Green Heffa Farms, in North Carolina’s Piedmont, has emerged as a national symbol of vision and success in America’s new hemp economy. As a producer of boutique, full-spectrum hemp-flower products, it has won a cachet in the industry — which is augmented, at least in more enlightened sectors, by the fact that it is Black-owned, and has an overt political consciousness.
Green Heffa’s CEO Clarenda Stanley — popularly known as Farmer Cee — was featured in the April issue of Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine, and was last year the 2019 “Featured Farmer” for National Hemp History Week. “I own almost 15 acres of former tobacco farmland in Liberty, NC, a befitting name,” Stanley tells Project CBD. “We are a medicinal plants farm, with hemp being one of the many beautiful medicinal plants that we grow.”
Farmer Cee is refreshingly skeptical about the health-fad status of CBD. “We believe in and practice holistic plant medicine, which is why you do not see us on the CBD bandwagon — that is only one golden organic compound in the plant,” she says. “There is a lot of misinformation and miseducation in the industry around CBD and the endocannabinoid system, which is a disservice to the plant and to those seeking relief.”
Green Heffa Farms is not all organic, although it does use organic ingredients in its teas. “We are as ecologically conscious as we are able to be while remaining financially sustainable,” says Farmer Cee. “Organic isn’t cheap and being as I am not what investors are looking for, we do the best that we can, when we can … We take what works and what makes sense for our farm.” She says the farm is seeking to employ more of what she calls “traditional ecological knowledge.”
The farm sees its core market as “socially conscious Black women who appreciate and value a company that is committed to social good without having to sacrifice on quality. They have been the cornerstone of our growth from supporting our Crowdfunder campaign, to sharing information, to purchasing products.”
“I like to let mine steep for about seven to 10 minutes, ‘cuz I want all of the cannabinoids, all of the terpenes, all of the goodness,” she says in the demo video promoting the tea.
Social Equity in Liberty
“In addition to being an organic producing farm,” she said, “we also aim to be a model teaching farm. One of our goals is to have a place for minority women, whether they’re interested in starting up a farm, maybe a nursery, maybe homesteading … They are gonna be able to come to Green Heffa Farms and get the skills and the knowledge that they need to start or expand.”
“We are a social equity farm first,” she emphasized, adding a new twist to an old colloquialism: “We’re here to level the planting field, and make sure that all farmers will be able to enter this industry and benefit from the myriad aspects and components that make it so great.”
Green Heffa is currently working with farmers of color, teaching them to grow boutique-quality hemp — “we want to put the best shit possible on the market.”
Stanley describes the farm’s ethic as one of 4Es — “economic empowerment, education, equity, and environmental stewardship.”
And Stanley explicitly views this activity as a corrective to trends in the industry. “While I was previously aware of the inequities that existed in the cannabis culture, I wasn’t aware of the blatant racism that plagues this industry until I became a part of it,” she tells Project CBD. “It is ironic that an industry that touts itself as being for the people fails to demonstrate that in practice.”
The Pew Charitable Trusts, in a special for Hemp History Week last April, noted that the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Commission, whose nine members set regulations and licensing fees for the industry, is all male. All but one are white. None are Black. Two are from law enforcement.
“I agree. It’s all white. It’s all male. But that’s the way it was set up,” commission chair Tom Melton, also deputy director of the Cooperative Extension Service at North Carolina State University, told the Pew Trusts. “Maybe the law needs to change to indicate some sort of representation. That’s beyond the scope of our commission.”
Iniquities are written into the structure of the newly legal hemp industry. Under the 2018 US Farm Bill that legalized hemp cultivation, those with a drug-related felony on their records are barred from licenses for 10 years from the date of their conviction. Given that some of these felonies are for growing cannabis, these individuals are essentially being penalized for their experience with the very plant in question. And Blacks and Latinos are far more likely to have cannabis-related felonies, according to the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA).
Advocacy groups, including DPA and Vote Hemp, succeeded in getting that provision reduced from a lifetime ban, but were unsuccessful in getting removed.
