Ensuring that Black landowners and their descendants hold onto to what is left of their land has become Tharlyn Fox’s core focus as manager of the LEAP Coalition.
LEAP, which stands for Legislation, Education, Advocacy and Production Systems, was formed last year by John Deere, the National Black Growers Council (NBGC) and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF).
Fox, who has been with Deere 14 years, has been manager of the coalition since it was founded. She said LEAP’s primary purpose is to better the lives of Black farmers and their families by addressing heirs' property.
"Heirs' property really is a very huge challenge," Fox said. Families "are in just such a quandary that they don’t know what to do. Many of them have paperwork … that they don't know what to do with. They’re afraid to go down to the county."
Many of these fears, Fox explained, come from decades of systemic discrimination, ranging from denial of federal farm assistance to unjust lending practices.
"I've seen family members talk about it with tears in their eyes because they just don’t know what to do," Fox said. "They want to leave a legacy to the next generation and that’s what’s so vitally important."
Not having paperwork recorded with the county often results in fractional ownership of the land, which becomes a problem, Fox explained, when one relative sells their fraction of the land.
"One person can sell their fraction of their ownership and force the sale of the entire piece of property," Fox said. "It's almost as if they’re sitting on dead capital. This is the most valuable resource that you'll ever have and you can’t do anything with it."
With Black farmers now owning less than 5 million acres of land in the US it’s important that we help these families sustain their properties for generations to come, Fox said.
"It affects all of us in a sense from a community standpoint," Fox said. "We want to make sure our neighbors are getting full benefit. When our neighbors are not completely whole it doesn’t make us completely whole."