Forging Pathways to Land Access for BIPOC Farmers in Georgia | Civil Eats

Forging Pathways to Land Access for BIPOC Farmers in Georgia

Emerging tools are helping young and beginning BIPOC farmers find farmland and navigate the confusing legal process needed to acquire and manage it.

Johanna Willingham (left), who manages Georgia FarmLink on behalf of ALT, and Jean Young (right), the first incubator farmer at ALT’s Williams Farm Incubator Program, walk the greenhouse at Williams Farm. (Photo credit: Oisakhose Aghomo)

Johanna Willingham (left), who manages Georgia FarmLink on behalf of ALT, and Jean Young (right), the first incubator farmer at ALT’s Williams Farm Incubator Program, walk the greenhouse at Williams Farm. (Photo credit: Oisakhose Aghomo)

“The biggest trouble is finding land, and I didn’t know where to go to farm even though I was qualified,” says Deijhon Yearby. The 26-year-old started his journey with farming in high school and now grows okra, tomatoes, kale, and other Southern favorites on a quarter-acre in Nicholson, Georgia.

“I was a part of the Young Urban Farmers Program, where they took high school kids and showed them farming techniques,” Yearby explains. In 2019, he was matched with farmland through an online platform called Georgia FarmLink and was able to start his operation, Cozy Bear Market Gardens, soon thereafter.

Yearby was the first Georgia farmer matched through the Georgia FarmLink web tool, which was launched in 2019 by the Athens Land Trust (ALT) to help beginning and disadvantaged farmers access farmland. The website connects farm seekers and landowners/donors, allowing them to meet each other independently, while still having access to ALT’s resources and technical assistance.

“FarmLink enables farm owners who want to help reduce the barriers for new farmers to be able to be creative in how they do so.”

Online land access platforms exist in a range of states including Washington, Oregon, and New Jersey and can be incredibly helpful for new farmers. In the United States, increasing urban sprawl and rapid commercial development continue to consume farmland: From 2020 to 2021, the country lost 1.3 million acres, a shift that drove up the price of the remaining farmland.

As of 2022, the average rent for irrigated cropland in Georgia was $221 per acre, and $74 per acre for non-irrigated cropland. The average cost to purchase an acre of farmland in Georgia is around $3,900. For new farmers, finding enough capital to rent, much less buy, farmland is a massive hurdle, and they may not have the tools to absorb the risk or the overhead costs to scale.

“FarmLink enables farm owners who want to help reduce the barriers for new farmers to be able to be creative in how they do so,” says Johanna Willingham, who manages Georgia FarmLink on behalf of ALT. Since the beginning of the pandemic and the subsequent global food crisis, Willingham notes that it has become more common for farm donors to offer unconventional lease models designed to meet new farmers halfway. “Some farm donors are not charging for rent and utilities and just asking for 5 percent gross,” she says. “Some say, ‘Just pay the utilities.’”

Although the effort stalled at the start of the pandemic, the platform soon picked up speed and saw an overall rise in the number of farmers searching for land: Since 2021, the Georgia FarmLink program has had more than 3,100 participants. These new participants include growers who are trying to make connections with landowners directly, and others who get ALT’s help in facilitating a match. However, even with an increase in new donors, there are still more farmland seekers than there are donors.

“We have about a thousand farmers that are seeking land and about 20 posts by land donors,” Willingham says. “A lot of landowners don’t think about the transition plan until the end of their lives or farm careers.”

To help address this imbalance, ALT started an incubator program that prioritizes people from historically underrepresented groups in Athens as a way to support budding farmers who are preparing to get connected to land. ALT is also working to make more connections with land donors and running programs on estate planning.

Deijhon Yearby, Jean Young, and Johanna Willingham at the Williams Farm, a small-scale urban farm that anchors the Williams Farm Incubator Program. (Photo credit: Oisakhose Aghomo)

Jean Young, Deijhon Yearby, and Johanna Willingham at the Williams Farm, a small-scale urban farm that anchors the Williams Farm Incubator Program. (Photo credit: Oisakhose Aghomo)

Better Call FALT

While access to land is key, there are also additional tools that can help beginning farmers navigate the complex, confusing legal process needed to acquire and manage land. This is particularly important for farmers from diverse backgrounds in an industry that is 95 percent white and 64 percent male. The agricultural industry also has a history of discriminatory practices in providing access to resources and assistance, often enabled by the inequities exacerbated by property law.

Launched in 2018 by the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School, the Farmland Access Legal Toolkit (FALT) is one such tool.

“The toolkit is a bridge, it’s designed to give ordinary people the information they need to handle their property issues before they go to a lawyer,” says Francine Miller, a senior staff attorney at Vermont Law who curates FALT.

Since the start of 2021, 45,000 people have accessed the toolkit. Many are located in the South, particularly in Georgia, Texas, Florida, and Virginia, and nearly half are 25 to 44 years old. Ensuring that users can navigate these tools with little to no hassle is paramount. The Center for Agriculture and Food Systems is constantly working to pinpoint access challenges and gather a better understanding of its users’ needs.

