All Land is not Creating Equal:Unleashing Family and Community Wealth through Land Ownership

UPDATE: Sharing Successes in Forest Farming across Central Appalachia

A project of the Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (LiKEN) 

In May 2020, LiKEN initiated a project to develop educational materials about agroforestry in Central Appalachia. With funding from the National Agroforestry Center of the US Forest Service, this project will not only identify and encourage successful practitioners in our region, but help develop connections between communities, landholders and service providers to help guide new agroforesters, whether that be through linking practitioners with apprentices, identifying land access opportunities, or through the development of compelling narratives of success. Our new LiKENeer, Chris Burney, directs this project, which is part of our emerging Appalachian Mother Forest project.

What exactly is agroforestry? 

Agroforestry is generally described as ecologically sustainable land-use practices that incorporate tree crops with agricultural crops and/or livestock. The USDA defines agroforestry in terms of its five practices and the four I’s. The five main practices of agroforestry are:

  • Forest farming – growing food, herbal, botanical, or decorative crops under a forest canopy;
  • Alley cropping – crops between rows of trees to provide income while the trees mature; 
  • Silvopasture – combining trees and livestock on one piece of land;
  • Riparian buffers – natural or re-established areas along rivers and streams made up of trees, shrubs, and grasses;
  • Windbreaks that shelter crops, animals, buildings, wildlife, and soil from wind, snow, dust, and odors.

These practices can be found in many ancient, traditional, and Indigenous systems which have provided human sustenance for millenia while stewarding land, trees, and biodiversity. So, in some ways, scientific agroforestry is just catching up with past wisdom. Contemporary research shows that the above practices can increase long-term production, while benefiting local ecologies. When looking for agroforestry practices, though they may not be termed as such in everyday language, we look for what are called the ‘four I’s’ of agroforestry; practices that are intentional, intensive, integrated and interactive. 

Case studies and videos for farmers 

To reach diverse audiences, we will produce materials in diverse formats:

  • To inspire farmers who are considering transitioning to agroforestry, this project will produce six case studies of highly successful agroforestry ventures from across Appalachian Virginia, West Virginia, and Ohio. Each case study will describe challenges, costs, and rewards experienced by individuals over the years involved in their transition into forest farming and economic growth.
  • We will also develop videos that can be shared over diverse platforms to attract new farmers, especially youth. Short educational videos will focus on topics that producers identify as most useful for beginners in agroforestry, from land access to planting and sales. 
  • Testimonial videos will document traditional Appalachian practices that reflect rich knowledge about the remarkable biodiversity of this ancient temperate rainforest.  How are growers and producers engaging and fostering non-timber forest products, including understory botanicals, mushrooms, fruit, nut, and syrup producing trees?  What forms of traditional knowledge, tools, and management may be used to encourage pollinators, and harness aspects of distinctively Central Appalachian forest habitats, including streams, soils, and characteristic features such as coves, hollows, and bottomland for the production of crops and game animals?

This project will also reach out to service providers (extension agents, non-profits, etc.) as they help landowners make decisions about the sustainable management of their forests, opportunities for income generation and sustainable livelihoods. We will develop briefing papers about scenarios for multistory forest farming adapted to two economic, ecological, and physiographic subregions that reflect current farming communities across Central Appalachia. 

  • Some scenarios will focus on mid-size farms in highly rural, primarily agricultural communities with stressed, overused soil and watersheds. 
  • Other scenarios will focus on Appalachian cove forests and small landholders in historically coal-dependent areas with pockets of less disturbed land with high biodiversity arising from microclimate, rich cove soil, and abundant waters.
All photos by Chris Burney

Project collaborators  

The project is directed by LiKENeer Chris Burney (who is also completing a PhD in Plant and Soil Sciences at West Virginia University) in collaboration with Dr. Tom Hammett (Sustainable Biomaterials, Virginia Tech), Dr. Mary Hufford (LiKEN Associate Director and visiting professor in Folklore, Ohio State University),  Dr. Betsy Taylor (LiKEN Executive Director), and Dr. James Thompson (Plant and Soil Sciences, West Virginia University).   Ruby Daniels (LiKEN Community Engagement Coordinator), retired school teacher Wilma Steele, retired coal miner Terry Steele, Sprouting Farms, Yew Mountain Center, and Future Generations University are playing key roles in outreach and gathering of feedback from diverse stakeholders and networks.

Contact for more information…

We welcome your suggestions and hope that if you are interested in learning more about this project you may contact Chris Burney, cburney@likenknowledge.org or visit the LiKEN website www.likenknowledge.org   If you are a farmer, you may assist this research by agreeing to an interview and a walking tour of your agroforestry plots  with one of our researchers, or by making and sharing your own photographs and video recordings.

Funding by:

“The Worst Problem you never heard of”: Heirs’ Property Ownership in Appalachia and the South

A project of the Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (LiKEN) 

Heirs’ property is created when land passes without a will to two or more descendants who become “tenants in common” of the property. This kind of “tangled title” can make families vulnerable. Land speculators can acquire a small share of the property and force a partition sale, often far below fair market value. Extensive research across the Cotton Belt of the U.S. South has found that heirs’ property correlates with low wealth in African American communities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers heirs’ property to be the leading cause of African American involuntary land loss. Heirs’ property also seems to be common in other regions with entrenched poverty (Central Appalachia, the colonias in southern Texas, and Native American communities) but only a few scholars have studied the issue in these communities. Heirs’ property has been called “the worst problem you never heard of”. 

