Wary black forestland owners offered help

Yvonne Cooper-Carter explains to Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, the steps they have taken in preparing to plant a pine forest on 85 acres of family land during his visit Friday in Berkeley County.

MONCKS CORNER — When Yvonne Cooper-Carter heard about a federal program offering help for forest owners who are black, she was wary. When U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack showed up in her community Friday, he faced some pointed questions.

Members of the Cooper family own a total of more than 300 acres in the Cherry Hill community outside Moncks Corner. The land goes back more than 100 years in the family name, rife with stories of Farmers Home Administration discrimination.

For generations, federal farm service lenders defrauded more than 100,000 small farm owners who were black, across the nation but largely in the Southeast. Lenders overpriced loans against land equity to the point where some owners were bankrupted and lost their land. In 2010, after years of legal challenges, the department agreed to a $1.25 billion settlement of lawsuits filed by advocacy groups.

“We talk about this a lot, in terms of the honesty factor,” Cooper-Carter said about her family and the history with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But she decided she’d take a look at the opportunity to get mentoring and technical service help to manage the family’s traditional farmland as forestland.

Vilsack met with the Cooper family and other members of the Cherry Hill community Friday as presidential candidates combed South Carolina in advance of the two parties’ primaries. The visit was a centerpiece to the announcement of a $3.6 million conservation-oriented support program for private black forest owners, including $2 million in business or non-federal funds.

The program stems from a pilot program launched in the Lowcountry in 2013, which worked with 57 applicants, including Cooper-Carter. About 229 million acres of Southern forest is owned privately, including more than 12 million acres in South Carolina. About 16 million of that is owned by blacks and other minorities, according to federal numbers.

Vilsack’s visit followed his Friday morning announcement at Fort Stewart, Ga., of an overall $720 million program to support 84 conservation projects across the country to improve water quality, soil and habitat. That funding will include $500 million in business or non-federal money, according to a news release.

Asked about the timing of the visit a little more than a week ahead of the primaries, Vilsack gave a tiny wry grin and said, “I’m from Iowa. The caucuses are over.” Then he talked about the opportunity for candidates to appreciate the economic importance of conservation in rural areas.

About overcoming the distrust of the department among black farm communities, he said, “We’ve worked really, really hard in the past seven and a half years to create what I call a new era.” The department has targeted resources to lower income farmers and reconstituted its workforce to be more reflective of them, he said.

“I think it’s a different day, and it’s certainly a different USDA.”

For Cooper-Carter, the important part “is having the knowledge, knowing what we can do and how far we can go. Asking questions and then following up,” she said. “Here in South Carolina, forestry is one of the largest industries. Why not give minority landowners the tools and opportunity to keep the industry going? It creates jobs.”

Editor’s note: earlier versions of this story contained an error.

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