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Forging Pathways to Land Access for BIPOC Farmers in Georgia

“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.

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)

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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