The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/LAF Leads Research and Advocacy to Address Heirs Property and Eligibility to Participate in USDA Programs
East Point, GA - Land is one of the greatest and most valuable assets African American farmers possess. Black farmland ownership, which peaked in 1910 at 16 to 19 million acres, has decreased to less than 3 million acres today. The causes of under-utilization and loss of rural black land are numerous and complex, but none is more notable than heirs property.  Heirs Property is created when a landowner dies without a will, or other form of estate planning, for the transfer of ownership of land to another prior to death. Subsequently, heirs property owners do not have clear title to the land they own. Today, it is estimated that over 60% of all black owned land is heirs property.

For over 50 years, the Federation has provided education and technical assistance to thousands of heirs property owners across the South. The Federation’s overall mission has been to reverse the trend of black land loss and to encourage land based economic development. In support of this mission, the Federation established its Regional Heirs Property and Mediation Center  in 2017 to coordinate a collaborative network of partnerships and resources to address the systemic problems associated with heirs property throughout the Black Belt region. These partnerships are providing rich opportunities for research and advocacy on heirs property issues.

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives, in collaboration with the Alcorn State University Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Policy Research Center recently completed a research study entitled, “Land Loss Trends Among Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers in the Black Belt Region.” The primary goal of this study was to better describe the impact of heirs property on Black farm and land loss and recommend policies that could decelerate that loss and improve access to USDA programs for heirs property owners.

A key policy recommendation from the study was that the USDA’s program eligibility standard should be control or possession of land. Further, the study recommends that USDA should expand the forms of documentation that may be accepted in each state as evidence of control of the land, and require FSA and NRCS in each state to accept the same documentation, including but not limited to 5 years of tax returns or agricultural receipts and self-certification of control of the land to operate a farm or ranch for the purpose of securing a farm number and qualifying for USDA programs and services.

 “One of the key issues for heirs property owners is the lack of access to many USDA programs.   These program resources could help heirs property owners develop their land in a way that provides some economic independence and creates inter-generational wealth,” said Monica Armster Rainge, Director of Land Retention and Advocacy at the Federation. 

The Federation's Regional Heirs Property and Mediation Center is focused on providing direct assistance to heirs property owners, while advocating to ensure that there are state and federal policies which enhance their ability to secure their land tenure. The Federation, along with its key partners, Arkansas Land & Farm Development Corporation, Land Loss Prevention Project, Oklahoma Black Historical Research Project, Rural Coalition and National Family Farm Coalition has advocated that USDA should expand its eligibility requirements to allow heirs property owners to be eligible for more USDA programs. Our successful advocacy has sowed seeds of progress as we expect to see heirs property legislation introduced soon in the 2018 Farm Bill.

U.S. Senator Doug Jones of Alabama and U.S. Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio are leading efforts to introduce legislation which will address heirs property challenges. The proposed bill, “The Assist Farmers and Ranchers Operating on Heirs Property to Participate in USDA Programs Act” would provide statutory authority in the 2018 Farm Bill to allow producers farming on land that is held by undivided interests without administrative authority to secure access to USDA programs. 

The proposed legislation would also assists heirs property owners by:
1. Providing authority in the Credit Title for FSA to make loans available through qualified intermediaries to establish a revolving loan funds to work with heirs to allow owners to resolve heirs property ownership on farmland that has multiple owners; and  
2. Providing authority to the Secretary to collect data and perform analysis on trends in farmland ownership and operation, transitions of farmers and ranchers to new generation of owners and operators, and also to help understand the impact of unresolved land tenure issue on the ability of producers to operate farms and pass them on to new generations of owners.

“This legislation will represent another milestone in the Federation’s advocacy work on heirs property issues. It was very important for us to lead this effort. The success of our state and federal advocacy is a testament to the many years of work as a grassroots and cooperatively owned organization and our many partnerships,” said Cornelius Blanding, Executive Director of the Federation.

The U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee has passed its version of the 2018 Farm Bill by a vote of 20-1. Senator Jones is expected to introduce the heirs property amendment when the bill is up for a vote on the floor prior to the Senate’s July 4 recess.

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund

The Federation/Land Assistance Fund, now in its 50 th year, assist limited resource farmers, landowners, and cooperatives across the South with business planning, debt restructuring, marketing expertise, and a whole range of other services to ensure the retention of black owned land and cooperatives as a tool for social and economic justice.