Working with an estimated 600 Black farmers each year to help them maintain ownership of their land, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives focuses on outreach, education and technical assistance.
They and their network of referral attorneys help families with estate planning and alternative ownership models such as corporations, cooperatives, trusts, limited liability companies and intra-family buyouts, all of which help families gain clear title and retain ownership of their land.
"Based on our work in this area, we estimate that approximately 60 percent of all Black-owned farmland is in heirs' property," said Cornelius Blanding, executive director of the Federation. "We talk about heirs' property as a Civil Rights issue because it prevents access to government services and resources and is one of the major reasons that Black folks lose wealth in this country."
Heirs' property is land jointly owned by descendants of someone who didn't leave a legal will, thereby leaving them without a clear title. The land is passed to surviving family members by way of fractional ownership—meaning each heir owns an undivided interest in the entire acreage. This is the leading cause of involuntary land loss among Black landowners. Other factors include lack of access to resources and information, and distrust in judicial and legal systems.
Blanding noted that John Deere and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund have helped by adding additional resources and strengthening the Federation's existing internship program for law students that will support heirs' property landowners and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund's efforts to reverse the trend of Black land loss.
"Corporations have influence," Blanding said. "John Deere has provided resources that are very much needed in terms of helping us engage more attorneys and explaining our program to law students, so we can expand expertise to help clear up the issue."
John Deere, in partnership with the National Black Growers Council (NBGC) and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), established the LEAP (Legislation, Education, Advocacy and Production Systems) coalition in 2020 to help eliminate barriers created by heirs' property and provide resources to advance the lives and livelihoods of Black farmers.
Tharlyn Fox, a Deere employee and manager of the LEAP Coalition, said partnering with the Federation has helped Deere employees understand the impact that heirs' property has on families.
"The Federation's more than 50 years of work provides a unique opportunity to engage, assist and remove the roadblocks that have prevented Black farmers from obtaining clear title," she said.
Deere has also provided financial support for the Federation's annual National Heirs Property Conference, which gathers heirs' property owners and land retention practitioners from across the U.S. The conference spans three days and focuses on training practitioners to understand, educate and help walk people through heirs' property in addition to equipping landowners with a 12-month plan to clear their title.