In October 2020, LiKEN began a project investigating heirs’ property occurrence and the experiences of heirs’ property owners in selected counties of Alabama, Georgia, and eastern Kentucky. This project is supported by funds from the Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Policy Center at Alcorn State University in Mississippi. In Alabama and Georgia, this project will assess outcomes of the Uniform Partition of heirs’ Property Act (UPHPA) by looking at changes in partition sales since the passing of the act and by talking to local officials, lawyers, and heirs’ property-owning families. In the selected eastern Kentucky counties, the project will estimate the frequency of heirs’ property and speak with heirs’ property owners to gain an understanding of their experiences and perceptions related to heirs’ property. 

How heirs’ property creates household vulnerability

The “clouded title” associated with heirs’ property can result in a variety of issues for landowners. Lack of clear title makes it difficult for an heirs’ property owner to make improvements to their property because they must obtain permission from all the other heirs. Depending on how many heirs there are, a number which can increase rapidly with successive generations, getting a consensus from all owners can be a nearly insurmountable obstacle. Clouded title also eliminates the option of using land and buildings as collateral on loans. In the event of a disaster, clouded title can make it impossible to access relief and resources. 

Another major risk heirs’ property owners face is the possibility of a forced partition sale. If one heir wants to sell the property, a judge may order a partition sale, even if all the owners are not in agreement. Over the past several decades, speculators and developers have taken advantage of this legal practice by buying one owner’s share of an heirs’ property, forcing the sale of the entire property, and buying it, often at a low cost. In the 19th and 20th centuries, coal speculators in Appalachia took advantage of the vulnerability of households with clouded titles. More recently, African American communities in coastal Georgia and South Carolina have lost family lands to developers seeking to profit from the tourism economy of the region. In already socially and economically disadvantaged communities, these challenges further dampen prospects for sustainable well-being and security.

Jeremiah Green on his farm in coastal South Carolina.
(Photo by Cassandra Johnson Gaither, USDA Forest Service)

Policy solutions: a beginning

As an effort to help preserve family wealth and reduce the likelihood of partition sales, the Uniform Partition of Heirs’ Property Act (UPHPA) was drafted in 2010. It has since been passed in 17 states and introduced in six others. In 2012 and 2014, Georgia and Alabama, respectively, passed the UPHPA. The act has not yet been introduced in Kentucky. Virginia enacted the UPHPA in 2020 (the only Central Appalachian state to do so). It was introduced in the West Virginia legislature in 2020.

Left: The historic home belonging to descendants of Willis Johnson, Sr. in Charleston, South Carolina.
Right: Two of Mr. Johnson’s heirs and current owners of the home, Rebecca Campbell (left) and Catherine Braxton (right). Photos by Cassandra Johnson Gaither, USDA Forest Service.

Our work

This project seeks first to evaluate the impact of the UPHPA on both the number and rate of partition sales and on the actors involved in these sales in Georgia and Alabama. The project will assess court-level impressions of how the act has worked  to influence partition by sale versus partition in kind (or other means) in Georgia and Alabama. We will also assess the frequency and impact of heirs’ property in Kentucky – a state that has not adopted the UPHPA. In Kentucky, we hope to communicate our findings on the nature and impact of heirs’ property to catalyze public conversation about the UPHPA.

Project collaborators  

The project is directed by LiKENeer Megan White in collaboration with co-Principal Investigators, Dr. Cassandra Johnson Gaither (Social Scientist, U.S. Forest Service) and Dr. Betsy Taylor (LiKEN Executive Director). This project spans across several communities and requires expertise in multiple areas. The core advisory group, made up of Mary Cromer (Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center), Joe Childers (Childers & Baxter, PLLC), Brady Deaton (Univ of Guelph), Dr. Aaron Guest (Arizona State Univ), and Putnam LaBarre (Oscar P. LaBarre LLC), provide legal and methodological expertise. Advisors on other targeted areas of the project include Marty Newell (Center for Rural Strategies), Dr. Simona Perry (c.a.s.e. Consulting Services), Dr. Karen Rignall (UnivKY), Sarah Stein (Federal Reserve of Atlanta), and Dr. Robert Zabawa (Tuskegee University). We will be working collaboratively with the Appalachian Land Study collective.

Contact for more information…

We welcome your suggestions and hope that if you are interested in learning more about this project you will contact Megan White, mwhite@likenknowledge.org, or visit the LiKEN website www.likenknowledge.org. If you are an heirs’ property owner in any of the counties listed above, you may assist this research by agreeing to an interview with one of our researchers, or by making and sharing your own photographs and video recordings.

Watch for more publications from us!

We will regularly produce educational materials about heirs’ property in general, and our findings in particular — on LiKEN’s new “Popular Education page”.  Please stay tuned for upcoming webinars, issue briefings, research reports, infographics, etc.

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This research was supported by funds from the Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Policy Research Center.

References cited

Presser, Lizzie.“Their Family Bought Land One Generation After Slavery”. ProPublica. July 15, 2019 https://features.propublica.org/black-land-loss/heirs-property-rights-why-black-families-lose-land-south/. Accessed Nov. 14, 2020

Johnson Gaither, Cassandra