By Ivey Schofield
Wanda Campbell Clay grew up working on her family’s multigenerational farm that stretched 1,200 acres in Bladen and Columbus counties.
When she retired in 2014, Campbell Clay wanted to figure out how to get the most profit from the land. With support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she created a timber management plan and a pollinator program and devised methods to make her soil healthier for other farmers who rent the land.
“I felt like for the first time we were adding value,” said Campbell Clay, who retired from the local N.C. State University Cooperative Extension office as a family and nutrition services agent.
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Now Campbell Clay, who is Black, wants to help other local farmers retain their land and get the most money from it. In April, she launched a “lunch and learn” series for landowners at the George Henry White Memorial and Health Center in Clarkton.
“With the cost of living and everything going up, it’s even more imperative now that landowners and farmers be educated about the things we can do with our land to generate more money and help us keep our land,” she said.
Black land ownership has been declining for generations across the nation. So too has the number of Black farmers, falling from 1 million in 1920 to fewer than 50,000 in 2017, according to the USDA.
In North Carolina, about 3 percent of the state’s 46,000 farms were run by Black farmers in 2017, census data shows. The local figures were higher – 10% in Bladen County and 6% in Columbus County.
Experts say the decline of Black landowners is largely the result of discriminatory lending practices by the USDA. Black farmers across the country received a total of $59.4 million in subsidies in 2017, while white farmers received $9.7 billion.
Officials also say “heirs’ property” – land that is passed down through generations without a will that transfers the property deed – clouds ownership rights for many Black farmers. They might struggle to get USDA loans or aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency after natural disasters.
The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund estimates that about 60% of Black-owned land is heirs’ property.
“That is billions of wealth that our community cannot adequately tap into without these legal issues (like farm succession planning through wills and trusts) being solved,” said Dãria Davy, an heirs’ property attorney and director of land retention and advocacy at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund.
Davy spoke at a lunch-and-learn class in April at the George Henry White Memorial and Health Center.
Campbell Clay and her brother donated a 120-year-old house on their family property in 2014 to house the community center, which offers classes on nutrition, exercise, computer skills, GED prep and electrical contractor training. The center’s namesake, George Henry White, was Black and a Bladen County native who served in Congress from 1897 to 1901.
Campbell Clay said her name is on 230 acres of her family’s land, and she encourages other family members, who are on heirs’ property, to add their names to the deed.
Without legal documents in place, one or more heirs may fail to pay property taxes, resulting in foreclosure, or sell a piece of the land to developers at a below-market rate.
That’s a concern for some local residents.
“Your land can be lost to developers because people don’t understand exactly what their rights are,” said Carol Caldwell, project programming coordinator for the George Henry White Center and former director of the Columbus County DREAM Center.
More than 70 acres in Columbus County are earmarked for new subdivisions.
Landowners need guidance to navigate complicated government and legal systems, said Tara Boyd, a Robeson County native who runs the National Black Farmers Association with her husband, John Boyd.
John Boyd testified in 2021 in front of the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture about discrimination he has faced. He said he has been spit on and called “boy” by USDA employees and has watched loan officers tear up his applications and throw them in the trash.
“The decades of discrimination and being underserved is significant,” Tara Boyd said. “We can’t keep putting Band-Aids on things.”
In 1997, John Boyd joined Timothy Pigford, a soybean and corn farmer from Cumberland County, in a class action discrimination lawsuit against the USDA, claiming the federal agency had denied, delayed and reduced their loans and other benefits because of their race. Ultimately, the USDA settled for $1.15 billion – the largest settlement in history.
The Farm Bill in 2018 required the USDA to assign properties tract numbers, which made heirs’ property eligible for loan and technical assistance.
U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, a Democrat who represents North Carolina’s 12 district, introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act in 2021. The bill, which has not become law, calls for the USDA to end discrimination, provide debt relief and create a grant program for new Black farmers.
Davy said there has been progress for heirs’ property, but hurdles still exist.
North Carolina has yet to enact protections against partition sales for heirs’ property owners. About 22 states have passed the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, which requires the notification of all heirs before a sale and gives the heirs the first right of refusal.
Boyd encouraged every farmer to implement a will or trust as soon as possible.
“What can cost you $500 to do today can cost your family $10,000-$20,000 after you’re gone,” she said.
Campbell Clay said owning and operating a farm can be overwhelming, and she has made some mistakes.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” she said. “But (the government) has programs that are available. You just have to apply.”
Vincent Spaulding, a descendant of George Henry White and Campbell Clay’s cousin who serves as project leader at the community center, said the lunch and learn classes are meant to help protect local landowners.
“What we’re trying to do is educate folks about the avenues you can follow for retaining your land, selling your land and figuring out what your land is really worth,” he said.
The next lunch and learn class at the center is in July. The topic will be special tax credits for farmers. For more information, go to ghwmemorial.com or call 910-445-0269.