Building a Future for Black Farmers: An Interview with Legal Expert Dãnia Davy

October 12, 2023 | 3:33 pm
photo of Dania Davy smiling for the camera, with woods and filtered sunlight in the backgroundImara Mickell
Archie Creech
Outreach Coordinator

As part of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS’s) work to address racial equity in the food and farm system, I have had the privilege of working with Dãnia Davy, former director of land access and advocacy at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Access Fund, where she led the organization’s Regional Heirs’ Property and Mediation Center as well as their federal advocacy work. As I’ve written previously, heirs’ property is a legal issue that has caused Black farmers to lose more than $300 billion in land over the past century.  

Dãnia, who holds a JD from the University of Virgina Law School, is now a senior policy advisor at Oxfam, but she continues to work with the Federation, and is teaming up with UCS to plan an event in which Black farmers in Georgia will be able to speak directly to their representatives in Congress about their needs for the next food and farm bill—including a better way to help farmers who hold heirs’ property.  

How did you become interested in heirs’ property? 

My background is in public health, where my undergraduate thesis was about maternal mortality disparities. I’m an immigrant from Jamaica, and I was very confused when I started to understand that there were disparities where race could be a factor in how your health outcomes are different. In my research, I found that Black women were three times more likely to die in the year following giving birth. And if you include things like interpersonal and domestic violence, that rose to seven times more likely than White women to die in that year following childbirth. So that took the blinders off of the American dream for me.  

So, I went to law school thinking that I was going to champion this issue of Black women’s health outcomes in the United States, but when I got to law school there was a very big culture shock. I felt if we really wanted to take care of our vulnerable populations, the legal system was very constraining in addressing those solutions. I became interested in wealth disparities and how sometimes they’re a very good proxy for racial inequities. Land wealth disparities became something that I pursued a lot of coursework to better understand.  

While I was in Mississippi working on a class action lawsuit for shipyard workers who were experiencing unimaginable race-based violence at their place of employment, I often decompressed [by] fantasizing about becoming a farmer in Mississippi. When the Washington Post ran an article about the Pigford class action discrimination lawsuit, that article jolted me. I cold-called the Federation and [spoke with] my now colleague, Ben Burkett, who’s a Mississippi farmer and a leader of cooperative development movement here at the Federation. He gave me a summer intensive course on Black farmers’ land loss and the heirs’ property issue. Once I got that learning from Ben, I just knew that that’s what I wanted to do with my life.  

How did the Federation become involved in the issues of land access and retention? 

The Federation was founded 56 years ago by 22 cooperatively owned businesses. The founders of the Federation were involved in the civil rights movement in their communities and the Black cooperative development movements. The founding cooperatives were contending with the reality of the rural South where sharecroppers were losing their land and civil rights workers were literally being murdered, their families were at risk, they were losing their jobs and ways to protect their families.  

Landowning farmers, because they didn’t have an employer that they reported to, could do things like take out an equity loan to pay for bail for civil rights workers to get them out of jail. They could house them on their land, they could hold meetings on their land. It is so amazing to me that the framework that they used was not “What does our community need?” but it was “What does our community have?”  

Then, Shirley Sherrod and Reverend Dr. Charles Sherrod started New Communities in Georgia, the first-ever community land trust, a kind of nonprofit organization that communally owns land for the benefit of those who live there. Those efforts became kind of the model of these other cooperatives and land trusts. Essentially, we have lands, we have labor, we have community: how do we share that land and labor and provide for our needs, not in a capitalistic way, but to support cooperative economics in our communities so that we’re not beholden to the status quo market?  

So that was the idea of many of the co-ops that were founders of the Federation. Because many of the members of the Federation and these land buying co-ops were farmers and agricultural producers, the issue of heirs’ property came up.  

In your work as director of policy and land access at the Federation, what did you see as the biggest challenge to land retention among Black landowners and farmers? 

I think anti-Black racism permeates all of our institutions.  

The divestiture and the dispossession of land from African Americans fundamentally undermines the American dream. American civil rights [is] based on a constitution that was drafted when African Americans were legally classified as property. 

In our basically completely excluded rural communities, we’re unbanked and underbanked, with limited access to credit, so the traditional business models other communities are able to follow don’t work for us. We have to be very judicious in the decisions that we make.  

One big issue is access to legal services that are culturally competent. There are legal deserts in almost all of the communities that have high concentrations of heirs’ property landowners. The legal work that has to be completed is a huge barrier.  

