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UAPB alumna works to boost family's land

by Will Hehemann Special to The Commercial | August 28, 2021 at 3:25 a.m.
Participants in the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff’s Keeping it in the Family Program to help them retain their family land in stand with each other. Those involved in Ouachita County (from left) were Kandi Williams, UAPB Extension associate; Aaron Williams, Poison Spring State Forest manager; Ouachita County landowners Sara Seals and George Seals; Joe Friend, UAPB forester; and Evette Browning, outreach coordinator for the Arkansas Department of Agriculture. (Special to The Commercial)

At age 88, Sara Seals, a 1953 alumna of Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College, now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, is working to ensure the land she grew up on in Stephens is in good shape for future generations of her family.

Though she lives in Cleveland, Ohio, she is very much connected to the land her grandfather, George Rhinehart, originally purchased. Throughout her career and into retirement, Seals visited her family land in Ouachita County.

Eventually, she discovered UAPB's "Keeping it in the Family" Program, part of the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program Network.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

"My grandparents farmed on the land, and my father eventually took responsibility of the family farm in addition to his job as a truck driver," Seals said. "My father was a hard worker who loved the land – he simply enjoyed farming and seeing trees grow. My four brothers and I were all farmers, too, in a sense."

When they were not in school, the children were responsible for picking vegetables, chopping cotton, delivering lunches to hired farm help and transporting produce.

"We were accustomed to getting up early and working," Seals said. "We didn't know any better. If you grew up in that setting where everyone else was working, it was normal for you to work hard, too. It was a way of life. We were having fun."

Because there were no full-term schools in the area, when Seals was around 6 years old, her parents started sending her to live with her aunts in Little Rock and Kansas City, Mo., so she could attend school full time during the academic year.

"My mother was a teacher and both my parents valued education," she said. "They wanted me to follow in their footsteps. After middle school, I attended Gilbert Academy in New Orleans, which was a boarding school for Black students without access to high schools in their hometowns."

IMPORTANCE OF EDUCATION

After graduating from high school, Seals applied and was accepted into her first-choice university -- AM&N. She said she chose AM&N for several reasons: it was the least expensive option, and it was located in her home state, meaning she could easily go home for vacations.

"Attending AM&N was a wonderful experience, both educationally and socially," she said. "Being in a less confined environment for the first time allowed me to mature a lot. I enjoyed the people and met lifelong friends."

Some of Seals' favorite college memories are from her participation in the speech and drama club.

"We traveled across the southeastern region, performing in plays at universities such as Kentucky State, Grambling [State] and Tuskegee," she said. "Seeing new places and making connections was also a great way to develop as a person."

After earning her undergraduate degree in sociology, Seals worked for a few years as a telephone operator and in management positions for telephone companies at Cleveland, Ohio. Eventually, she decided to change her career track and enrolled in a graduate program in education at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

"Once I earned my master's degree, I worked as an elementary school teacher for grades 1-8," she said. "And after nine years, I became assistant principal of the Cleveland Public School System."

FAMILY LAND

After her father became ill, Seals worked with her brother, Joe Rhinehart, to manage the property. Following their father's death, the siblings began searching for programs that would help make the land more sustainable and profitable.

They applied for different cost-share farm programs, but found the process tedious. They could never be sure whether they would actually receive funding for the programs they applied for.

"Then one day about four years ago I read about something called the 'Keeping it in the Family Program' in a magazine," she said. "I thought the assistance offered through the program would be a great idea for my farm. I began corresponding with people at the UAPB Small Farm Program and then met Mr. Joe Friend."

Friend, UAPB forester, has been working on UAPB's Keeping it in the Family Program since 2016. He said the overarching goal of the program is to address historic barriers to African American success in forestry and to help landowners retain their family land.

"KIITF is part of the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program Network," he said. "Launched by the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Forest Service in 2012, the program helps landowners address heirs' property and land retention issues and understand the value of responsibly managing forestland."

After being assigned to work with Seals, Friend went to visit her at her property in Ouachita County.

"I looked around and noticed timber had been harvested about five years ago," he said. "Much of the land was grown up with brush. I told Ms. Seals we needed to plant trees and convert the land into a healthy tree stand."

Friend helped Seals apply and gain funding for the conservation service's Environmental Quality Incentive Program practices such as the removal of brush and installation of fire lanes. He credits her with always being diligent about looking for new conservation practices to apply for to better the land.

HELP FOR LANDOWNERS

"We at the Small Farm Program really enjoy working with Ms. Seals," Friend said. "She makes an active effort to be a good steward of the land her father and grandfather took care of before her. Now, she wants to set up a sustainable forestry operation on the property and pass the land on to future generations."

Friend said his favorite part of work with the Keeping it in the Family Program is meeting with landowners and trying to help them realize their goals.

"In some cases, access to cost-share programs and education through KIITF has helped landowners keep their family farm," he said. "I most enjoy getting to help the people I meet in some small way."

Following her brother's death last year, Seals works with her nephews, George and Eric Rhinehart, to manage the land. She said her family's partnership with UAPB has left the land in good shape for her nephews and her grandson, George Seals, as well as future generations.

"The Small Farm Program provided us the exact help we were looking for," Seals said. "They gave us information on what research to do and helped us with the sign-up process for a number of farm financial assistance and conservation programs. Learning how to apply and follow up with our applications in the proper way helped us get approved. The people at the Small Farm Program are 500 percent effective at what they do."

Since its inception, Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention has improved forest management and forest retention by connecting African American landowners to established networks of forestry support, including federal and state government programs, businesses, and nonprofit conservation, legal and community development organizations.

During the summer of 2019, the American Forest Foundation assumed the administrative, fundraising, policy advocacy and technical support functions of the land retention program in collaboration with its network made up of eight "anchor organizations," including UAPB's Keeping it in the Family Program.

The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff offers all of its Extension and Research programs and services without discrimination.

Will Hehemann is a writer/editor with the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences.

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