“We’ve created Spanish-language resources, we’ve made sure that our toolkit is accessible by mobile phone, and we are also working on distributing PDFs of the toolkit,” Miller says. “If someone calls and says, ‘Hey, we need this toolkit for our farmers in remote areas in Wisconsin,’ we’ll ship the PDFs.”

The FALT tool has a particular focus on heirs’ property, a legal category that affects BIPOC and white communities in the Appalachian region and the greater South. Heirs’ property generally refers to land purchased or deeded after the end of the Civil War that has been passed down through multiple generations without formal estate planning or wills, which creates a number of difficulties for farmland owners.

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Because the land can be owned by a large number of heirs, and since historic racial barriers to accessing legal aid prevented previous generations of landowners from creating wills, efforts to hold on to family farmland can be put at risk if one heir chooses to sell their part of a property.

“Black people have lost millions of acres due to heirs’ properties,” Miller says. “It’s such a huge civil rights issue.

The toolkit explains the legal definitions of different titles and sales that can occur in heirs’ property cases, a step-by-step guide to what to do before contacting a lawyer, recommendations about what type of lawyer to contact, and state-specific resources.

“Heirs’ property affects a lot of growers and landowners because they just don’t know that it exists,” explains Willingham.

The Athens Land Trust is launching a program to actively help heirs’ property owners resolve their legal challenges, but in the meantime, Willingham says, they rely on platforms like FALT to fill in gaps and save on lawyer’s fees. Willingham has been using FALT herself for almost a decade in her work and has integrated the toolkit into Georgia FarmLink’s education program.

The Williams Farm in Athens, Georgia, site of ALT’s Williams Farm Incubator Program. (Photo credit: Oisakhose Aghomo)

The Williams Farm in Athens, Georgia, site of ALT’s Williams Farm Incubator Program. (Photo credit: Oisakhose Aghomo)

Accessing Markets

Once a farmer finally gains access to land, they must be able to sell what they produce. The ability to sustain a farm business depends entirely on the marketplace; understanding how to build a market is an important aspect of farmland access that receives less attention.

“Building a viable business model and marketing strategy is the most important thing you can do before you start making any plans,” says Yearby, “especially before you buy land.”

Yearby has been successfully selling his produce as a wholesale distributor, but he says getting to that point wasn’t easy.

“You’re competing with [food mega-distributor] U.S. Foods,” explains Yearby. “You have to be certified to even apply for some farmers’ markets.” He started by getting his farm certified organic, which increased his reach into more farmers’ markets and restaurants. And he’s working to expand his production to attain a spot on the coveted U.S. Foods payroll.

“For a while, markets didn’t exist unless you go through commercial wholesale markets,” Willingham says. “Now, there’s this massive movement, people are creating food hubs and distribution markets [for local food]. It’s in its renaissance phase.”

Jean Young, the first incubator farmer at ALT’s Williams Farm Incubator Program, grows Southern favorites such as tomatoes, collards, and okra. Young started her microfarm Freedom City Gardens in 2021. “It was my way of doing my part during the pandemic,” explains Young. “I wanted to bring fresher foods to my community.”

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Jean Young pictured at her plots at Williams Farm, which anchors ALT’s Williams Farm Incubator Program. (Photo credit: Oisakhose Aghomo)

Jean Young pictured at her plots at Williams Farm, which anchors ALT’s Williams Farm Incubator Program. (Photo credit: Oisakhose Aghomo)

Soon after starting the farm, she began braving the marketplaces, selling at farmers’ markets and as a certified vendor for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. Young’s microfarm allows more flexibility to sell retail. So, she has also ventured into digital marketplaces, which have presented some unique challenges.

“In the digital markets, there are questions about who and what gets promoted, and the corporations [that run the apps and websites] are making decisions that affect your business, and you aren’t there,” Young says.

Logistics challenges can also present a barrier. “The biggest challenge when people are selling online is that there’s a gap in distribution,” explains Willingham. “People want to use the online market, but the logistics are different because there’s the added element of transportation—it can add additional stress on your budget.”

Willingham notes that difficulties in gaining access to markets are common from new growers. She believes their frustration often stems from a lack of centralized resources—something that has been lacking in Georgia’s farming industry for a while.

“We’re working on incorporating comprehensive business classes into the GA FarmLink program and creating a roadmap that allows for these farmers to navigate with more independence and ease,” says Willingham. This roadmap will allow for a smoother process from acquiring a farm to growing a farm, providing resources and opening up networks for small-scale BIPOC farmers.

Yearby is a shining example. Three years into owning his own farm, he has a much better understanding of what it takes to run a business and how that differs from farming as a hobby. This insight allows for him to see farming as a career he can sustain. In a country where the population of BIPOC farmers is rapidly declining, the value of resources that support them in their quest for sustainable careers cannot be understated.

Oisakhose Aghomo is a Georgia peach transplant by way of Nigeria. She is a freelance writer who covers climate issues, U.S. politics, and international culture. Read more >

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