Creating a Black Farmer Commons in Transferring Land Ownership

Progress report for LNE21-429R

Project Type: Research Only
Funds awarded in 2021: $198,214.00
Projected End Date: 03/01/2023
Grant Recipients: Corbin Hill Food Project, Inc; Farm Training Collective NYC INC, dba Farm School NYC
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Dr. Dennis Derryck
Corbin Hill Food Project, Inc
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Project Information

Project Objective:

Corbin Hill (CH) and Farm School NYC  will research the development of the first Black Farmer Commons (BFC) in the Northeast.  CH intends to transfer 95-acres in New York to experienced, landless and under-resourced Black farmers as they co-create the BFC.  The research explores how supportive facilitation and a sovereignty framework based on historic and current collective land ownership, business and governance models impact black farm tenure and viability. The outcome expected is a novel pilot model of Black ownership, land transfer processes adaptable to farmers without succession plans, and progress toward a racially just, regenerative and equitable food system.

Introduction:

Black farmers have been marginalized nearly out of existence. Nationwide, Black farm ownership declined from 10 million acres in 1930 to 4 million acres in 2012; black-owned farms have an average size of 77 acres, compared to 205 acres for white-owned farmers; and in New York State, only 139 of 57,000 farmers were Black. (USDA Census of Agriculture, 2017).

This research project, “Creating a Black Farmers Commons in Transferring Land”, will explore how supportive facilitation and a sovereignty framework based on historic and current collective land ownership, business and governance models impact black farm tenure and viability. It will result in filling the knowledge gaps in efforts to create the first Black Farmer Commons in the Northeast -- a novel pilot model of Black ownership that will create land transfer processes adaptable to farmers without succession plans, and progress us toward a racially just, regenerative and equitable food system.

The research project also seeks to provide guidelines and answers to critical questions:

  • How can Black farmers' needs be addressed in our region within a sovereignty decision-making framework?
  • Can an ecosystem of organizations led by Black and indigenous people of color (BIPOC) providing educational, financial, social and operational support create new ownership and economic pathways for Black farmers’ collective success?
  • How do we best increase Black land stewardship and ownership and innovate legal structures to protect Black farmers and reverse the history of Black land loss?
  • What guidelines and principles can help Black farmers reconnect to Black agrarian traditions and historical regenerative practices while creating community wealth?
  • What new financial structures or models exist for Black farmers accessing financing beyond the limited underwriting laws or loan programs that currently do not serve them well?

Research

Materials and methods:

This first phase of the research addressed many of the hypotheses proposed in the research. Conducted by students in a graduate-level course entitled “Social Justice in the Global Food System,” the research examined how “the commons” as an ideological structure and approach to food sovereignty and collective governance functions as an ongoing resistance strategy for Black communities. Moreover, their research sought to center these goals and to fill knowledge gaps in order to support equitable land transfers for the collective good of Black communities.

Methodology. The research during this phase drew on the Critical Participatory Action Research (CPAR) approach, which involves critical thinking and participation through collective inquiry and diverse forms of knowledge. CPAR is rooted in redistributing uneven power dynamics through participatory landscapes and a “deep appreciation of knowledge, created in conditions of oppression and mobilized for social action.”

The research was organized into three groups: (1) secondary analysis, (2) legal analysis, and (3) interview. The secondary analysis team examined literature on the history of Black land dispossession and agrarian resistance, conceptualizations of commons, and existing commons and commons-esque organizations, in order to identify governance structures, land ownership approaches, wealth-building and financial models, and knowledge-sharing practices. The legal analysis team researched the legal history of Black land ownership and land loss, present-day land ownership structures and business entities that may work for a commons, and innovative forms of ownership and governance grounded in legal theory. The interview team conducted virtual informational interviews with project staff and members of ecosystem organizations, asking questions about how their organizations define and serve their communities, understand food sovereignty, build wealth, share knowledge, support Black farmers, and conceptualize commoning and related practices.

Research results and discussion:

Key findings from this report:

  • Commons are as the communities that define them, and are actualized in relation to their modes of governance, legal structures, and internal wealth distribution.
  • Wealth is understood beyond land and financial capital, to include knowledge-sharing, cultural continuance, housing, and more.
  • This definition of wealth requires an understanding of how food sovereignty is cultivated: prioritizing access to and training in mixed economic models for Black farmers that create markets for foods they understand as culturally significant.
  • Land justice, therefore, is a necessary precursor for achieving food sovereignty, especially for Black farmers.
  • Legal structures are determined by several key dimensions: rules of governance, strong limitations on alienability, barriers to entry and right to exit, distribution of liability, sharing of control/ownership of profits and resources, and creation and intergenerational transfer of wealth. Four existing legal entities harness these critical dimensions to enable the legal system to facilitate commoning—land trusts, cooperatives, corporations, and LLCs—and they can work separately or in combination.
Research conclusions:

To date the preliminary conclusions include:

  1. Build the commons to be a flexible, multi-faceted structure that allows for many different conceptions of community, commons, wealth, relationships to land, governance, and food sovereignty. The process of “commoning” is incredibly dynamic, iterative, diverse, and self-defined.
  2. Strategize the design, pace of action, and priorities of the commons to reflect the incremental development that links short-term needs to the long-term vision of partner organizations as well as different participants' understandings of “commons.” The livelihoods and wellbeing of farmers must be protected first and foremost—with time, this will contribute to land justice, which is a part of food sovereignty.
  3. Engage with the Key Legal Dimensions for Commoning (described in the full report) to identify land ownership and governance models that best fit the objectives of commoning. The precise choice of legal organization has large ramifications for the key characteristics of commoning that may or may not be achieved; each legal entity comes with significant tradeoffs relative to others.
  4. Explore a multistrategy approach to building wealth by and for Black farmers and the communities in which they are embedded across the food supply chain. This requires thinking about how financial models can address the goals of the commons across different scales.
Participation Summary
4 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Educational activities:

1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Tours
2 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

3 Farmers
1 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities

Learning Outcomes

2 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
4 Service providers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of project outreach
4 Educators or agricultural service providers reported changes in knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes as a result of their project outreach

Project Outcomes

1 Grant applied for that built upon this project
2 New working collaborations
Success stories:

This land does not belong to us, we belong to it.” —Interviewee #5

“[The] rub comes between: The historical and ancestral legacy of commons, yearning for collective action, and the reality of living in this capitalistic society and how much we’ve lost and the deep desire to pass something on, something that our own children can build from.” — Interviewee #1

“If you don't give people agency, they don't have any rights, which I then call poverty governance. ” —Interviewee #4

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

We will at the next stage examine the different definitions of wealth and the economic models that are best suited to achieving the definition of the various definition

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.