Accessing credit for business enterprises is another issue. If a farmer that’s been farming their family land wants to expand beyond ranching to include produce into their operation, it’s very difficult for them to finance their operation. They usually have to rely on themselves or family, because traditional banks and even the government don’t really know how to deal with those landowners. So not having enough credit to expand operations to make your land profitable creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. As they’re underinvested in, the property itself becomes devalued by these institutions. Then they can’t participate in ways to really make the land profitable or expand the efforts that they have had. 

Another big problem is the exploitation from land speculators and investors [because of] state intestacy laws, or laws that determine who will inherit property [when someone dies without a will]. 

Finally, the conversation around carbon sequestration has again put the target on the backs of heirs’ property landowners, as speculators and investors are now looking at that as a new income stream. Because carbon sequestration is only understood by a handful of people in the world, there are all these folks who are approaching landowners who are traditionally less educated about how these markets work. It’s kind of like mineral rights—you can still own your land and not own the mineral rights below the surface of that land. That kind of misunderstanding of how carbon credits work is resulting in heirs’ property landowners almost daily getting letters from these folks offering to buy their interest in the carbon sequestration of their land.  

Is the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) any help? Historically, what has been the USDA’s role in this?  

Very loaded question. Farmers and African American farmers in particular have a long-standing, well-documented history of race-based discrimination and lack of access to credit, not just from private lenders, but also [from] our government. USDA, by its own admission, has documented instances where Black and other farmers of color [were] horribly discriminated against by local loan officers. That’s why that next generation frequently wants to leave the land: they want to go and have a different lifestyle than the one that they’ve experienced, and the one that they’ve seen their families experience. So there’s a chilling effect on the next generation, from engaging in agricultural production because of the exploitation and discrimination that they saw their ancestors experiencing.  

Ultimately, I think the biggest touch point for the Black farmers I’ve spoken with is that there’s never been any accountability at the local level for the most blatant offenders [at the USDA]. It’s really hard as an organization that partners frequently with the USDA to incentivize that trust. When I think about how the USDA is doing now, I do see a concerted effort at the federal level [and] the state-level leadership that looks different than 15 years ago.  

Unfortunately, I still get reports of this [discriminatory] behavior at the local level. For all of the extra credit that USDA is getting for all the programs it’s implementing now [to help Black farmers], I’m not sure how far they’ll go to undo the trust deficit that they’re in. 

What has been most effective at helping Black farmers resolve heirs’ property problems and what do people still need? 

What consistently comes up is being able to access credit as an heirs’ property landowner. We made a little bit of headway when FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] recognized heirs’ property landowners for disaster relief, because that gives us an opportunity to advocate for better disaster assistance for heirs’ property landowners.  

[It also helped that] the 2018 farm bill authorized heirs’ property landowners who are in states that have passed the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act to get a farm number. [That] allows them to at least access credit within the Farm Service Agency.  

[Heirs’ property landowners] want access to a revolving loan program. They don’t want a handout, they just want credit, so that they can clear their title. It’s not a legal issue that they created for themselves, but they understand that they’re sitting on wealth, and they are not able to make the most valuable use of that wealth. So some sort of project that would allow them to get what they need to pay for the attorneys, to get title insurance, to get all of the things that a non-heirs’ property landowner has access to capitalize on their asset, are things that they’re seeking.  

We have found in the technical assistance and outreach that we provide for the heirs’ property relending program that a lot of intermediary community development financial institutions really don’t understand who heirs’ property landowners are, what their needs are, and how to give them credit. Any individual heirs’ property landowner only owns their interest, their part of the whole. So with only a piece of heirs’ property, you can’t get a mortgage, for example. You can’t get a title certification, there’s no title insurance product that can be provided. Those are all pieces of the puzzle that heirs’ property landowners have identified.  

When you hear me describing solutions to heirs’ property issues, I’m only amplifying solutions that our experts have given us. 

Anything else that you want to share that is on your mind right now? 

We’re grateful to UCS for partnering. As an organization that’s led by Black folks, a lot of times folks approach us to partner with an agenda, and they just want us to validate what it is that they already want to do. You all have not engaged with us in that way. You followed our lead in the areas where we have expertise and experience. I feel that the model of collaboration that we have had over these months is the type of collaboration and partnership that we all really need.