Getting busy to resolve land issues

A provision of the 2018 Farm Bill is important in providing “fair access” to U.S. Department of Agriculture programs.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., worked with Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., to help “heirs’ property” owners – thousands of minority and other landowners whose family land has been passed through the generations often without a formal title – utilize USDA services to which they have not had access without proper documentation certifying their possession of the land.

Thousands of African-American and other landowners have died without leaving a will, creating “heirs’ property.” Their descendants, each with a fraction of the undivided interest in the land, all lack a clear title to use or improve the land.

This past week, the two senators called on the USDA to get busy with implementation. They sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue focusing on a provision that would allow heirs’ property owners to obtain USDA farm numbers and gain fair access to the department’s programs.

“Heirs’ property overwhelmingly impacts African-American land ownership, of which 60% is projected to be heirs’ property. Because a significant portion of U.S. minority-owned rural land was passed down through generations as heirs’ property, often without a legal title, these farmers and ranchers have been unable to obtain farm numbers and subsequent access to a multitude of USDA programs,” the senators wrote.

“The inability to participate in USDA programs has not only contributed to a startling negative trend in African-American land ownership but has also hindered African-American farmers and ranchers from experiencing economic equality,” the letter continued. “As representatives of states that are largely considered to be ground zero for this issue, timely and efficient implementation is paramount for heirs’ property owners.”

Further, the letter calls for USDA to follow through with a farm bill-mandated study about the impact of unresolved legal issues have on the ability of heirs’ property owners to operate their farms and ranches.

The Scott-Jones provision, which also authorizes FSA to make loans to qualified intermediaries to relend to families seeking to resolve heirs’ property issues, can help farm families, especially in the South, navigate a web of state and federal laws to bring thousands of acres of dormant land back into production. Local communities will benefit.

USDA should make it a priority.