Minority Farmers & Land Owners Gather in Raleigh for 18th Annual Conference

By: Jordan Meadows, Staff Writer

The 18th annual Minority Farmers & Land Owners Conference was held in Raleigh from Thursday to Saturday. The event drew over 300 farmers, landowners, and ranchers from across the state.

The focus of the conference was addressing issues, concerns, and challenges related to achieving farming goals and objectives, particularly those affected by the 2023 Farm Bill—a legislative package updated approximately every five years that profoundly influences farming practices, food production, and agricultural diversity.

Sponsored by prominent institutions such as the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, Smithfield Foods, and Alcorn State University, the conference featured numerous booths in the common foyer. Participating organizations included the North Carolina Forest Service, Farm Bureau North Carolina, Economic Club of Africa, and the Black Belt Justice Center. Representatives from Shaw University and NC A&T University, along with representatives from the Josh Stein campaign, were also present at the conference.

Additionally, notable groups like RAFI, dedicated to addressing systemic issues in food systems and advocating for economically, racially, and ecologically just farm communities, and Southern SARE, a USDA initiative promoting sustainable agricultural practices nationwide, were also present.

A distinctive booth was hosted by the Bottom of the Barn, a business that partners with a select group of farms to craft natural medicines and herbal products. They also offer health consulting and personalized herbal remedies, emphasizing their collaboration with agricultural farmers.

One organization that also stood out was the Sustainable Forestry and Land Retention Project (SFLRP), a community-based organization dedicated to assisting landowners who have experienced significant losses of forestland both regionally and nationally over the past century.

Operating primarily in the eastern region of the state, this organization supports over 300 landowners. Through their efforts, these farmers have accessed more than $700,000 in financial assistance for forestry and legal services, creating opportunities to increase land asset values and familial wealth.

By forging partnerships with state and federal agencies, forestry associations, and non-governmental organizations, the project facilitates crucial connections for landowners. These connections help improve land management practices.

Rickey Freeman, an Outreach Specialist with SFLRP, explained, ”What we find, a lot of times, are people who are retired and move back to their family farms. It’s just sitting there so they try to figure out what to do with it,” Freeman said. “For some families, the land has been in their possession for over one hundred years– their great-grandfather bought the land.”

Freeman described how sometimes organizations search online for land ownership records. If they find that an owner lives out of state, they may offer to purchase the property for a fraction of its value, intending to cultivate or resell it at a significantly higher price to another developer. This practice often leaves the original owners with less compensation than they could have obtained and reduces their land holdings.

A recurring statistic highlighted during the conference was the dramatic decline in the percentage of Black farmers in the United States over the past century. This figure has plummeted from 14% in 1920 to less than 2% by 2022.

During the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) panel session, approximately 150 attendees listened attentively, with more joining as the session progressed. There was significant emphasis on engaging younger generations in farming and land ownership.

One participant from Bladen County expressed skepticism about the USDA’s commitment to attracting young people, citing a perceived lack of incentives. USDA representatives countered, highlighting abundant opportunities such as scholarships and internships, asserting that the challenge lies in cultivating interest among the youth.

One highlighted opportunity for young individuals is the USDA 1890 National Scholars Program. This initiative aims to boost the enrollment of students from rural and underserved communities in fields such as food, agriculture, natural resources, and related sciences. Recipients of this scholarship receive comprehensive support covering full tuition, fees, books, and room and board expenses.

The audience members posing questions represented landowners and farmers from Bertie, Forsyth, Halifax, Edgecombe, Nash, and Greene counties, showcasing diverse participation from across the state.

Jeffrey Dorfman, a Distinguished Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at NC State University, delivered an economic outlook session for conference attendees. He illustrated trends in inflation and wages over the past decade, noting that although current prices exceed those from 5 to 10 years ago, they are lower compared to three years ago. Dorfman highlighted the political divide: Democrats emphasize recent affordability gains, while Republicans emphasize long-term price increases.

“Normal people don't know the official definition of a recession. I’ll give you a hint though: there isn’t an official definition of a recession. It is actually just a committee of economists who get together in a room and vote on whether to declare if we are officially in a recession or not.”

Dorfman advises farmers to secure their profits whenever feasible, noting that this year seems to be one where farmers will need to tread cautiously. He does not foresee an optimistic economic outlook for agriculture, citing John Deere's prediction of a 10% sales decline in North America and Europe as indicative.

He also discussed the looming possibility of another trade war with China, potentially impacting American exports, and highlighted how the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has influenced agricultural prices.

Tracy McCurty, Executive Director of the Black Belt Justice Center, addressed the significant debt accumulated by Black farmers over recent decades, alongside discussing the class action lawsuit filed against the USDA in the case named Pigford v. Glickman. This lawsuit alleged racial discrimination in the allocation of farm loans and assistance from 1981 to 1996.

The case was settled in 1999. Nearly $1 billion has been paid or credited to fewer than 20,000 farmers under the settlement, marking it as one of the largest civil rights settlements up to that time.

However, over 70,000 farmers were categorized as late filers and thus excluded from having their claims heard. The 2008 Farm Bill subsequently allowed for these additional claims to be reviewed. In December 2010, Congress allocated $1.2 billion for what became known as "Pigford II," addressing the second phase of the settlement.

“In 2018, Black farmers reached out to the Black Belt Justice Center. We represented them in federal court, and what we were focused on was reclaiming the narrative of Pigford,” McCurty said. “A lot of folks are uneducated about the Pigford lawsuit. They situate it and day that it was a victory for Black farmers–and it was not.”

In 2024, the Discrimination Financial Assistance Program (DFAP), established under the Inflation Reduction Act, allocated $2.2 billion to provide financial support to farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners who faced discrimination by the USDA in its farm loan programs before 2021.

The 18th annual Minority Farmers & Land Owners Conference brought together a diverse range of stakeholders to address crucial issues and challenges faced by minority farmers and landowners. The event showcased the commitment of various organizations and initiatives in supporting and empowering minority communities in agriculture and land ownership.

There remains a strong emphasis in the conference on creating opportunities, advocating for social and economic justice, and ensuring sustainable agricultural practices for the future.

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