“My mother was an urbanite who would sometimes get upset when my father and I talked about how pretty a tree was,” recalls Ebonie Alexander. “I remember her saying, ‘It’s a tree. They all look alike.’”
It was this that inspired Alexander, the executive director of the Black Family Land Trust (BFLT), to name the nonprofit’s managed forestry initiative “A Tree, Is A Tree, Is A Tree.” This three-part training is a key part of a program for which the organization recently received a grant from SFI’s Conservation and Community Partnership Grants Program, which is designed to help African-American farmers in seven counties in southern Virginia retain land assets and, ultimately, receive income from it by planting trees.
“The farmers we’ll be working with participated in a buyout of peanut and tobacco crops by the United States Department of Agriculture in the early 2000s,” explains Alexander. This meant the farmers agreed to no longer grow those crops on their land. Many of those farmers are now in their seventies, and haven’t identified a replacement crop that would yield the same revenue. And also because of their age, most will soon be passing land ownership along to the next generations in their families. Often these are family members who won’t be actually living on the land, but will be managing it from another state.
This is where trees come in: “They’re the ideal replacement crop in this situation,” says Alexander. “Once established, they aren’t labor intensive—they’ll take care of themselves. And they don’t need a resident farmer to do that. Trees are the perfect crop for people who don’t live on the land they own.”And yet often trees are overlooked as an income-generating asset, particularly among African Americans. The potential value of trees isn’t always clear to farmers. “They’ll look at trees that already exist on their land as just part of the farm, the back acres or side of the yard, or as a once-in-a-lifetime timber sale to bring in additional money.”
It’s easy to see why the newly-forged partnership between SFI and BFLT makes sense. “Our missions are perfectly aligned,” says Alexander. “We want to create the understanding that trees and forests are valuable family-owned assets.”
They can be so valuable, in fact, Alexander says that depending on a farmer’s acreage and how the trees are managed, they can function like a family’s 401K, bringing in significant amounts of income at regular intervals. In order to get this message across to the families who could benefit from it, BFLT will use the SFI grant first to do outreach and education to attract them. “From there we’ll create cohorts of five to ten families in each county, meet with them individually to assess their land and see where we can help them, which types of trees will likely generate the most revenue for them, and so on. Once a quarter we’ll bring the cohort families together to share what they’ve done and what they’ve learned with each other. In these meetings we’ll provide further input and education from groups like the USDA, the Virginia Department of Forestry, and SFI.”
“This effort, supported by SFI’s grant, is a programmatic offering that helps landowners protect their asset” she adds. “It’s an option that will help them to avoid dividing their land with each generation. This prevents the land from being subdivided into tiny pieces that have no viable use as farmland, or forestland, or residential or commercial use. By planting trees, families can hold on to their land, generate income, and help to enhance the health of the environment. It’s a win-win.”