Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried joined South Florida lawmakers Friday to host a virtual discussion about increasing opportunities — including private and public financing — for Black farmers in Florida.
“This is an opportunity to really highlight and showcase and tell the rest of the country what’s happened,” Fried said of Friday’s discussion. “If you’re not involved in agriculture or a minority, you may not understand what has historically happened in our country.”
Fried and her fellow panelists took particular aim at policies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Black farmers have battled with the agency for decades, at times filing lawsuits alleging the USDA had discriminated against Black farmers by disproportionately providing relief and other government resources to White farmers.
“It has been nearly impossible for farmers of color to acquire land, access funding and get farms off the ground,” Fried said. “And it’s made harder a lot of times by our federal agencies like the USDA.”
Sen. Shevrin Jones of West Park and Rep. Kevin Chambliss of Homestead joined Friday’s Zoom conference.
“There are two different realities in which we are living in — it’s the epitome of the old saying: if you’re not at the table you’re on the menu, and Black farmers are on the menu,” Jones said.
“We can’t pass the buck on doing what’s right for people. Someone has to take ownership to make sure that everyone has the access that’s needed to be a part of this American dream that so many people speak of.”
The conversation was part of an effort by Democrats to highlight billions of dollars available for Black farmers in the American Rescue Plan. Congressional Democrats approved that package, which was backed by President Joe Biden, earlier this year.
“This is a step toward greater equality and equity and inclusion, and a great opportunity for those, historically, without a seat at the table to fight this rigged system that has been in place for an eternity here in the United States,” said Fried, who is seeking the Democratic nomination in the 2022 Governor’s race.
With the the Biden administration and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack promising more resources for Black farmers, a group of White farmers has filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination.
While Chambliss disagreed with the merits of that suit and welcomed the additional federal help, he argued the lawsuit could be helpful in bringing attention to the systemic hurdles facing the Black farming community.
“Black farmers have been at a disadvantage within the USDA. So I almost feel like this is actually an opportunity to highlight that more specifically,” he said.
Jones also cited the debate over medical marijuana production licenses here in Florida as another example of systemic discrimination. Under Florida’s original proposal, farmers could only qualify for a license if they had operated a registered nursery in the state for 30 straight years. That posed a problem for Black farmers who, Friday’s speakers explained, faced roadblocks on getting their farms off the ground.
“This is not a new issue that we’ve been dealing with,” Jones said of the ongoing debate. “I remember being in the Health and Human Services Committee when we were dealing with the Black farmers with medical marijuana, and making sure they have access. And so this fight is not anything new.”
No specific policy proposals emerged from Friday’s meeting. Jones and Chambliss said they would work on legislation at the state level alongside Fried and Sheilah Montgomery, who serves as President and CEO for the Florida A&M University Federal Credit Union. Montgomery also participated in Friday’s virtual conference.
Chambliss said Friday’s discussion was a good way to bring attention to the plight of Black farmers, but more legislative work needs to be done.
“I thank the Commissioner for her leadership on this issue, her inclusivity on this issue,” Chambliss said. “The work that we’re doing now is good for the future of agriculture here in the state of Florida and the United States.”