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Black farmers vie for Florida license to grow medical marijuana


A dozen applicants are vying for a potentially lucrative license earmarked for a Black farmer who participated in decades-old litigation over discrimination in lending practices by the federal government.

A 99-year-old matriarch who began her agricultural career in cotton fields in Northwest Florida. A rancher who served in Vietnam and grew up in an Alachua County community terrorized in the past by lynchings. A family that got its start picking apples on a New York farm.

They’re among people vying for a potentially lucrative medical marijuana license earmarked for a Black farmer who participated in decades-old litigation over discrimination in lending practices by the federal government.

The Florida Department of Health has received a dozen applications for the license.

While details on many of the applications are heavily redacted, the information made available to the public reveals Black farmers and deep-pocketed financial backers attempting to establish a foothold in Florida’s medical-marijuana industry, where licenses regularly fetch upwards of $50 million.

Florida voters in 2016 passed a constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana. That led to a 2017 law establishing guidelines for the industry, including earmarking a license for a Black farmer because none of the African-American farmers in Florida could meet eligibility requirements for an earlier round of state licenses.

The law requires health officials to grant a license to “one applicant that is a recognized class member” in class-action lawsuits known as the “Pigford” cases. Eligible applicants also have to show that they’ve been doing business in Florida for at least five years.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration last fall rolled out the application process for the Black farmer license and began accepting applications in March. State health officials are in the process of evaluating the applications.

Correspondence between the state and applicants, posted this week on the Department of Health’s website along with the applications, provided a glimpse into what appeared to be widespread confusion over eligibility for the license.

Leola T. Robinson, for example, is a “99-year-old matriarch” who attended Florida A&M University and is a “second-generation farmer” who “used proceeds from cotton farming to purchase her first ten acres in Escambia County.” Robinson has cultivated timber, seasonal vegetables and cotton on 100 acres in Northwest Florida.

But in an April 22 “errors and omissions letter,” state Office of Medical Marijuana Use Director Chris Ferguson advised that, among other flaws, her application lacked proper documentation that she had been “registered to do business in the state” for five consecutive years before submitting the application, as the law requires.

A May 12 response from the applicant said Robinson’s business “is and has been a timber farm” in Escambia County since 1994.

“A local business tax receipt is not required of Ms. Robinson for the privilege of engaging in the timber farm business,” the response said. Robinson also provided documents reflecting her payment of property taxes on property classified as agricultural for the past five years.

But it’s unclear whether the property-tax receipts will satisfy the “registered” business requirement in the law.

Another applicant, FTG Development Inc., is trying to qualify for the license by using “estate rights” derived from a farmer who died in 2020.

Ferguson flagged the issue in an April 22 letter to the company’s lawyer, Craig Varn, saying the application “does not contain any of the documentation” showing that FTG was a recognized class member of the Pigford lawsuits.

But Varn argued that the company is the heir to a Pigford claimant.

“Per the Black Farmer litigant settlement decree, as an heir and blood relative of Class Member Earkus L. Battle, Sr., FTG Development Inc., through and on behalf of its majority owner, John Allen, is exercising his estate rights to have the asset transferred and become recognized as the natural Pigford/Black Farmer Litigant Class Member,” Varn responded on May 13. “We are not aware of any limitation on Mr. Allen’s or FTG Development Inc.’s ability to avail themselves of the use/monetization of those rights.”

Charles Smith, another applicant, and his family achieved success in Florida’s agriculture industry after getting their start in the 1960s working on an apple farm in New York and harvesting vegetables in Virginia, according to his application.

After joining a co-op run by six Black farming families in 1979, the Smiths grew hundreds of acres of tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables.

The family later established a packing company, Manatee Growers Packing Co., which at its peak employed 300 packers, the application said.

Meanwhile, Roz McCarthy, CEO and founder of Minorities for Medical Marijuana, is one of numerous owners and investors identified in an application submitted by Moton Hopkins, who lives in Ocala.

McCarthy said she worked with state lawmakers as they were crafting the 2017 law.

McCarthy acknowledged that “there was some confusion” among applicants about the complicated licensing process. She said her nonprofit organization held boot camps for people interested in seeking the license.

“The task is daunting, to say the least, and that was really obvious in some of the responses, in my opinion,” she told The News Service of Florida in an interview. “It took us six years to get to this point to see that, wow, well I know what you’re trying to do, but this really looks like it didn’t do what it was supposed to do.”

Black farmers also were hit by sticker shock when the Department of Health’s application process included a non-refundable fee of $146,000 --- more than double what prospective operators paid the last time an application process was open.

One application portrayed the impediments Black farmers encountered as they tilled the soil, tended livestock and tried to eke out a living in the South.

Applicant Fred Fisher said his family’s roots in Jonesville, a Black agricultural community in Alachua County, date back to the days of slavery. He provided a family tree and photographs of headstones.

“In the 1800s my family suffered the abuses of slavery leaving a lasting reminder of the abuses handed down to us because of our race,” Fisher said in an affidavit submitted as part of follow-up correspondence with Ferguson, adding that “those who spoke out against the abuses were lynched.”

Ferguson does not appear to have participated in the Pigford lawsuits, as required by state law.

But he described how he was a victim of discrimination by U.S. Department of Agriculture agents when his family sought financial assistance following a drought in the early 1980s.

Fisher said he and his brother were not allowed to speak with an agent and were told that, “as a Black farmer there was no way we were going to get assistance.” His written complaints “were never formally accepted,” his affidavit said.