Sen. Craig Hickman (D-Kennebec) has proposed legislation that would create two state programs to encourage young African-Americans born in Maine to get into the business of farming by giving them apprenticeships and free land in the state.
LD 1274 — An Act to Increase Land Access for Historically Disadvantaged Populations — is based on similar legislation that has been introduced in Georgia, Illinois, and South Carolina, Hickman told the Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry on Monday.
“Because it was a copy-paste, there are some critiques of this legislation,” Hickman said, adding that the committee would work with the relevant state agencies to flesh out its final form.
Hickman, who is a farmer, then read a moving story that he wrote in 2009 for Harvard University anniversary event as a way of testifying to his personal love for farming.
Hickman’s bill, as it’s currently written, would create two new programs.
The first program would be the “Farm Conservation Corps,” a kind of vocational program for 18-29-year-olds interested in learning about agriculture. The FCC would be tailored to allow participants to work farming-based internships on smaller Maine farms, i.e. those with incomes below $250,000.
But the bigger part of the bill — and perhaps the more controversial part — would create a taxpayer-funded grant program to allow African-Americans born in Maine and living in Maine to apply with the state for a grant of land.
“This bill establishes the Black Farmer Restoration Program within the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to support Black farmers and to encourage the growth of Black farmers in the field of agriculture through agricultural land grants,” the bill’s current summary says.
In the current version of the legislation, individuals eligible for the program must have been born in Maine, be at least 21 years old, previously identified as Black or African, and have at least one parent of African ancestry.
When allocating land grants, the BFRP would give first preference to “socially disadvantaged farmers,” which are defined as farmers from a “socially disadvantaged group,” which is defined as “a group of people whose members have been subject to racial or ethnic prejudice because of their identity as a member of a group without regard to their individual qualities.”
While “socially disadvantaged farmers” are top in the pecking order, individuals with a history of land dispossession are second in line, but only if they meet the eligibility criteria. Below the land dispossessed and socially disadvantaged farmers from socially disadvantaged groups come African-Americans with some experience in farming, followed by U.S. military veterans.
The land provided to applicants would not come from existing State of Maine holdings, but would instead be purchased by the state at fair market value in response to an application.
The funding would come from a newly created “Black Farmer Restoration Program Fund” — though no source of funding for that program has been identified.
At Monday’s hearing, Hickman pointed to U.S. Sen. Corey Booker’s (D-N.J.) Jan. 26 proposal that would accomplish something similar nationally. New England Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have also signed on in support of Booker’s bill.
According to the Maine Farmland Trust, a non-profit advocacy group that has endorsed the proposal, 89 percent of African-American farmers in Maine do not own the land they cultivate.
“The 2017 Census of Agriculture revealed that only 11% of Black farmers in Maine own the land that they cultivate,” wrote MFT Policy & Research Director Shelley Megquier, who also testified in support of the bill.
According to census report released in 2019, there were 128 black or African-American farmers in Maine in 2017.
Those who testified in favor of the bill emphasized that Maine’s history often overlooks the role Maine, then part of Massachusetts, played in perpetuating and benefiting from the African slave trade, casting the grant program as a kind of reparations.
“The experiences of my ancestors were much different than the ancestors of Black Mainers,” said Andy O’Brien, communications director for the AFL-CIO and a history columnist.
“When my ancestors came to settle and farm in Maine the 1700s, they initially squatted here and were later able to negotiate favorable terms for the land with the wealthy Boston merchants who held the deeds,” O’Brien said.
“Aside from a few scattered farming settlements, Black Mainers didn’t have those same opportunities,” he said.
Craig Lapine, a spokesperson from the Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry, struck a more skeptical tone in delivering the agency’s testimony.
Lapine said the bill, if passed, would be a “significant entry into real estate purchases and sales by the Department that we are not currently equipped to undertake.”
Lapine also flagged a number of problems with how the bill is currently written. He said the language could be construed to mean the Department would be forced to buy land from willing sellers even in the absence of an applicant. Further, he noted that there have been no appropriations to provide money to cover the cost of the land acquisitions and staff required to run the apprenticeship programs.
Sen. Stacy Brenner (D-Cumberland), an organic farmer from Scarborough, said she has seen firsthand the lack of diversity in farming.
“As a farmer, I have witnessed the disparities in who chooses to pursue a career in agriculture,” Brenner said. “The lack of diversity in this farming community of peers shows the depth of the disparities that exist.”
Noting a shortage in agriculture workers, Brenner said the bill would encourage and empower Black farmers to work in the field of agriculture and become business owners.
“It is now time to take the next step and work towards equity within our farming community,” she said.
The bill doesn’t have a fiscal note, nor does it say how much money would hypothetically be allocated for purchasing land.
The amount of land that can be redistributed to a given applicant is capped at 100 acres, but another section of the bill says those seeking more than 100 acres will be required to submit a plan that articulates how they would use the land, so the limits of the land grant program are up for debate.
The bill would allow any recipient of land under the program to sell the land immediately, with the state having the right of first refusal to purchase the land back from the applicants at the appraised value.