greensboro, Mississippi, and president of Winston County Self-Help Cooperative Inc., a group of minority farmers and landowners who work diligently to combat past problems and social ills of land loss, insufficient farm income and lack of access to marketing opportunities.

Taylor’s life work embodies the theme “Saving Rural America” and he works to connect individuals with their natural resources and foster healthy and sustainable communities through partnering and generating hope for the next generation of landowners and farmers.

The webinar focused on the unique challenges faced by African-American farm families regarding the transfer of land from generation to generation as well as the subsequent land loss since emancipation and the reasons for that decline.

It has been well documented that African-American farmers have experienced a long history of state-sanctioned discrimination that has robbed them of millions of acres of farmland and billions of dollars in lost wealth. For years, the USDA systematically denied and delayed loans to Black farmers. As a result, the number of Black farmers fell from a peak of nearly 1 million in 1910 to fewer than 40,000 today.

The presentation continued, saying that “the record of racial discrimination in agriculture is not in dispute. A 1994 report commissioned by the USDA itself confirmed that the largest loans and disaster payments flowed to large white families. Black farmers sued the USDA, and though a settlement was reached, an investigation by the National Black Farmers Association and the Environmental Working Group showed that the USDA made matters worse by withholding funds.”

Statistics presented show that at their peak in 1910, African-American farmers made up around 14% of all U.S farmers, owning 16 million to 19 million acres of land, however by 2012, Black Americans represented just 1.6% of the farming community, owning 3.6 million acres of land.

The USDA itself has recognized this decline due to the “well-documented” history of discrimination of African-American farmers that spans discrepancies in the New Deal, at the USDA, and from the 1950s-era exclusions concerning legal, title and loan resources.

Due to these challenges, many African-American farmers left their farms in the 1950s in what became known as the “Northern Exodus,” as they moved from rural America for cities that promised better opportunities.

The resurgence of African-American farmers is being seen now after 100 years of decline.

This is due in large part to work done by the USDA 2501 Grant, and the LIFE Project, which works with the National Black Farmers Association, the Legacy Farming and Health Group, AgrAbility, Purdue Extension, NCOBRA, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Winston County Self Help Co-Op, and numerous local organizations like churches, non-profits and hospitals.

John Jamerson remarked specifically on the conferences held by the National Black Farmers Association and NRCS as strong resources, and said “we are moving in the right direction, but it will take all of us working together to make that happen.”

As the webinar continued, the presenters included personal perspectives concerning steps that landowner heirs can take to maintain property in their family, as well as the importance of keeping land versus the short-term financial gains from selling, and how to make the land work for the family.

Taylor’s group partners frequently with USDA departments of NRCS, Rural Development, and Risk Management when helping their clients with farm, business and succession planning.

“Individuals lose their property in various ways” said Taylor, “but in the state of Mississippi we found that often individuals lose their property by not paying their property taxes.”

Taylor says that oftentimes distant heirs that have migrated away from the farm properties might not know they have inherited land when an elderly relative passes away, and therefore the land taxes as well.

“Heir’s property is a huge issue here where we are in the Deep South in Mississippi” Taylor said. “Sixty-five percent of our landowners are involved in heir’s property.”

Heir property is where no one specific individual has an individual deed to the property, each heir left has an interest in the acreage.

Greer-Jameson clarifies that “land was handed down to generations in the African-American community in the fashion of heirs property because it was done with the mindset that it wasn’t for one person, that the whole family could benefit and get a leg up in the world.”

However, heir property can cause a number of issues with deeds, taxes and remote property management. .

Therefore, the Winston County Self Help Cooperative has developed a delinquent tax project, and each year they help individuals identify where they are in danger of losing their property and work through processes of keeping their property.

“We have some families that have been gone for three or four generations, and when the older person dies, the younger generation may not even know they have heir’s property or be familiar with the process of paying the taxes on the property. So when we get the tax rolls each year through the delinquent tax project, we start making calls to folks as far away as California and New York, letting them know about their property and the delinquent taxes.”

Taylor noted that “an important bill that will help address these problems,” called the Uniform Partition Heirs Property Act, just recently passed the Mississippi Senate and House, and was signed into law by the governor on June 30.

Taylor spoke further on practical advice, including the importance of keeping land over money, strategies and steps for landowners to protect their legacy, and resources available at the federal level and various non-profits that could be helpful to African-American families.

This was the first webinar in a series designed to explore farm succession planning with a special emphasis on the needs of socially disadvantaged farm families. Future programs will explore USDA, Extension and other resources that farm families can use to help develop a plan for successfully passing their farm business to future generations.

Shelby Watson-Hampton is a freelance writer covering Southern Maryland.

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