Black farmers denied loans teach each other how to make money growing hemp
You can’t tell the story of Angela Dawson, the founder of 40 Acre Cooperative, a nationwide collective helping Black and Indigenous farmers learn about growing hemp, without going back to her great, great grandfather, Jabez Dawson, an enslaved man in Georgia.
As she explains it, the Dawson family’s farming history started when Jabez bought farmland in Kansas after purchasing his freedom as a young man. Jabez was able to profit off of the land, eventually expanding and moving further north to southern Iowa. It was there that the Dawsons planted their roots as farmers — and where they ran into the same kinds of systemic barriers that have plagued Dawsons, and other Black farmers, in the decades since.
They were denied loans from the USDA, struggled to obtain and keep their own land, and, as a result, could never accumulate generational wealth through their farming enterprises.
“It’s personal for me,” Dawson says. “The farming lifestyle was very much ingrained in my family… I’m still finding out more about it, but I just saw the whole process of urbanization, and kicking Black farmers off of the land, was more traumatic than what we may know.”
Now, though, Dawson is “reclaiming the farming legacy” of her relatives — but working with a different crop than past generations. Buoyed by the overall momentum of the CBD boom, Dawson’s farming co-op specifically focuses on honing the hemp growing skills of Black and Indigenous farmers. The co-op is member-owned and controlled: Dawson maintains her own farm associated with the co-op, in northern Minnesota, while members starting or expanding their own farms can join from all over the country.
To meet the needs of a country-sprawling collective of farmers, the co-op provides a variety of programs, training, and assistance concerning hemp production “for people at different levels.” That includes farmers who are “super experienced” and have potentially already sold hemp to a distributor, as well as people who are what Dawson calls “canna-curious,” meaning they’re just trying to figure out what growing hemp is all about. “That’s the benefit of the co-op model,” Dawson says. “The reason I chose this model is because it’s so flexible, and you can really deal with people at whatever level they’re at.”
Dawson explains that most of them are growing hemp alongside other crops — often because more traditional crops, like livestock, haven’t proven profitable.
Yet as much as farmers in the co-op might personally benefit from the process of learning about and growing hemp, racial bias from outside forces persists. By and large, white businessmen have benefited the most from marijuana legalization, while many Black people remain incarcerated due to low-level drug charges. Dawson notes that as she was establishing the co-op, she could tell the ” around Black people and [cannabis]” would be a persistent hurdle.
Back in 2018, Dawson applied for a USDA microloan program aimed at historically underserved farmers to help fund a hog and produce farm. When a USDA representative came to tour her land, Dawson says the representative balked upon seeing information about hemp in a binder of farm research. At the time, Dawson wasn’t even planning on growing hemp; she was merely doing research following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized the industrial production of hemp. Farmers throughout the U.S. have been hopping on the hemp train ever since. So much so that there’s a glut of hemp and prices have dropped as a result.
“I don’t know if that was part of her decision-making or not, [but] we did discuss it,” Dawson says, adding that the representative outlined all the reasons Dawson wouldn’t be able to successfully grow hemp — without Dawson even bringing the topic up. “It was just a piece of paper that was in my binder.”
Ultimately, Dawson was rejected for the loan — and she says she “was not given any options for reapplying or any technical assistance to figure out why I was denied and what I could do in order to be eligible.”
Trouble obtaining USDA loans is the all but standard experience of Black farmers in the U.S., says Jessica Shoemaker, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln law professor focused on rural communities, property law, and racial justice.
The USDA didn’t respond to Mashable’s request for comment about Dawson’s experience as well as its well-known history of denying loans to Black farmers in general.
After the Civil War, new reconstruction laws were put in place to assist formerly enslaved people, but all too often they were ignored in practice or led to violence against Black people. As an arm of the federal government, the USDA “should have existed as the institution that helped equalize the playing field for a more diverse and diversified farming system, but it did not do that,” Shoemaker adds. “I could fill [a] room with the copies of government and scholar reports that have just documented, again and again, the racism baked into the systems at the USDA.”
Devastating as Dawson’s USDA experience was, in hindsight, she says it clarified for her “the experience of Black farmers in the United States collectively.” Despite her multi-generational connection to land loss and USDA discrimination, Dawson was still unaware of just how deep the systemic issues were until she experienced it herself. She started reading up on the USDA’s history of discrimination, and reached out to other Black farmers to learn more about their own legal battles with the USDA.
She came to realize just how often Black farmers had been excluded from funding, land, and support — for a host of reasons. In 1920, there were almost one million , or 14 percent of all U.S. farmers; today, there are roughly 49,000 Black farmers, or 1.4 percent of all U.S. farmers.
“Look, when we imagine a farmer, we usually imagine an older white man, and that’s because that’s who most of American farmers are,” Shoemaker adds. “There’s a whole legal, cultural, and social history of why we’ve produced that system.”
She points to a few primary culprits: The system of chattel slavery leading to systemic racism that persists to this day, the never-delivered 40 acres and a mule promised to formerly enslaved people, the Homestead Acts, which primarily distributed land to white farmers, and the well-documented history of discrimination in USDA farm programs meant to assist farmers through loans and other support, as well as a lack of access to credit. “The list just goes on and on,” she explains.
As Dawson educated herself, she came to the conclusion that the traditional system of financing farms, in which farmers are dependent on USDA funding, wasn’t working for Black farmers — and that meant they were historically excluded from crucial cash. The federal government has been subsidizing farms for more than 150 years. In 2020, the government paid for 40 percent of farmers’ incomes.
