Black History Month is coming to a close, but the contributions of Black Americans will continue to shape the future of the hemp industry. When present history is written, the steps we take to create a more diverse, accessible market will move us past the past onto a path of progress. Purpose driven solutions must be created to address the inequities and injustices that continue to prevent fair-play in today's industry.
For generations, systemic racism and discrimination have blocked Black Farmers and other people of color from the same success as White Farmers. This ultimately has resulted in disproportionate wealth, opportunities, and land ownership. For reference, Black farmers owned 14 percent of all farms in 1920. Today, they own up 1.6 percent of all farms, according to the U.S. Agricultural Census.
Over the years, USDA has taken steps to acknowledge its role in these discriminatory practices. Most recently, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Thomas J. Vilsack stated that "Creating more equitable opportunities for Black farmers is a rising tide that can lift all boats. As one study found, closing racial gaps in wages, housing credit, lending opportunities, and access to higher education would amount to an additional $5 trillion in gross domestic product and six million jobs to the American economy over the next five years."
Additionally, Secretary Vilsack expressed, "we should want farming to be associated with equity and opportunity and entrepreneurship—not racism and barriers and intimidation. We should want farmers of color to have equal opportunity to contribute to the diverse fabric of American agriculture." There is no time like the present to hold the USDA to their word, and to put to use any resources made available.
As a newly elected member of the U.S. Hemp Roundtable Board of Directors serving as Vice President of Minority Empowerment, I look forward to guiding the organization’s efforts to create a fair and inclusive hemp industry for all. The U.S. Hemp Roundtable Minority Empowerment Committee (MEC) aims to hold our organization and its member companies accountable to diversity and inclusion practices, while recognizing injustices that impact communities of color and create barriers to market entry. We are working diligently to provide training tools, promote policy and legislative reform, and support new business opportunities.
I’m proud of the strides the U.S. Hemp Roundtable has taken to fulfill its commitment to minority empowerment. Since its establishment in 2020, the MEC has provided free online educational webinars to more than 1,000 small and minority business owners. Last year, the MEC developed an internal DIEB survey required for its members and is using the results for internal and external resource development.
At the MEC’s urging, the Roundtable also endorsed the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act that will deliver $5 billion in direct relief to Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic farmers and other agricultural producers of color to help them respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as to address long standing inequity in agriculture. Currently, the MEC is working closely with congressional leaders toward the introduction of legislation that will promote hemp research at Minority Serving Institutions, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
The work of the U.S. Hemp Roundtable MEC is just getting started and we remain steadfast in our commitment to uplifting minority-owned businesses and operators. I appreciate our members for stepping up and putting in the effort to help identify inequities in our industry by being honest and transparent. The data and information being collected is imperative to the efforts of the MEC and provides a comprehensive understanding of where we are and what we can be doing better.
Together, we can ensure every American has an equal opportunity to participate in the hemp industry.
Fred Cawthon, U.S. Hemp Roundtable Vice President of Minority Empowerment
About the U.S. Hemp Roundtable Minority Empowerment Committee (MEC)
The U.S. Hemp Roundtable Minority Empowerment Committee (MEC) was established in 2020 and adopted the equity and inclusion framework developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. In doing so, the U.S. Hemp Roundtable and its member companies agreed to a multi-year, continually-adapting program to promote racial equity and inclusion in every link of the U.S. hemp industry. Today, the U.S. Hemp Roundtable MEC aims to promote economic empowerment for communities of color and minority-owned enterprises by establishing and adopting metrics and timetables for our member firms, advancing policy and legislative reform, promoting mentorship, and generating new business opportunities.
About Fred Cawthon, Vice President of Minority Empowerment
Frederick Cawthon is the co-founder and CEO of Verge Agritech, which is focused on advancing research and education, creating everyday life products, and developing lifestyle brands that transform customer experiences with cannabis. Since 2016, he has been an active hemp advocate, participating and volunteering at local hemp events. Prior to his work in hemp, Frederick spent the last 20+ years in product and program management roles for various Fortune 500 companies. Frederick holds an MBA from Tennessee State University. He has been involved with the U.S. Hemp Roundtable and its Minority Empowerment Committee (MEC) through his work with the Tennessee Hemp Alliance since 2020, and this year joined the U.S. Hemp Roundtable Board of Directors to lead the MEC efforts as Vice President of Minority Empowerment.
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