Will Hehemann | School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences
The ownership of U.S. farmland by African-Americans peaked in 1910, but has steadily declined for the past hundred years, said Kandi Williams, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB) Sustainable Forestry and African-American Land Retention (SFLR) Program coordinator. UAPB is currently working to slow down and reverse this trend in southern Arkansas through partnerships with governmental agencies, organizations, foundations, churches and academic institutions.
“In 1920 African-Americans owned 15.6 million acres of farmland across the U.S.,” Williams said. “By 2012, the number of acres owned by African-Americans had dropped to 4.5 million acres of land nationally.”
The “Keeping it in the Family” Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention (SFLR) Program began in the fall of 2016 after the UAPB Small Farm Program received a grant from the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities. The three-year program will invest in a group of community-based networks in Arkansas to promote forest health and productivity while stemming the loss of African-American owned rural land.
Heir property – land that is inherited by a group of family members – can be a major problem for African-American communities in Arkansas, Williams said. This type of property leaves families without the clear titles that allow for active management of the land, thereby limiting any economic returns. Multiple-party ownership of a family acreage often risks the partition sale of the land.
The SFLR program aims to provide African-American landowners with the resources and support required to resolve these common heir property issues, as well as sustainable forestry education and technical assistance in forestland management. The UAPB program is reaching out to landowners in Little River, Howard, Hempstead, Nevada, Ouachita, Union and Columbia counties in southwest Arkansas.
“Our project is designed to build relationships between landowners, UAPB and participating partners to resolve heir property issues and increase the sustainability and profitability of privately-owned, rural forestland,” Williams said.
SFLR team members have conducted community outreach meetings and provided one-on-one assistance to local and absentee landowners to assess their goals and the status of their land. In addition to providing forestland educational workshops, they help landowners identify the concrete steps they should take to improve their land.
Joe Friend, Extension associate-forester at UAPB, conducts free site visits with landowners and puts them in touch with the Arkansas Forestry Commission (AFC) for help in developing a forestry stewardship plan at no cost. The plans provided by the AFC help landowners identify conservation practices that are needed to improve their forestland and make it profitable.
“Through the forest stewardship program, landowners can obtain a management plan that addresses all aspects of growing timber on their property,” Friend said. “This includes soil type, growth potential, harvest cycles, wildlife habitat, threatened and endangered species, forest health and historic sites on the property. Experts help landowners understand important factors about their land including current and future value of the timber stand, wildlife value, such as income from leasing the land for hunting, and how overall value can be increased through intensive forest management.”
As Friend continues to conduct more site visits, forestry management plans are currently being prepared for nine rural landowners in southern Arkansas.
To help implement the management plans, SFLR members encourage producers and landowners to visit the local Natural Resources Conservation Service office where they can sign up for the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), which provides financial assistance to help producers install the conservation practices needed to improve their forestland. Producers who successfully obtain EQIP funding will then be assisted in finding a consulting forester to help install the recommended conservation practices.
In addition to timberland maintenance, the SFLR program provides assistance opportunities that apply to a producer’s entire farm operation or ranch, Williams said. Those in need of assistance with livestock or crops can receive guidance in developing crop, conservation, financial and marketing plans, as well as loan assistance through various USDA Programs.
In cases involving heir property, the SFLR program is able to connect landowners with specialists at the Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law, who help producers find an attorney for legal assistance with their heir property.
Dr. Henry English, head of the Small Farm Program at UAPB, said landowners commonly underestimate the value of their land and decide to sell their acreage before considering the benefits of keeping and maintaining their land.
“A well-managed pine stand can produce several times that of a non-managed stand and in less time,” he said. “For example, a well-managed pine stand will yield 2.5 tons per acre per year while an unmanaged stand may yield 1 ton per acre per year or less. Properly managed forestland will be ready to harvest in 30 to 35 years as compared to unmanaged forest land, which requires around 50 years before it’s ready to harvest.”
Dr. English said through developing forestry stewardship programs and enacting cost-share conservation practices, landowners have the chance to improve their timber, water, soil and air quality, as well as create viable economic opportunities for their property.
“We want landowners to realize the value of properly managed forest land,” he said. “Land can be used as an investment to produce income for future generations. If managed properly, the land can be developed not only as a homestead, but also to promote the family’s heritage, natural resources, wildlife habitats and outdoor recreation.”
The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.