This story was originally published by Carolina Public Press.
Leon Moses is honest about the challenges of growing hemp. From access to land and the cost of hemp clones to labor-intensive crop management and the lack of stable retail or wholesale markets, the process is risky and difficult.
“Hemp is a high-risk crop,” said Moses, farm superintendent and member of the Industrial Hemp Program at N.C. Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro.
The risks are even greater for Black farmers.
As a result of historic discrimination that limited access to farm loans and staggering land loss that left Black farmers owning just 0.5% of U.S. farmland — and triggered calls for reparations — the number of Black farmers has dwindled to 48,697, or just 1.4% of all U.S. farmers. The Black farmers who continue working the land could be left out of the emerging industrial hemp market, which is expected to top $26 billion by 2025.
Without efforts to support Black hemp growers, Moses fears that “hemp will be no different than what has happened with all of the other crops: We’ll be leaving a group of farmers behind.”
Efforts are needed, he adds, to educate Black farmers about hemp production and provide research and support to those who want to grow the crop to ensure that no one is left out.
Hemp could be a boon for Black farmers. The plant, a separate strain of cannabis from the one grown for marijuana, can be grown for fiber, grain or seed, and cannabidiol, or CBD, an extract from the flowers that is popular in products ranging from tinctures to pet treats.
As a high-value crop that is well suited to growing on small farms, hemp could generate more revenue per acre than other crops. For the 72% of Black farmers whose annual sales are less than $10,000, the crop could provide a much-needed revenue boost.
Hemp has proved popular since North Carolina established the Industrial Hemp Pilot Program, the state initiative that established the rules related to licensing and growing the crop, in 2015.
“When industrial hemp was first approved, our phones were ringing off the hook,” said Shirley Hymon-Parker, a member of the N.C. Industrial Hemp Commission.
Black farmers interested in growing the crop soon realized that the laws governing the production of the newly legal crop were rife with inequities. In North Carolina, licensing fees start at $500 and prospective growers must provide “evidence of income from a farming operation,” shutting out those without the funds or farming background to secure a license.
Until Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Hymon-Parker to the commission in 2020, all of the members of the Industrial Hemp Commission who established the rules for growing and licensing hemp were white men.
In a 2019 article, commission Chairman Tom Melton said, “It’s all white. It’s all male. But that’s the way it was set up. Maybe the law needs to change to indicate some sort of representation. That’s beyond the scope of our commission.”
The rules also ban those with felony convictions in the last 10 years from growing industrial hemp. The American Civil Liberties Union found that, despite similar rates of marijuana use, the arrest rates in the Black community are 3.73 times higher than the white community. A 2018 bill proposed a lifetime ban on those with felonies growing the crop, but advocates, including Vote Hemp, got the provision reduced but not removed.
“Cannabis is a plant that many of us are in jail over,” acknowledged Clarenda “Farmer Cee” Stanley, founder of Green Heffa Farms in Chatham County. “There are some great growers who have felonies for cannabis and are shut out of making money from it. It’s a plant that has been used to desecrate communities.”
Stanley, one of the first Black women licensed to grow hemp in North Carolina, notes that Black farmers also have to fight other systems that were built on systemic racism, from access to land and research to information about supply chains and markets.
“It’s not as easy as growing excellent hemp and selling it,” she said. “Being a Black farmer who grows hemp is a revolutionary act.”
Creating equity in the industry
In 2016, NC A&T launched an industrial hemp program to research hemp production and educate prospective growers, including Black farmers with limited resources, about the crop. The goal is to boost the number of Black farmers growing hemp to ensure equal representation in the industry.
“Being an HBCU (historically Black college or university), we wanted to make sure that our farmers were getting the information and resources they need about this crop,” Moses said.
“We have research programs (to) introduce farmers to agencies for support (because) a lot of times Black farmers have had their hands tied, not because they are not capable but because they are not exposed to the information.”
Stanley applauded the college for its efforts but believes greater attention must be paid to creating equity in the industry. “There is a tendency to rely on our HBCUs to be the ones to educate and help level the planting field … but it’s not enough.”
In states like Massachusetts, California and Illinois, cannabis equity programs prioritize licenses or provide support such as mentorships, business development and funding assistance to low-income or disadvantaged growers. Similar programs, including a hemp equity program offered through the Global Hemp Innovation Center at Oregon State University, help support equitable access to opportunities in hemp.
“Representation is important,” Hymon-Parker said. “African Americans were the backbones of many of the farms that existed early on, (and) we want to see them hold on to their farms and not lose them.”
Ensuring Black farmers are represented in the hemp industry requires a commitment to equity — and the data to prove efforts are working. Currently, North Carolina does not track the race of the 1,500 licensed growers, and the state has failed to launch programs that would bring more Black farmers into the industry.
Until there is broader access to land, funding and resources, Moses fears Black farmers will continue to be underrepresented.
“This crop should be open to every farmer,” he said. “For those farmers who want to be involved and have limitations, those limitations need to be addressed. … There is a lot of work that still needs to be done.”