For many farmers, a lack of legal documentation threatens their ability to keep the farm in the family and then pass on to their children. Issues in transferring heirs property is a “real and direct threat to land ownership and building intergenerational wealth of their family,” explains Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., during a press conference with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack July 29 in announcing a new Heirs’ Property Relending Program.
USDA says it will be providing $67 million in competitive loans through the HRRP, which aims to help agricultural producers and landowners resolve heirs’ land ownership and succession issues. Intermediary lenders -- cooperatives, credit unions, and nonprofit organizations – can apply for loans up to $5 million at 1% interest once the Farm Service Agency opens the two-month signup window in late August. The loans will need to be repaid, which can allow for a revolving door of additional funds if warranted, Vilsack explains.
In announcing the program, Vilsack explains many heirs own fractionated land and over many years many are unable to transfer the land without a deed or will. Over time, interest in the land is carved up into small fractions making it difficult to access many of the programs at USDA including traditional farm programs.
Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., helped author the provisions included in the 2018 Farm Bill which he says this latest action from USDA is the “translation of our legislative solution into action.” He says through relending, which will be required to be paid back to USDA, it gives greater means to resolve heirs’ property issues and preserve farms.
Jennie Stephens, CEO of South Carolina-based Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, says this relending program is a great step in USDA addressing the issue of heirs’ property. “These funds will help Black farmers and families unlock wealth and equity traditionally unavailable to them,” she says.
Her organization has been providing legal education and direct legal services since 2005, and drafted wills since 2009. Through grants and foundation support, the non-profit helped resolve 285 titles involving 1,400 acres to assist the families to access the equity in their land and receiving tools to work for them.
“While those affected are in all geographic and cultural areas, many Black farmers and other groups who have experienced historic discrimination have inherited heirs’ property,” Vilsack says. “USDA is committed to revising policies to be more equitable and examining barriers faced by heirs’ property owners is part of that effort. This helps ensure that we protect the legacy of these family farms for generations to come.”
The title of property is not only a challenge for Black farmers, but also a gateway to a myriad of programs and opportunities for other farmers as well including Hispanics and even impacted white farmers in Appalachia, Vilsack says.
Vilsack says the agency won’t know how many individuals may be positively impacted until the program is set up and they see what the level of demand is for the assistance and help, but he anticipates “thousands of landowners who can be positively impacted by this program.”
To be eligible, intermediary lenders must be certified as a community development financial institution and have experience and capability in making and servicing agricultural and commercial loans that are similar in nature.
If applications exceed the amount of available funds, those applicants with at least 10 years or more of experience with socially disadvantaged farmers located in states that have adopted a statute consisting of enactment or adoption of the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act (UPHPA) will receive first preference. A list of these states is available at farmers.gov/heirs/relending. A secondary preference tier is established for those that have applications from ultimate recipients already in process, or that have a history of successfully relending previous HPRP funds. When multiple applicants are in the same tier, or there are no applicants in tier 1 or 2, applications will be funded in order of the date the application was received.
Selected intermediary lenders will determine the rates, terms, and payment structure for loans to heirs. Interest rates will be the lowest rate sufficient for intermediaries to cover cost of operating and sustaining the loan.
Additional information for lenders, including how to apply for funding, can be found in the HPRP final rule. A webinar will be held Tuesday, August 3, 2021 regarding applying for funding. Interested re-lenders should register through the FSA Outreach and Education webpage.
Relending to heirs
Heirs may use the loans to resolve title issues by financing the purchase or consolidation of property interests and financing costs associated with a succession plan. This may also include costs and fees associated with buying out fractional interests of other heirs in jointly-owned property to clear the title, as well as closing costs, appraisals, title searches, surveys, preparing documents, mediation, and legal services.
Heirs may not use loans for any land improvement, development purpose, acquisition or repair of buildings, acquisition of personal property, payment of operating costs, payment of finders’ fees, or similar costs.
Intermediary lenders will make loans to heirs who:
- Are individuals or legal entities with authority to incur the debt and to resolve ownership and succession of a farm owned by multiple owners;
- Are a family member or heir-at-law related by blood or marriage to the previous owner of the property;
- Agree to complete a succession plan.
More information on how heirs can borrow from lenders under HPRP will be available in the coming months, USDA says.