This Lawyer is Seeking Justice and Equity for Black Farmers
According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, people of color own less than 5% of America's 2 million farms. Jillian Hishaw helps aging black farmers and other historically disadvantaged groups retain their land.
As a kid growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, Jillian Hishaw heard snippets of family lore about relatives who once had farms. But it wasn't until she was older that Hishaw discovered the devastating truth: her great-grandmother lost her Oklahoma farmland after being cheated by a lawyer. While pursuing a degree in agricultural law, Hishaw learned many farmers of color face similar challenges. For example, in separate lawsuits, federal judges ruled the U.S.D.A. systematically denied black and Native American farmers loans and disaster payments. Over the past century, black farmers have lost 80% of their land. Hishaw observed farmers of color were disproportionately affected by obstacles in transferring land ownership from generation to generation, often resulting in land loss. Now she's helping farmers take action to protect their land.
What She Does
Hishaw founded the nonprofit Family Agriculture Resource Management Services (F.A.R.M.S.) in 2013 to offer legal services focused on aging farmers of color. Funded primarily by grants and donations, F.A.R.M.S. works with a network of volunteers throughout the U.S. to provide legal advice, create wills and trusts, and represent farmers in court. She's especially concerned with farmers who've opted into Medicaid. They often don't realize that in the case of outstanding medical debt, the government can place a lien on the farm. "Some states have clauses and exemptions to protect small farmers," Hishaw says. "Most states do not." It affects so many people that Hishaw published a book about it: Don't Bet the Farm on Medicaid. F.A.R.M.S. also purchases produce from independent farms (putting dollars in the pockets of farmers) and donates it to rural communities in need—320,000 pounds to date.
Why It's Cool
For a one-woman operation supported by volunteers, Hishaw has made quite an impact. The organization has helped dozens of farmers and their families protect more than 1,000 acres of land. "A couple of years ago we lost a lot of our vegetables and we were without crop insurance," recalls Tamie Burnell, who owns Burnell Farms in Royston, Georgia. "Jillian gave us vital information. She's also connected me with new business opportunities and revenue streams." Another day, another profitable farm kept in the family.
After tragedy struck her family, Jillian Hishaw devoted her professional life to being a voice for black farmers. Not only do they own only 5% of the 2 million farms in America, but they are also at a considerable disadvantage when it comes to insurance and loans. With the help of people like Hishaw, farms can rightfully stay with their owners and black farmers will have more equal legal representation. See other stories of people going above and beyond at Food with Purpose.
Keeping Farmland in the Family | October 2019 EatingWell