As the nation continues to reckon with racial and social injustice, a North Carolina electric cooperative has been quietly working to reverse decades of systemic discrimination against African American landowners.

The Sustainable Forestry and Land Retention Project at Roanoke Electric Cooperative (REC) is one of eight community-based organizations selected in 2013 to administer the national Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention program. The U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities created the program after decades of declines in African American farm ownership.

In 1920, African Americans owned between 16 million and 19 million acres of rural land and accounted for about 14% of the nation’s farmers. Today, they comprise less than 2% of farmers and own less than 5 million acres, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture.

“In addition to discriminatory practices by agencies, African American landowners were denied access to resources because they weren’t informed of technical resources available to them or informational opportunities to learn the importance of estate planning to reduce the risk of heir heir property [land owned by two or more people when there’s no will],” says Alton Perry, project manager at the Ahoskie-based co-op.

Perry and his staff help participants establish legal ownership of their properties to ensure that valuable land stays in their families. Landowners also learn forestry management techniques to transform unprofitable family farms and forests into economic assets.

“The Sustainable Forestry and Land Retention Project addresses what landowners might see as a liability,” Perry says. “But through education and access to technical assistance, capital, and estate planning services, now their forestland has the potential to become an economic, environmental, and social asset for the family.”

Perry, who forged strong connections with public agencies and conservation advocacy groups during an early career in forestry, hosts informational webinars, conferences, and workshops, attended by about 200 nearby landowners. He’s helped dozens gain access to resources for forest management and estate plans. Perry estimates that, through this program, local landowners are implementing sustainable forestry and conservation practices on about 13,000 acres of land.

“Alton deserves a ton of credit for taking something from scratch and turning it into one of the best forest landowner programs in our area,” says Chris Brown, community relations manager at Enviva, a wood pellet manufacturer that operates nine plants in the Southeast, including two in Roanoke Electric’s service area. “He has a great ability to bring people together, from the industry to conservation folks to landowners.”

Enviva is one of two industry partners supporting the Roanoke Electric program with grants and technical assistance for landowners. Since 2017, it has given $50,000 for forestry and legal services and provided on-staff foresters to consult with participants at workshops or on their properties.

Brown says he believes that community-based projects like Roanoke Electric’s are vital in righting past wrongs because they connect landowners and state authorities in a low-pressure atmosphere.

“There’s been a reluctance among the African American community and some of the other underserved communities in rural North Carolina that agencies or private businesses might not have their best interests at heart,” he says.

As for the landowners seeking assistance from the project, many have turned into skilled foresters; one was appointed to an advisory panel at a national conservation group.

Others, like the Kylers, are just beginning.

Kyler family members are scattered across the country, but their roots are in Enfield, North Carolina. Recently, they learned those roots run a good bit deeper when they discovered they own a significant piece of forestland in Enfield.

The discovery set in motion a complex legal process that’s been aided by Roanoke Electric, which counts many Kyler relatives as consumer-members. Co-op staff are working with the family to detangle legal and land issues and to ultimately develop a forest management and land retention plan.

“It has been a positive experience working with REC,” the family says. “We’re now going through the process of finding out how much we own, what’s tillable, what’s farmable, and what’s open.”

Family members said they were disheartened to learn about the discrimination African American farmers have faced, and they are determined to know all they can about their land.

“REC is really educating us on forestry and conservation,” the family said. “It’s one thing to own property, but something totally different to own property and cultivate it for the next generation.”