Coalition Sees Wealth for Black Farmers in Land, Forestry

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By Stefanie Jackson – Accomack and Northampton are two of many rural counties across Virginia and six other states that could receive federal grant money to support their economic development if the Southeast Crescent Regional Commission is finally activated in 2021, about 13 years after its creation.

The Farm Bill passed by Congress in 2008 authorized the federal commission, but a U.S. president has yet to appoint a co-chair. Once a co-chair is appointed and approved by the Senate, the commission becomes active and is allowed to begin spending the money that Congress has appropriated for it in the federal budget.

The Southeast Crescent Regional Commission Coalition, founded in 2019 by Ava Gabrielle Wise, captured the attention of President Joe Biden’s transition team in November 2020 with a letter bearing more than 100 signatures, which was immediately acknowledged by the team upon receipt.

Congress also recently increased the commission’s annual federal budget appropriation from $250,000 to $1 million.

Members of the coalition believe these actions indicate the commission will be activated later this year.

Congresswoman Elaine Luria also called attention to the inactive federal commission in a Feb. 16 letter to Congressman David Scott, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

Luria called on the chairman to hold a hearing on the benefits of regional commissions and how they provide “innovative approaches to rural development.”

She highlighted the success of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), the first federal regional commission and the model for seven others that followed.

The ARC was established in 1965 but is still relevant today and continues “to coordinate federal, state, and local actions to address the region’s economic disparities and pressing issues like lack of highspeed internet and automation of rural professions,” Luria wrote.

Future economic growth on the Eastern Shore and elsewhere in the Black Belt of the American South will happen with renewed interest in professions in agriculture and forestry, experts said during an online forum hosted by the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities Feb. 10.

Veronica Womack, executive director of the Rural Studies Institute at Georgia College, shared various definitions of the Black Belt.

Some scholars define the Black Belt as counties from Virginia to Texas that historically had “plantation economies,” while others call the Black Belt a rural, underdeveloped area with a large African American population and low-skill, low-wage jobs in industries like manufacturing.

Alton Perry, director of the Roanoke Electrical Cooperative’s Sustainable Forestry and Land Retention Project in North Carolina, said, “often times, we may overlook an asset that we have right outside our door throughout our community … our agriculture and our forestry assets.”

Through the project’s partnership with the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, the U.S. Forest Service, and many others, landowners can get access to information, education, and technical assistance to help them make their forests productive and earn income.

Using forest resources generates wealth for landowners, and the community gets more jobs, cleaner air and water, less erosion, and more carbon sequestration, Perry said.

The project has given clients access to about $500,000 in the last five or six years to make unused forest lands productive, he said.

For example, one family had 120 acres, about half of which was used for agriculture, growing crops and raising livestock. However, the other half was forest land that was just “growing up in weeds and brush.”

Now growing there is a pine stand “that the next generation can also create and continue that legacy on,” Perry said.

He observed that land loss especially affects the African American community, and his organization also works to address issues with inherited property and land retention.

Michael Carter Jr., of the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Small Farm Outreach Program, also discussed the declining number of Black farmers in the U.S., which peaked at about 50,000 in Virginia and one million in the U.S. in the 1910s through the 1930s.

As the number of Black farmers declined, especially during the period of the 1970s through the 1990s, the economic resilience of the Black community also declined, Carter said.

He suggested that landownership is a source of power and that owners of large amounts of land can wield as much or more power and influence in society than large populations concentrated in urban centers.

“For our economic future, Black farmers will be critical for our growth in the 21st century,” Carter said.

He called for a reverse or “greater migration” of Black farmers to the South and elsewhere in rural America to create a “Black land ownership boom.”

Womack said the rural South should follow the example of the Appalachian region, which has a “long history of developing community empowerment.”

Citizens are empowered when “people around the table making decisions” – meaning elected officials, particularly at the local level – “are reflective of the community,” including people of all races, classes, genders, neighborhoods, and other groups, she said.

But how do young adults who have inherited land come to understand the value of the land they own and become interested in farming?

Carter said the answer, which “may or may not be controversial,” is marijuana and hemp, the “gateway plants to land ownership.”

He has been collaborating with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, preparing for the legalization of marijuana, and receives 10 to 15 calls a week from young adults who are interested in growing the crop on family-owned land.

“When you show young people how they can make money from the land, they’ll be much more enticed to be a part of the process of owning land,” Carter said.

If they aren’t shown the potential of the land, they are likely to sell it as soon as they acquire it, he said.

Farming marijuana also supports other industries such as plumbing, HVAC, electric, security, bookkeeping, and accounting, Carter added.

Marcus Comer, a professor of agriculture and natural resources at Virginia State University, recommended promoting Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences, or MANRRS, an outreach program for college-bound students interested in agriculture, forestry, and related sciences.

He also runs the Harding Street Urban Ag Center in Petersburg, Va., and encourages older members to bring “the next generation” along to meetings to show them the value of agricultural and forestal lands.

The experience often produces an “aha moment” when young people discover they can make money from these lands, and it isn’t necessary to relocate to manage their business.

Comer also pointed out that the agricultural and forestal sciences involve research, analysis, genetics, robotics, and other opportunities for young, career-minded students.

“It’s not about being on a tractor, it’s not about being in the woods … but we have got to show them that, because if we don’t show them that, then they’re never going to look at it.”