Post-COVID, Black Farmers Face Mounting Obstacles to Land Ownership
Tuesday, March 14, 2023
CLARIFICATION: Updated to add that some states have enacted regulations restricting the purchase of farmland by corporations; these laws vary in stringency and effectiveness. (March 20, 2023 3:45 p.m. MST)
The growing value of agricultural commodities is attracting deep-pocketed financial investors - like Bill Gates - and pushing land ownership out of reach for many, particularly beginning farmers and farmers of color.
Savi Horne, executive director of the North Carolina Association of Black lawyers' Land Loss Prevention Project, said since the start of the pandemic there has been more pressure for financial institutions and investors to acquire land, further driving up costs and complicating the struggle for racial equity in agriculture.
Horne contends the hefty price tag for good farmland is one of the biggest challenges. Average U.S. farmland prices increased 7% from June 2020 to June 2021, and 12% from June 2021 to June 2022, according to data from the USDA.
Horne's experience backs those figures up. "Most recently I heard from farmers who were looking two years back, in which they were saying that it was under $1,000 per acre, but now in that community, it's like about $3,000 to $5,000."
Costs are much higher in states like California, but "The financial industry is in the market for farmland" in a big way in the South, according to a deep dive into who's buying up agricultural land from the National Family Farm Coalition with a focus on the Mississippi Delta.
While some states have enacted regulations restricting the purchase of farmland by corporations, these laws vary in stringency and effectiveness. There are currently no federal laws specifically addressing the purchase of farmland by financial institutions, said Horne.
She makes the case that it is in the public's best interest to create a vibrant and diverse small farm sector, and suggests that the federal government could help by proactively purchasing farmland to level the playing field among farmers.
"Making land available, acquiring land and making it available - low cost to no cost to next-generation farmers if they're really serious about growing next-generation capacity to grow food and to participate in rural communities," Horne said.
She adds, Black farmers in particular face multiple land-loss threats, including the legacy of federal government discrimination in farm lending, and the lack of legal protections for the collective landownership form known as "heirs' property."
When a farm has been owned and/or shared by an extended family for multiple generations, the various heirs may lack clear title if formal probate was not processed completely with each successive owner's death. Those legal proceedings over generations of ownership can be expensive, complicated and time-consuming. If all the heirs can't prove legal ownership, there is a danger of losing the property.
Historically, this legal quandary occurs more frequently for Indigenous, Black and people of color communities whose families faced greater institutional challenges.
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