The Mississippi Delta is populated by more juke joints than Starbucks (and rightly so as the birthplace of the blues). Nightly strolls are accompanied by the faint strums of guitar in the distance and you can imagine how Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil right in the middle of it all. The blues are part of a shared cultural identity among the Delta’s inhabitants, and there is still plenty of heartache to keep the musical tradition alive.
Six of us headed down from HLS to Clarksdale, Mississippi for spring break, where we were joined by Ole Miss students. We were surprised to find that a lot of the regional heartache stemmed from concepts we had covered in our 1L Property classes – easements, color of title, types of estates, and even adverse possession (when a person who is not the legal owner of land can become its owner after having occupied it for a specified period of time). The seemingly difficult task of adversely taking someone’s land is frequently accomplished in parts of Mississippi, and with serious impact on the lives of farmers. From disputes between siblings about what to do with inherited land to questions about how to preserve farmland well into the future, we saw our textbooks come to life.
We also learned about the challenges faced by small, family-owned farms. A few days into our trip, we met with Dustin and Ali, two young farmers whose business growth is constrained by regulations designed for industrial farms but that also apply to them. As a result of Dustin and Ali’s commitment to sustainable farming, they run their farm under different standards than those adhered to by commercial sellers and, as a consequence, cannot sell their goods to larger, more popular grocery stores. These mandatory standards are both prohibitively expensive and largely inapplicable to small-scale sustainable farming, to the detriment of the availability of locally and sustainably grown food. As Dustin put it, “We vote for our president once every four years, but we vote for what to put in our bodies three times a day. And what we vote for today will affect our children tomorrow.” Prior to running their own farm, Dustin and Ali interned at Polyface Farms, which is featured in Michael Pollen’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
After seeing how the issues of inheritance, ownership, and land use impacted the lives of residents, we had the opportunity to conduct additional research and then present a tutorial to the farmers. When the workshop was over, the farmers compared notes and shared their experiences with each other. Much was left unanswered but we appreciated the opportunity to learn more about property rights in Mississippi, contribute our knowledge, make a few friends, and soak in the culture and music of the Delta.
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