The 2018 Farm Bill included a provision to make it easier for farmers operating on so-called heirs property — land that passed from one generation of a family to another without a clear title — to obtain a USDA farm number and, thus, gain access to a multitude of government programs. The Senate is scheduled to vote this afternoon on an amendment by Alabama Senator Doug Jones to provide $5 million for a relending program that would be a step toward resolving ownership issues.

One expert estimates that 40% of black-owned farmland is heirs property. But the situation can occur to any family that is short of funds and can result in several people having a stake in a farm. Without a clear title, owners are blocked from getting mortgages to improve their property or access to USDA’s credit and conservation programs, which help many rural landowners.

The $5 million proposed by Jones would be available to USDA for loans to cooperatives, credit unions, and nonprofit organizations. In turn, they would lend money to projects that resolve ownership and succession on land with multiple owners.

“The inability to participate in USDA programs has not only contributed to a startling negative trend in African-American land ownership but also hindered African-American farmers and ranchers from experiencing economic equality,” wrote Jones, a Democrat, and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, a Republican, to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in July in urging immediate implementation of the heirs property provision. “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.”

In a 2017 investigation, FERN reported how the joint ownership caused by heirs property exposes families to the risk of a forced sale and prevents families from building generational wealth. “Any one of these co-owners has the legal right to sell their share of the property — or even to bring the whole parcel of land to court-ordered auction — without the consent of the others,” said FERN. Such “partition sales” can end a family’s tenure on the farm.

In the 1920s, 14% of American farmers were black. Nowadays, it’s 2%.

If adopted, the Jones amendment would be part of a “minibus” funding bill for seven federal departments, including USDA. While a similar House bill would block the USDA from carrying out a relocation of the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to Kansas City, the Senate bill is silent. The government is operating under stopgap funding for fiscal 2020 that expires on November 21.

The text of the Jones amendment is available here.

To read the Senate Appropriations Committee description of USDA-FDA funding in the minibus bill, click here.