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Black Family Land Trust: Working to Preserve African American Resources through Land Ownership
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Black Family Land Trust
The Black Family Land Trust (BFLT), which began development at a meeting in Salter Path, NC in September 2002, is combining the tools of traditional conservation land trusts, community economic development organizations, and black land retention advocacy groups to slow the dramatic rate of loss of African American land around the Southeast. The mission of the organization is to ensure, protect, and preserve the natural, historic, environmental and community resources of African Americans through land ownership. The BFLT was incorporated in North Carolina in February 2004 and is currently awaiting 501(c)(3) approval from the Internal Revenue Service.

Founding board members of the BFLT work with organizations including the Concerned Citizens of Tillery, Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, Land Loss Prevention Project, Federation of Southern Cooperatives, National Network of Forest Practitioners, Muhammad Farms, South Carolina Association of Community Development Corporations, the
Conservation Fund, the Vermont Land Trust, and American Farmland Trust.

Initially, the BFLT is focusing its efforts on Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, due to the concentration of African American lands in those areas and the existence of strong partner organizations in each state. The board has emphasized the importance of strengthening the capacity of existing partner organizations to be more effective in saving black-owned land. The models of local self-determination and community empowerment have been central to the development of the BFLT.

A Feasibility Study Group (FSG) has visited nine sites to test the applicability of the BFLT vision to local communities. Working closely with a local host and potential partnering organization, the FSG spent several days in each community, learning more about the causes of black land loss, barriers to land profitability and retention, and sharing some potential tools that the BFLT might be able to offer. The BFLT is committed to thinking creatively about traditional land conservation tools, expanding the range of options available to landowners and providing maximum flexibility for future land use.

Causes of Black Land Loss
Land ownership by African Americans peaked in 1910 at 16-19 million acres, according to the Census of Agriculture. By 2002, this figure had fallen to 1.6 million acres, a 90 percent decrease. Of equal concern is the shrinking number of black farmers. In 1920, there were 926,000 black farmers in the U.S. In the 2002 Census, only 29,000 remained operating farms. Since less than one third of African American land is currently tended by the owner, a large portion of remaining black owned land is tended by whites, threatening the ability to develop the management capacity of potential future generations of black farmers.

African American farms are typically smaller and located on poor soils in economically depressed areas. Thus, they face many of the same challenges as small farms of all races, but often without the proximity and social ties to high income urban consumers that are currently offering promise to white farmers examining direct market, value-added opportunities.

African American farmers face the following barriers to taking advantage of traditional long-term land protection tools, such as the Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements (PACE):

  1. Uncertainty about the future. A rapidly changing economic landscape across much of southeastern agriculture makes a permanent commitment on land use a frightening prospect. Many black farms are located in economically depressed communities with little land use planning, and many landowners are unable to be confident that there will be a viable agricultural future on the land. They see the potential sale of this land as their only realistic source of retirement and educational funding.
  2. Lack of matching funding. Southeastern states, where most black farms are located, are coming very slowly to providing state funding for PACE. Kentucky has been the only state in the region with any significant source of matching funds, though South Carolina just began providing funds through their Conservation Bank, and several counties are beginning to create PACE programs. This will be likely be a gradual process, however, with the current budget situations.
  3. Hesitance to sign contracts with whites regarding land use. The past century contains many documented and anecdotal incidents of land transaction "opportunities' which sounded good at the time, but resulted in future generations losing their land. The primary experience of many African Americans with conservation has been with habitat-focused efforts which have excluded or even displaced Black residents and landowners. Conservation easements are a relatively new (and frequently misunderstood) practice for most rural landowners of any race, and there aren't many local examples for individuals to see how they work.
  4. Historical mistrust of the USDA. Fresh in the minds of many African American landowners is a perception of past discriminatory lending and programmatic practices from federal agencies, including USDA, regardless of how limited this may have been to isolated areas and individuals. Though positive changes have been made, the satisfactory resolution of the Pigford class action case is absolutely essential to improving perceptions in the black landowner community. At this point, there is enormous dissatisfaction with the progress of this case amongst many black farmers.
  5. Heir property and fractionated title. After several generations, the African American tradition of dividing ownership equally and passing down land without a will, has resulted in highly fractionated land ownership. This makes the land subject to partition sale and loss outside the family and is a real and constant threat to African American land ownership. In addition, it makes long-term decision-making and investment in the land extremely difficult. Participation in public easement programs is impossible without clear and consolidated title to the land. African American land loss prevention groups are faced with a huge challenge helping families work through heirs property problems and consolidate title to their land. The Heirs Property Preservation Project of the South Carolina Center for Equal Justice has a clear and concise brochure explaining this issue for newcomers and landowners. In cooperation with Southern University Law Center, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Retention Project has produced a series of educational brochures and landowner manuals for Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and South Carolina. Several states are considering revision of their heirs property laws to reduce the barriers to continued family ownership.

In addition to the challenges faced by all landowners seeking to maintain agricultural use of their land, African Americans face a unique set of historical and cultural barriers to continuing their proud rural heritage. People involved in the conservation of working lands and concerned about these issues can increase their effectiveness by learning more about these issues, providing financial support to the BFLT and its member organizations, and expanding their outreach efforts to address the needs of African American landowner communities in their local areas.

For more information, contact Bob Wagner of American Farmland Trust at 800-370-4879.

American Farmland Trust