Local Initiatives

N.C. Co-op Takes on Bias, Land Loss

By Victoria A. Rocha | ECT Staff Writer Published: April 16th, 2013

Congregants typically flock to White Oak Missionary Baptist Church in rural North Carolina for Bible study, choir practice and worship. Lately, though, they’ve been going there to hear about a new economic opportunity made possible, in part, by their local electric cooperative.

Roanoke Electric Co-op’s Curtis Wynn (l) greets Rep. G.K. Butterfield at a press conference. (Photo By: Amanda VanDerBroek, Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Ahoskie, NC)

Roanoke Electric Co-op’s Curtis Wynn (l) greets Rep. G.K. Butterfield at a press conference. (Photo By: Amanda VanDerBroek, Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Ahoskie, NC)

Three federal agencies selected Roanoke Electric Cooperative as one of two sites for the launch of the collaborative $1.2 million Sustainable Forestry and African-American Land Retention Program. As a pilot site, the co-op received a $425,000 grant to help minority forestland owners better manage their property and generate income.

Church pastor Rev. Charles Tyner, a second-generation forester and farmer himself, is one of the co-op’s members spreading the word about the initiative. “I want to make sure all landowners are doing what’s best for the economy and their farms, and that they get the best results,” said Tyner, whose 350-acre farm grows hardwood, pine, soybeans and wheat, among other products.

BIG LOSSES

Sixty percent of North Carolina is made up of forest, and with that comes 68,000 jobs and an annual payroll of $3 billion.  Unfortunately, that prosperity has eluded many minority landowners—some of them descendants of slaves—in the forest belt.

Land loss rates among the nation’s 144,000 minority landowners—most of them Southerners—are as much as 30 percent higher than their white counterparts, according to researchers at Cornell University.

“Landowners lack access to education and/or understanding and awareness of public conservation programs that can help generate income from forest management and conservation,” said Curtis Wynn, the co-op’s president/CEO and an NRECA national director.

And it’s not just tree care that landowners need to know about. Scant knowledge of estate planning can put land in the murky category of heirs’ property status, a situation in which property is passed down without a will, resulting in no clear-cut ownership. “This leaves the fragmented landowners ineligible to participate in programs that can help them keep their properties,” explained Wynn.

Also at issue is the lingering legacy of discrimination, mostly in the form of federal loan bias that resulted in significant land loss for minorities. Currently, the Department of Agriculture is paying billions in claims to minority landowners for damages incurred during 1981-1996 under a class action lawsuit filed 14 years ago against the agency. And as more farmers file claims, that dollar amount is expected to grow.

A NEW DIRECTION

During a March 27 press conference announcing the grant at the co-op’s Ahoskie headquarters, officials referred to that painful legacy. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., recalled a conversation he and other Capitol Hill colleagues had with Tom Vilsack before he became secretary of agriculture.

USDA “had a terrible history of discrimination against African-American farmers and we expected help to maybe not change this legacy overnight, but at least to turn it and start pointing it in a different direction,” Butterfield said at the conference, according to the local newspaper, the Roanoke Chowan News Herald. “This is an investment—this is not a giveaway—this is an investment in families, an investment in the very fabric and fiber of the community.”

The co-op will use the grant to start a pilot project that will educate all landowners on sustainable growing practices to increase family wealth.

Rev. Tyner, whose son also works on the family farm said, he’s looking forward to learning about forest management. After all, knowledge is power. “They will be able to tell you what trees you need to cut down and reseed. I give thanks to [Roanoke EC]. They’ve done a good job keeping this part of North Carolina well-informed of what’s going on.”

SMARTER FARMING

The 30-month pilot program will address such issues as tax and title barriers, federal government mistrust, and unscrupulous timber developers. In partnership with public agencies, community groups and colleges, the co-op and its economic development subsidiary will launch comprehensive networks of technical and legal support in five counties.

Economic development goals associated with the initiative are ambitious. Within the first five years, project officials want to increase incomes of low- and moderate-income landowners by $1 million.

“So rather than receiving only $10,000 for their timber from an unethical timber buyer, a landowner of 50 acres of mature southern yellow pine who seeks the advice of our forestry/natural resource network can yield as much as $130,000 for their timber product, plus $2,500 for tree replanting, plus years of property tax credits,” Wynn explained.

Looking ahead, Wynn expressed optimism about the potential benefits of this collaborative effort for the community.   “The project is aiming to achieve an aggregate income increase and/or cost savings of $200,000 for low- and moderate-income landowners within the first 24 months,” he said. “We are excited about the economic impact this project will bring to the region.”

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