The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund celebrated its 55th Annual Meeting this past weekend.
The program began on Thursday evening, August 18, 2022, with the 21st Annual Estelle Witherspoon Lifetime Achievement Award Dinner, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Birmingham, Alabama. Rev. Bernard Lafayette, veteran civil rights leader, and teacher of Kingian non-violence, received the award named for Estelle Witherspoon, former manager of the Freedom Quilting Bee and a founding member of the Federation.
In his remarks, accepting the award, Rev. Lafayette said,” I am honored to receive this award from the Federation which has helped Black farmers and poor people change and impact their communities for 55 years. I urge you to involve more young people in your movement like we did in the 1960’s. Young people and students will make the difference in internalizing and institutionalizing the cooperative movement.”
Earlier in the day, there was a press conference at the hotel, where Dr. Jewel Bronaugh, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, announced a $5 million Heirs Property Relending Fund allocation to the Federation, in conjunction with Shared Capital, a CDFI, which will used to make loans to Black families with heir property problems.
The Heirs Property Relending Program was included in the 2018 Farm Bill after vigorous advocacy efforts by the Federation, Intertribal Agriculture Council, and the Rural Coalition. The Trump Administration delayed writing regulations to implement the needed program. Secretary Vilsack, under the Biden Administration, completed the regulations and put our the first call for proposals this year. The allocation to the Federation and two Indian land organizations, were the first made from the program.
Secretary Bronaugh indicated that the Federation would also receive an augmented Cooperative Agreement to provide technical and legal assistance to families encountering heir property issues. In his remarks accepting the announcement, Cornelius Blanding, Federation Executive Director said,”60% of all Black land is now owned jointly by families in heir property status. The Federation and Emergency Land Fund have been working on this problem for 45 years and these funds will help us to do a more effective job for our members and others with heir property problems.”
Attorney Dania Davy, who heads the Federation’s Land Retention Program, said “We are pleased to receive these funds which will enable families to clear titles, deal with reluctant heirs, and access more USDA resources. This will impact Black landowners with over a million acres, with a conservative value of $15 billion across our nation.
On Friday and Saturday, the meeting shifted to the Federation’s Rural Training and Research Center, near Epes, Alabama. Over 400 people from the states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Florida, and Texas attended the workshops, tours, demonstrations, prayer breakfast and business meeting held there over the next two days.
Friday began with a panel of USDA program representatives explaining their agency efforts at creating more equity and diversity in their staff and work.
Dr. Dewayne Goldman, Special Assistant for Equity to Secretary Vilsack, explained the Biden’s Administration’s equity efforts by saying, “Suppose you had three people standing outside a baseball stadium, with a six-foot fence, to see the game. One was 5 feet, one was 5 foot seven, and one was 6 feet tall. If each was given a one-foot stool stand on, this would be equality, everyone gets the same; but the smaller person would still not be able to see the game. Equity is needed to give each person the right size stool so they can actually see the game. Black farmers and other underserved farmers will receive equity in receiving and utilizing USDA resources.”
Goldman then explained the new sections in the just passed Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) which will benefit Black farmers and other underserved and financially distressed farmers. He was joined remotely on a zoom by Adam Zipkin with Senator Cory Booker’s office and Brandon Honeycutt from Senator Raphael Warnock’s office, who are on the Senate Agriculture Committee, and were influential in getting these provisions into the Inflation Reduction Act.
Goldman explained that the IRA, rescinds Section 1005 of the American Rescue Plan, which contained debt forgiveness for all BIPOC farmers. These provisions were challenged in Federal Court by white farmers, saying the provisions were discriminatory towards them and unconstitutional. These farmers and their right-wing allies stopped the program implementation.
The IRA contains $3.1 billion for loan modifications for farmers in financial distress and facing foreclosure. The IRA also contains $2.2 billion for farmers who suffered discrimination in receiving financial assistance from USDA.
Goldman asked for comments and assistance in drafting the regulations for implementation of these two sections in the IRA. He promised that “USDA would work expeditiously to get this relief to farmers who need assistance and to prevent foreclosures.”
On Friday afternoon workshops were held on Cooperative Development and Heirs Property issues. The day ended with a fish fry and auction.
Saturday’s program began with a Prayer Breakfast, with women wearing hats to honor deceased Kentucky Board member Mattie Mack. Rev. Wendell Paris preached a sermon based on Jeremiah 31.31, which deals with a new covenant with God. The prayer breakfast was followed by the annual business meeting, state caucus and the awarding of scholarship to four young people headed to college.
For more information on the work and programs of the Federation, go to the website: http://www.federation.coop, or call 205-652-9676 in Epes or 404-765-0991 in East Point, GA.