OPINION - Guest column

Preserving family farms in Arkansas

There's a small black-and-white picture in my mother's photo box. In it, I'm not quite 2 months old and a family friend, near 90, is holding me and smiling as we stand in front of her house.

We're in rural Hempstead County, and I expect it may have been my first trip away from Little Rock. I'm sure my mother chose that destination intentionally and excitedly. She was taking me to our family land where she was born, just like her mother before her.

In those years, my grandmother's parents, aunts, and uncles each had a small house on the property where they raised food for each household, occasionally sold some timber, and enjoyed what must have been an almost idyllic childhood of growing up with cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents all so close by. Even those who had died were still nearby in the family cemetery.

I remember later family trips to visit my great-uncle. He raised cattle on the property that his grandfather had purchased decades before. My younger cousin and I loved his horse, Sugar, but we were a little scared of one of his bulls. We stood on a haystack thinking the added height would protect us or make us more intimidating, but the bull couldn't have cared less about us, one way or the other.

Over the years, there would be many such visits. Eventually my grandmother died, and years later my mother died as well. I miss them always and deeply, and perhaps because of that, I feel even closer to the property than I did as a child. That feeling also comes because, when they died, I joined dozens of my relatives in joint ownership of our family land.

Heir property is family-owned inherited land that is owned by multiple individuals with undivided interest. No one family member can point to any particular part of the land and claim full ownership. Instead, all the heirs own the whole property together.

When someone who owns land dies without a will or with only a simple will, any real property is informally passed down to all the heirs from generation to generation, unless the title is cleared legally. This is what happened in my family and in so many families throughout our state.

Joint ownership can help bind the family members together, strengthening ties over the years through extended relationships and distance as relatives pay taxes on and manage the property. And since all family owners may not live on the property, the joint ownership also connects those family members emotionally and economically with the state and municipality of their family property.

But joint ownership, or co-tenancy, also poses challenges for the family. Without clear title, it is difficult or impossible for families to access support from the Farm Services Administration, the Farm Bureau, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, or similar offices.

Without clear title, the family cannot easily lease the property to another party. Without clear title, ownership grows more complicated with each new generation of heirs. And without clear title, counties and municipalities don't get the increased taxes and other benefits associated with fully developed and utilized properties in their cities, towns, and counties.

Given these challenges and the inherent instability of heir property ownership, in 2010, the Uniform Laws Commission, founded in 1892, drafted model legislation that helps families preserve this form of wealth. In 2015, the Arkansas General Assembly recognized the benefits to our state and its residents and passed the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act without dissent.

To date, 12 states have enacted this legislation including many in our region: Alabama, Georgia, Texas, and South Carolina. The legislation has been so effective at helping families retain their land that Missouri and Iowa call it the "Save the Family Farm Act."

There is increased interest in the legislation now because of new provisions in the 2018 federal Farm Bill which provide priority consideration for certain USDA benefits in states that have passed the heir property act. For residents of those states, like Arkansas, the Farm Bill helps owners of heir property access farm loans, federal programs, and assistance in clearing the title for their property.

The Farm Bill provisions can make a real difference in helping families retain their land and in ensuring municipalities can reap the benefits that come from more productive and developed properties. It's no surprise then that so far this year, the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, perhaps more aptly named the Save the Family Farm Act, has been introduced in nine more states.

My cousins and I recognized the importance of the legislation as well and got recommitted to our property. Just after it was passed, more than a dozen of us from multiple generations and multiple states visited the property, reminiscing with each other and caring for the family cemetery.

Now we are completing our family tree, connecting with family members in at least eight states, and helping them connect with Arkansas and our heritage here. We're also consulting with legal experts to implement a plan to clear the title, and with business development experts to choose the best options for redeveloping our property.

We are eager for our children to build fond memories on the land just as we did and like our parents and grandparents did before us. And along the way, we regularly meet and hear from families from across the state who are doing exactly the same thing.

With both the state legislation and the federal Farm Bill in place, Arkansans with heir property are well positioned to make their land even more of an asset both now and in the future, and not just for their families but also for our state.

Karama Neal, Ph.D, is the founder of Heirs of Arkansas, a statewide grass-roots coalition formed in 2013 to promote passage of the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act.

Editorial on 08/04/2019

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