Less than two percent of farmers in the United States today are Black. About 100 years ago it was 14 percent.
A lack of legal protections such as wills or estates – making it difficult to pass land down generation-to-generation – limited access to capital due to historically discriminatory lending practices, and two pre-14th Amendment federal policies that excluded Black people from land purchases — the Homestead Act of 1862 and Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 — have collectively contributed to the decline.
The Community Economic Development Clinic within The Justice Center at Albany Law School is doing what it can to change this narrative and support and guide Black farmers in the Capital Region.
Farming offers economic opportunity for the Black community, but to increase representation and help build equity, farmers need to ensure prosperity. Clinic students, faculty, and staff attorneys have helped several Black farmers invest in their futures through buying or leasing land and more.
“When it comes to the mission of our clinic, what we are here to do is to be a resource to individuals and groups whose participation is generally uncommon in certain economic industries. We’re here to be a resource to help and to increase that level of participation,” said Staff Attorney David Craft.
Buying farmland requires complex contracts, more protections, and certain environmental factors—healthy soil, infrastructure, water quality—to ensure land can be used for years to come.
“When we talk about the national conversation of building wealth for Black people, home ownership is often the focus. Of course, that is very important too and there are many resources in place already. But in farming, there are not the same kinds of resources available,” Craft said. “New York has a lot of laws already in place to protect purchasers when they're buying a home. But it's different when you incorporate the concept of a farm because there’s more to it than just the residence. That’s a big reason why it matters to have legal counsel because clients need assistance and advice when they are presented with an offer.”
Senior Staff Attorney Todd Arena, Neha Goel ’23, and Michael Tancrendi ’22 guided the Black Yard Farm Collective this year. The collective is an effort operated by co-owners Ashanti Williams and Arian Rivera to create space for Black farmers through education and land access. They operate a community-supported agriculture (CSA) service, provide opportunities for community education, and hold on-the-farm activities like dinners and tours.
The students helped Williams and Rivera negotiate terms on two separate lease agreements.
“It’s very important. It’s an area we need more representation. It’s very expensive to get an attorney. I feel honored to be able to help them. It was such a satisfying feeling to see them be able to sign the paperwork that my partner and I drafted—seeing our work provide them a direct benefit—it was so rewarding,” Goel said.
The experience was so valuable, Goel is working with the CEDC again next semester.
“All the work I did in the clinic directly aligned with my goals and gave me a better understanding of what I want to do. It’s preparing me through hands-on experience,” she said. “In the clinic, you get a lot of experience and exposure to different things. Everyone gets a fair share of exposure to this kind of work.”
Helping a Solo Farmer
Julia Berry Lopez ’23 and Jared De Vore ’22 worked with Craft to assist Justin Butts purchase land to start his own farm in Knox—a rural Albany County town.
Together, Berry Lopez and De Vore made sure Butts secured a good deal on the property, where he hopes to farm livestock. Butts previously tried to buy land, once on his own and once with an attorney, but issues arose and the deals were never finalized. Once he connected with the team at the Clinic, he felt much more confident.
“I had a team of people helping me. I feel very supported; the team is very reliable. I’m very happy with their help and I’d recommend it to anyone,” he said.
Sustainable Dish Episode 103: Justin Butts: On being a top chef, soap maker, & farmer at Soul Fire Farm
Butts is a fellow of Soul Fire Farm which is a social justice focused community farm working to end racism in the food system. He has always dreamed of owning and operating his own farm.
After he signs his paperwork this summer, Butts plans to raise livestock, specifically Kunekune pigs, and produce soap from the lard. Once he acquires the land, he hopes to explore buying more livestock and planting crops. His time at the closing table will be vetted by clinic staff and students, who in turn, gained valuable cross-discipline career experience.
“This opportunity gave Julia and Jared a chance to work on some contract drafting, client counseling, and communicate with an opposing attorney—all skills they will be using in practice,” Craft said.
“After learning more about Justin and his back story—he was the only Black farmer in his county—it’s great to be able to help him settle in this area,” De Vore said.
“I’m certainly not a courtroom type. I much prefer direct contact with people and working out what they want and what they need in their business or nonprofit and helping them achieve those dreams,” he said. “Helping people in our community, people running small businesses, really brought things full circle.”
“It’s been a great way to dip your toes into helping clients but still having the supervisors and people who have our backs as we go along. That is a great dynamic for starting out. It’s also helpful to rely on them to double-check things,” Berry Lopez said.
Righting Historic Wrongs
In addition to building and distributing wealth, Black farms like these can combat food insecurity within communities. Even urban farming can help fill in food deserts.
“Reconnecting to the land can be a very healing process and that's another important aspect of this work. Supporting people to return to having a relationship with land that was lost. There’s also the wealth generating piece of it. Land is a huge source of economic security,” Arena said. “Farming itself has also been a way to achieve security and independence by growing, raising, and harvesting your own foods. It all connects.”
“There are a lot of issues that come down to money. We can’t close the gaps unless we redistribute some wealth,” Craft said.