By Mike Beacom
Victor Harris has over 30 years of experience in forest management. He was an area forester with the Virginia Department of Forestry, then joined the North Carolina Division of Forest Resources as head of engineering services and was later promoted to assistant state forester for administration.
In 2005, Harris began publishing Minority Landowner Magazine, which chronicles the challenges and successes of minority farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners across the country. The publication’s mission is to provide information that will help landowners improve productivity, increase profitability, and maintain ownership of their land.
Harris also serves as an outreach consultant, designing and producing minority landowner forestry and agricultural workshops nationally. He recently served on the Woodlands Committee of the American Forest Foundation and is a past board member of the Conservation Trust for North Carolina.
Forestry Notes: What inspired you to start the magazine?
Victor Harris: About 30 years ago, I became the first black forester in the history of the Virginia Department of Forestry and was not only afforded the opportunity to serve the citizens and landowners of Henrico County and the City of Richmond, but the Department enlisted me to assist with outreach efforts as well. That was the beginning of my education on the challenges affecting minorities within the forestry and natural resources profession, and the challenges facing minority farmers and landowners as they pursue the sustainability, longevity, and success of their land management operation.
Later in my career, I accepted a position with the North Carolina Forest Service, and while attending a minority and small farmers conference on the campus of North Carolina A&T State University, I remember the feeling of awe when I walked into a ballroom full of mostly African American farmers and landowners. It was more than a feeling of awe, it was respect and admiration. To meet them, men and women, and hear their stories about the challenges and obstacles they’ve faced and overcome reminded me of the stories of the Tuskegee Airman. As a Tuskegee alum, I connected with these farmers and landowners. I became more aware of how they faced discrimination, threats, and sometimes violence but stayed committed to their dreams of owning and working the land. That gave me a lot of pride. The farmers and landowners I met that day were my inspiration to start the magazine. I knew then that I would do whatever I could to help them be successful and maintain ownership of their land. Minority Landowner Magazine is my platform in my small corner of the world to elevate minority landowners and to recognize and celebrate their journeys.
Through your interactions with readers, what have you learned about how they value the land they manage?
My experience has been that practically all farmers and landowners value their land, and when provided the right information and assistance they’ll take steps to properly care for, manage, and conserve their land, while also working to make their land as productive as possible. Minority landowners are no exception. That said, like with most things, the harder you have to work to achieve any level of success and maintain it, the more you come to appreciate it. I’ve found that the barriers they’ve had to fight through for generations give added value and appreciation to their land ownership.
What can partners like conservation districts do to help minority landowners meet their land management goals?
Conservationist districts, like many institutions, measure accomplishments in some form. They should be able to see who they reach and where they are. If the landowners you reach are not a diverse representation of your district, then ask the question, “Why?” Often the simple but not always accurate answer is, “There are no minority landowners in my district.” Dig a little deeper into the question and ask: Do I send out press releases to the same newspaper and radio outlets I’ve always used? Do I hold landowner meetings at the same restaurants, churches, and community centers that I’ve always used? Do I have an agenda and speakers who are the same as I have always used? Do I recruit board and committee members from the same sources as I’ve always used? Seek to expand your outreach efforts and once you connect with minority landowners, both in rural and urban settings, you’ll find they seek the same technical and financial assistance and guidance as non-minority landowners.
One area your publication has helped bring more attention to is the struggle some minority landowners have in securing a clean deed to their family property. How is this problem being addressed?
There are many who are doing work in this area including the Black Family Land Trust, Land Loss Prevention Project, Center for Heirs’ Property Preservation, often in partnership with the Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service. Through Minority Landowner Magazine we shine a spotlight on the work others are doing. And by also featuring landowners who are fighting to resolve problems associated with heirs’ property, we’re providing somewhat of a blueprint for other farmers to follow when they read our magazine. At a minimum, we open their eyes to resources that can help navigate them through the process.
We incorporate a session on wills and estate planning at farmer and landowner workshops we hold across the country in partnership with NRCS, and most recently, the Forest Service Southern Research Station. We’ve also incorporated breakout sessions on succession planning at all of our national conferences, and have even brought in attorneys who specialize in wills and estate planning to meet privately one-on-one with farmers and landowners to discuss specific family issues. Our next annual conference is scheduled for February 23-25, 2017 in Greensboro, North Carolina. Information is available on our website www.minoritylandowner.com.
How do you become aware of the families you profile in the magazine? Can conservation districts ‘nominate’ worthy farmers and forest landowners?
Yes, we are always seeking great articles that profile the challenges and successes of minority and limited resource farmers and landowners. We also have an annual Farmers of the Year issue where we solicit features from state and federal forestry and agriculture agencies, community-based organizations, universities, non-profits, and others who work with farmers and landowners. This is an opportunity to showcase farmers who are doing great things in their community by representing good agriculture and land stewardship.