For almost a century, the number of Black farmers and Black-owned land has steadily declined. A driving force behind that decline has been the issue of heirs’ property, a complex issue that involves land passed from generation to generation without standardized legal paperwork, often the result of an ancestor who died without a will. More than 60 percent of Black farmers currently operate on heirs’ property.
John Deere, the tractor and machinery company with deep roots in American agriculture, announced in September that it was creating a minority coalition to address priority legislation, expand educational and advocacy opportunities, and ensure access to tools and technology that farmers need to successfully navigate advanced production systems. One of the areas of focus was heirs’ property, and teaming up with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (the oldest and most respected black farmer organization) would be key to advocacy advancement.
In an announcement this week, Deere solidified that partnership, assisting the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund in its efforts to address heirs’ property and leverage expertise and resources around their Regional Heirs’ Property & Mediation Center. The federation assists 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 land ownership and cooperatives as a tool for social and economic justice.
The federation has “been working in this space for well over 50 years, and they are the premier organization with a demonstrated track record of success on saving and protecting and expanding Black family land ownership,” said Marc Howze, Group President, Lifecycle Solutions and Chief Administrative Officer for John Deere.
One of the goals of the partnership will be to provide more legal resources to help farmers gain clear title to their land. John Deere will provide key investments in the federation’s Legal Internship Program and National Heirs’ Property Conference over the next five years.
“Fundamentally, a farm is the No. 1 asset a farmer has. And here you have what’s been estimated as 60 percent of Black farmers who have farms that they don’t have clear title on. They can’t leverage that land for loans, they can’t use it as collateral, they’re not eligible for some federal assistance,” Howze said. “We asked ourselves, ‘How do we provide more value to customers and unlock value that’s there?’”
This builds upon the LEAP (Legislation, Education, Advocacy, and Production Systems) minority coalition that Deere created in September and involves organizations such as the National Black Growers Council, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, and Minorities in Ag, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANNRS).
“Our commitment signals the beginning of a broader partnership that will unlock the productivity and economic value harnessed in land ownership,” said John C. May, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer for John Deere.
Access to trusted legal assistance is often the greatest challenge heirs’ property owners face. There is a shortage of trusted attorneys who specialize in handling heirs’ property cases. The federation has successfully worked with Southern University Law Center and other historically Black law schools to create a pipeline of attorneys who fill this gap. Over the last 53 years, the federation has provided fertile soil to grow land retention professionals and attorneys. The federation’s Legal Internship Program has been a successful model to expose law students to heirs’ property issues and prepare them to go into rural communities and provide the legal assistance needed to save Black-owned land.
Monica Armster Rainge, the federation’s Director of Land Retention and Advocacy and an agricultural lawyer, started as a legal intern at the federation of Southern Cooperatives in 1996.
“Law Schools rarely focus on the unique legal issues heirs’ property owners face, so my internship experience with the federation was an eye-opener. I did not know that this was a career choice with so much opportunity to make a real difference in my community,” she said.
Over the years, the federation has been a training incubator for many of today’s national experts in Black land retention. “We are preparing the next generation of Black lawyers and professionals to meet the growing legal needs in our communities. I am honored to pay my experience forward,” said Rainge.
The federation’s Legal Internship Program provides law students with a 12-week internship opportunity to assist licensed attorneys with land tenure and heirs’ property issues across the Southeastern United States where heirs’ property is most prevalent. Summer legal interns work under the supervision of a staff attorney in researching and clearing property titles, conducting family meetings and conferences, participating in land retention workshops, researching law and updating legal guides and brochures, drafting legal documents including wills, and organizing Community Wills Clinics.
In addition to supporting the Legal Internship Program, Deere’s commitment will include a major sponsorship of the Federation’s National Heirs’ Property Conference over the next five years. The National Heirs’ Property Conference known as “FORWARD” is the federation’s largest heirs’ property event of the year. The conference is intentionally designed to empower heirs’ property owners with the strategies and resources they need to clear their title and make their land a wealth-building asset. FORWARD is the nation’s largest gathering of heirs’ property owners and passionate land retention practitioners from across the US. The 2nd Annual National Heirs’ Property Conference was a virtual held in December. This year’s conference will be held Dec. 1 to 3.