How Black farmers are making inroads into the cannabis industry
Black farmers are looking to the “budding” cannabis industry in the U.S. to spur generational wealth in the Black community after decades of grappling with the hardships of being locked out of the agricultural industry and land ownership, while being on the receiving end of the detrimental effects of cannabis being classified as a drug.
“This is a plant that has been tied to the very fabric of not only the nation, but to Black America as a whole,” Jason Brooks, co-owner of Green Toad Hemp Farm, Georgia’s first Black-owned hemp farm, told Yahoo News. “As a second-generation farmer, I’m so proud to be a part of growing this plant that so many of our people have been incarcerated behind. Now we get to do it in a legal way.”
U.S. legacy of Black farming
Brooks’s lineage in America, like many Black Americans in the U.S., dates back to the slavery era, during which people were brought from Africa to cultivate land for crops whose yield became the backbone of the U.S. economy.
“Black people have always been a people that have been great at mastering and tilling soil,” Brooks said. “One of the few things that we did on the land for years was grow hemp and make hemp products.”
In January 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman signed Field Order 15, in which the U.S. agreed to provide 400,000 acres of southeastern U.S. land previously owned by members of the Confederacy to Black families. But after the land was returned to Confederate owners later that year, many Black farmers turned to sharecropping — renting shares of land, largely from white landowners and plantations — giving them a hefty portion of the crop yield.
“There was heavy discrimination against Black farmers, especially in the Bible Belt where a lot of people that were sharecropping lost millions of hectares of land,” Brooks, whose grandfather was a sharecropper, explained. “They got deals that were predatory and a good portion of the family that I have has lost all their farmland.”
State of Black farmers now
The population of Black farm owners in operation in the U.S. has dwindled dramatically, from nearly a million farmers in 1920 to currently representing less than 50,000.
Black farmers have been subjected to a long history of discriminatory policies by entities like the Department of Agriculture; these include being disproportionately rejected for federal farm assistance and lending, which caused many Black farmers to forgo land ownership and farm foreclosure.
“To this day, very few Black farmers get the resources and the knowledge that they need in order to go forward,” Brooks explained.
The U.S. has started to pay off loans for Black borrowers under the American Rescue Plan Act, answering to lawsuits that cite years of racial discrimination against Black farmers.
As noted by Yahoo News partner the Grio, some states are also granting medical cannabis licenses to Black farmers who had been left out of previous application processes.
“Generations were essentially cut off from the lifeblood of their family business,” Brooks said. “Now, we the children and grandchildren are trying to rebuild that legacy. The government does have a huge responsibility to bear on that to make sure that we can produce and provide products to this country because this is our home, and this is what you do inside of a nation like this.”
Reclaiming legacy and reparations through cannabis farming
Black farmers say cannabis legalization has created inroads for America to right the wrongs inflicted by the residual effect of slavery, Jim Crow-era laws, the mass incarceration of Black people from the Reagan-era war on drugs and their lockout in the agricultural industry.
Marijuana is now legal in 22 states and Washington, D.C., and medical marijuana is legal in 38 states plus D.C. According to the Marijuana Business Factbook, by 2024, legal cannabis sales will increase 181% from $38 billion in 2019 to about $130 billion annually for the U.S. economy. But the Marijuana Business Daily reported in 2021 that 81% of cannabis business owners and founders were white, while Black people made up just 4.3%.
“We need reparations in the spaces of cannabis,” Brooks emphasized. “To be able to grow and cultivate, we need priority contracts set aside just for us. We need tax-exempt status so that we are allowed to repair ourselves and be made whole.”
When the Farm Bill was signed into law in 2018, hemp — defined as “cannabis and derivatives of cannabis” with “no more than 0.3% THC on a dry weight basis" — was removed from the definition of marijuana in the Controlled Substances Act.
Many Black families took advantage of this new opportunity to grow hemp as a legal crop. Brooks’s father-in-law, Reginald Reese, founded the Green Toad Hemp Farm in Metter, Ga., in 2019. His venture began after trying to find opioid alternatives to deal with his chronic back pain.
“He really understood that our body has an endocannabinoid system, and this endocannabinoid system needs to be fed,” explained Brooks. “It’s in every person’s human DNA. He started experimenting with CBD and found that he did get great relief and didn’t have any nasty side effects. So he decided to dedicate his life to spreading awareness about the healing powers of the cannabinoid system, starting his own farm.”
The family now works about 30 acres of farmland to produce cannabis products. Brooks said that Green Toad Hemp Farm has also partnered with Georgia Southern University, which has a program for students to research the use of hemp for human use, while keeping the production of it eco-friendly.
“Farming is literally 22nd-century stuff,” Brooks said. “They have drones out now that will survey the land. So the advancement into this space along with AI technology and robotics is going to make farming even more efficient.”
Brooks described the farming industry as “ripe for revolution and change” as it invites academia and younger generations into the farming space.
“We see YouTube, TikTok and Instagram pages of Black people still farming,” Brooks said. “This is something that’s encoded into our very DNA and souls.”
However, Black farmers in the cannabis industry still face significant barriers like access to land, markets, resources, capital for operation, health insurance, loans, legal and administrative obstacles, and obtaining crop insurance as a cannabis farm.
“If you gave us the resources to take care of our communities by finally getting paid what we're supposed to be getting paid, I guarantee you’ll see a severe decrease in issues that plague the Black society.”
But Brooks doesn’t want consumers to fall into the pit of buying from Black-owned farms just because they are owned by Black farmers.
“The hope is that when people see the effort that we put into our products to make sure that they compete or are even better than some of the products on the market today, we’ll break down that wall where people will stop seeing us as just Black folks with farms and seeing us as Americans who have farms. ... And nothing breaks down a barrier quite like sharing a good blunt.”