Land Assistance Fund Feeds Farmers’ Hopes

Farming is not for the faint of heart. Thank goodness the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund is still here, bringing bounty and blessings to those who work the land.

It’s been 52 years since The Federation started helping small and minority farmers through advocacy, the development of farm cooperatives and land retention. According to Wendell Paris, the group’s first director of training, the FSC is first and foremost about the value of strength in numbers.

“You’re not just out there fighting by yourself, but you have some people that’s got a bulldog’s grip. They’re not going to give up on folks if there’s some way we can give them some help.”

Women quilters of the Freedom Quilting Bee work and visit in Alberta, Alabama, in June 1974. Photo by Pat Goudvis.

The Federation’s work stretches from Virginia to Florida and on to Texas. Land Assistance Fund offices are located in Marksville, La.; Jackson, Mississippi; Epes, Alabama; Albany, Georgia; and South Carolina. An upgrade to the Louisiana office is currently under way: A commercial office will soon replace the home-based one in Avoyelles Parish.

Bruce Harrell, an agriculture specialist, heads the Louisiana office and the Louisiana Asset Building Project. He is a fifth-generation farmer who’s worked with the Federation for 12 years.

Harrell estimates that he works with 50 to100 farmers annually in the state, traveling to wherever a need arises. He helps growers resolve growing issues and complete applications and claims of loss. Other services include workshops on heir-and-succession property issues, in-school programming on healthy living with fruits and vegetables and some OpenAg workshops on urban farming that haven’t quite taken off yet in New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

“We were there letting the residents know about urban agriculture, how to start and let them know they can apply to get a loan to farm” with a high tunnel. (A high tunnel is a lightweight and mobile greenhouse where farming is executed in the soil, not just in pots on tables. The beauty of the high tunnel is that it extends the growing season, Harrell says.) These structures have revolutionized farming over the last 20 years, fueling the popularity of farm-to-table dining internationally.

“The USDA helps farmers pay for high tunnels. You just need to show [you] have had the land for at least five years,” Harrell continues. If you can, an applicant is put on the agency’s list and eligibility is determined. The length of the process depends on one’s parish of residency. Harrell has been waiting two years for funding.

Farmers prepare to plant soybeans in Epes, Alabama, in June 1974. Photo by Pat Goudvis.

In keeping with its 1967 mission, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund works with all minorities, Harrell says. It exists to organize and empower poor people, providing them the power to control their lives and resources, according to Paris, a founding member.

“Black farmers are losing their land. Ownership has declined tremendously over the last century,” Harrell says. “You have a younger generation that is not aware of what’s going on with their family’s property because their forefathers didn’t talk their business. The ancestor might have left a small debt, that goes into foreclosure, and the land is lost for a very little bit of money.”

To counteract this tragedy, FSC encourages its members to draw up a will or a trust so their land stays in their families’ possession.