“When we imagine a farmer, we usually imagine an older white man.”
“If I was going to get into farming, I was going to have to find another way to do it,” Dawson says, noting the specter of Pigford v. Glickman, a class action lawsuit that alleged racial discrimination by the USDA, and its bumpy settlement rollout for Black farmers.
So, she looked beyond government assistance programs, which led to the formation of her farming co-op for Black farmers. With an agricultural cooperative structure, farmers would pool their resources and knowledge so there’s less of a risk when starting out, marking a change in the historic tide for Black farmers in Dawson’s mind. And its name, 40 Acres Cooperative, derives from a resonant, historical reference, too: The unfulfilled promise of 40 acres and a mule to formerly enslaved people, a landmass estimated to now have .
Living in co-op heavy Minnesota, Dawson was already a member of a number of food co-ops over the years, and she knew about the overall structure from her time as a business major and law student. “The co-op model was the only thing I could rely on to figure out how to get my farm going, honestly,” Dawson explains, since it was specifically built on the idea of sharing knowledge and resources, which farmers historically siloed from institutional knowledge would need.
And so, as she was connecting with other Black farmers around the country, she presented the idea of a farming co-op to them — and quickly found a receptive community, with membership growing organically. “It just kind of went from there. We started having Zoom calls, and people were just jumping on the calls,” Dawson says. “Now we have a waiting list of about 200 people who want more information and are trying to figure out ways to get back into farming. The demand was definitely there.”
But there was still the matter of what crop could help build wealth for the co-op’s members. Not long before her initial attempt at getting a USDA loan, Dawson was in her second year of law school. Increasingly, though, she felt as if the microaggressions that awaited her in Minnesota’s professional world would be too much to bear, so she took a break from school — in south Oregon near California’s Emerald Triangle, the region responsible for the bulk of cannabis production in the U.S. There, she learned the ins and outs from cannabis growers and found herself revitalized by the process.
So, when it later came time to choose what crop to help other Black farmers grow through her co-op, it felt like a no-brainer. They would grow hemp — this time as a foundation for building generational wealth. As she networked in the cannabis industry, she says she never encountered another Black cannabis business owner — all the more reason to get the growing cadre of Black farmers in her co-op involved.
“If I was going to get into farming, I was going to have to find another way to do it.”
“Knowing that that equity issue was going to be there, I researched… I studied as much as I could,” Dawson explains. Hemp, she decided, was “going to be the way that we can bring some equity to Black farmers.”
That’s due in large part to timing: The co-op was founded in 2019, and the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized the production of hemp, quickly led to a booming demand for CBD. Growers’ ability to actually and with co-op membership spanning seven states and one tribal nation, Dawson is still looking at regulatory hurdles (which vary by state) that prevent co-op members from having “access to the market.”
And the racial bias associated with the plant has also thwarted sales at times: Farmers in the co-op (Dawson included) still often struggle to access safe banking to cash in on their crops. “When we first started to grow last year, and we had our first infusion of cash from hemp, the bank accused me of drug trafficking and closed my account,” Dawson says. She adds that one cohort of farmers in Florida has had five bank accounts shut down because of CBD sales. Cannabis producers’ troubles with banking has recently gotten the attention of Congressional members. A House bill that should remove at least some banking hurdles awaits Senate consideration.
It’s ultimately an ongoing challenge, and Dawson hopes cannabis legalization in more states will help ease the challenges co-op members have faced when trying to profit. While hemp is federally legal to grow industrially, a patchwork of state restrictions have proven complicated for hemp farmers. Cannabis, which includes both hemp and marijuana, is fully legalized in 18 states, but licensing, taxes and other regulations also vary from state to state. All the while, Dawson remains resolute in the importance of her vision for getting more Black farmers set up on their own land. The latest stimulus bill in debt relief and additional assistance for Black farmers, a move that Shoemaker calls “crucial,” but there’s still much more to do.
“The next step really is going to require a lot of attention to not just supporting existing farmers, but thinking about the new generation of farmers and new iterations of our food system,” Shoemaker says. “We really need to rethink our entire food and agriculture system, and so that is going to require a lot of attention to [questions like]: ‘Who are the new farmers?,’ ‘How do we support those new farmers?,’ and, ‘How do we provide land access for those farmers in the system where land is becoming increasingly concentrated?'”
That’s what Dawson’s work will continue to focus on. Most recently, the co-op has partnered with Charlotte’s Web, the market leader in hemp-derived CBD products, to form a mentorship program for Black hemp farmers, with the aim of reversing the longstanding decline of Black farmers. Crucially, before co-op members are put into the program, they’re enrolled in a curriculum led by a therapist to discuss ways to profit from farming in a way that’s focused on equity and contextualizing past trauma.
And Shoemaker thinks that as more Black farmers get substantive support, this could be the moment for lasting change: “[As] I said, I can fill my room with reports about USDA discrimination, and I could do the same with reports about Black land loss and the decline of Black farmers, but it does feel like we’re at a political moment [where] people are paying attention to this with energy that they haven’t before… It does seem like a moment when we could really turn the tide, which would be amazing.”
In Dawson’s eyes, Charlotte’s Web, the farmers, and the public in general can’t start talking about hemp as some kind of remarkable profit source for Black farmers without acknowledging past discrimination.
“It’s not just about the money, even though that’s an important part, but it’s more about changing this narrative of the Black, poor sharecropper, who never gets reward for his work,” she adds.