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Food Justice Through Farmland Access

four people at a conference
        Miller & heirs' property owners* at the Nat'l Heirs Property Conference

The Center for Agriculture and Food Systems is expanding a farmland access resource to serve more communities.

April 2, 2021

The Farmland Access Legal Toolkit aims to make farmland more accessible to new and beginning farmers while supporting conservation efforts. Developed by students, staff, and faculty at Vermont Law School's Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS), the online resource helps break down complex legal processes that come with acquiring, transferring, and leasing farmland. 

“The original version of the toolkit does a great job of confronting some of the obstacles to access for young and beginning farmers,” said CAFS director Laurie Beyranevand JD’03. “But we know that not all farmers face the same challenges. BIPOC farmers, for example, face discrimination and the legacies of structural racism that have unfairly shaped the U.S. agricultural system and access to land. That’s why we’re expanding the toolkit—in the hopes that it can provide resources for more underserved and under-resourced communities.” 

In 2019 CAFS hired Senior Legal Fellow Francine Miller LLM’17 to do just that. Miller teamed up with Deborah Nares, a consultant with decades of experience working with Spanish-speaking farmers. The first Spanish-language section of the toolkit, which deals with leasing arrangements, was published in 2020, with more culturally-appropriate resources in the works. 

Miller is also building out a new section of the toolkit focused on a significant cause of involuntary Black land loss in the United States: heirs’ property. Heirs’ property is land passed to family members by inheritance, but usually without a will. Descendants inherit the land but as “tenants in common,” owning interest in the property without a clear title. And that makes the land prone to unscrupulous acquisition by real estate developers. A 2001 report from the US Agricultural Census estimated that about 80 percent of Black-owned farmland was lost between 1969 and 2001, and half of that was due to partition sales of heirs’ property (the forced sale of the land for much less than it is worth). 

It’s a legal issue with major implications—and the toolkit would be incomplete without it. In partnership with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Policy Research Center at Alcorn State University (and with help from VLS students), Miller is building out a new section of the website devoted to heirs' property. Its first resource, a comprehensive overview of the legal and historic context, went live in early 2021. Next, Miller and partners will release fact sheets specific to 13 different Southern states, plus essays by lawyers or practitioners in each state that help families understand what they’ll need to bring to a lawyer an attempt to resolve the issues and ultimately preserve and build wealth from their land. 

“It's important that we directly reach out to Black, Indigenous, and Spanish-speaking farmers in particular,” Miller said. “Resources are more limited for those folks, and providing legal educational materials is what we do at CAFS. We want to use our resources to support those farmers.” 

*The Eadys, pictured in the image, have 75 acres of property in Newton, Georgia, and are farming corn, peanuts, peas, watermelon, and animals (cows and goats). They are working on clearing title to their land and resolving all ownership issues so that the land can stay in the family.