And while some localities are instituting “equity programs” for legal cannabis, setting aside permits for people of color, “No one is doing that with hemp,” as Stanley told the Pew Trusts.
A former teacher with master’s degree in education, who has worked raising money for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and environmental groups, Stanley is very much in touch with her roots. She grew up on a farm in Alabama’s Wilcox County, “in the Black Belt region, where segregated schools still exist and though majority Black, landownership is majority white … Where I’m from, land is not just soil. Land is your heritage. Land has blood on it, it has sweat, and for some of us, the fight to attain that land was a damn lot harder.”
A Legacy of Expropriation
In 1920, there were nearly a million Black farmers in the United States. Today the number is 45,508. And that accounts for just 1.3% of the nearly 3.4 million farmers in the country, according to a 2017 census by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Black-owned farms constitute just 0.4% of total US farmland. As Bloomberg noted last year, there’s an income gap as well: only 2,349 Black farmers ran operations that made $50,000 a year or more in 2017, compared with 492,000 white farmers.
What happened in the generations between 1920 and today? Black farmers were driven off the market, and often expropriated of their very lands, by a matrix of institutionalized racism pervading every aspect of the American agricultural sector.
Leah Penniman literally wrote the book about this legacy of expropriation, and ways to respond — 2018’s wittily entitled Farming While Black. She is also the key figure behind Soul Fire Farm in the upstate New York town of Grafton, a “land stewardship collective” growing vegetables, raising chickens, and holding training workshops in agricultural skills for Black, Latin, and indigenous youth.
Penniman was a keynote speaker at the January 2020 EcoFarm conference, held in Pacific Grove, California. There, she outlined some of the history of the contributions and betrayal of Black farmers in America. Penniman traced the “Black farming legacy” to methods brought from Africa — and seeds for traditional crops such as rice, eggplant and basil that Penniman said “were braided into my great-great-great-grandmother’s hair” when she came over in the Middle Passage.
Recent research has vindicated oral lore that African crop seeds were smuggled onto the slave ships by this means. (This is likely how cannabis came to the Western hemisphere.) These crops and methods were kept alive in the personal plots that the enslaved were permitted on the plantations for their own sustenance.
Penniman recalled the pledge of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in the closing months of the Civil War — as freed Blacks were swelling his army in Georgia — that each family liberated from slavery would receive 40 acres of land and a mule, to become self-sufficient farmers. Penniman also quoted from the declaration of a local Freedmen’s Bureau in Virginia in August 1865, in the immediate aftermath of Emancipation:
We feel it to be very important that we obtain HOMES – owning our shelters, and the ground, that we may raise fruit trees, concerning which our children can say – “These are ours.”
“Despite that plea,” Penniman said, “40 acres and a mule never happened — it was a broken promise.”
Land Theft & Resistance
Efforts by Black farmers to make the best of what they had were instrumental in the general improvement of American agriculture in the generations that followed. “The first agricultural extension service came out of Tuskegee University in Alabama — a school built in the 1800s by poor Black farmers,” Penniman said. This land-grant university, then led by the legendary Booker T. Washington, facilitated the pioneering work of Dr. George Washington Carver, who spread the gospel of new crops and improved methods — initially by mule-cart — as he visited small struggling farms in Alabama’s Black Belt in the late 1800s.
In Penniman’s words, Carver “recognized that the cotton monocrop that was going on in the 1800s was decimating the Southern soils, and he convinced a whole generation of Black farmers to go regenerative.” Black farmers began switching to peanuts and other legumes, with their nitrogen-fixing capacities, and enriching the soil with mulch and muck harvested from the swamps. Through hard work and perseverance, conditions began to improve.
But, as Penniman related, the progress ultimately proved illusive. “Black farmers were able to purchase almost 16 million acres of land by 1910. It’s almost all gone. Most of it is gone, first, because Black people who had the audacity to stop sharecropping were literally killed. The white cops, the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens Council — they lynched land-owners, burned down their houses, and drove them off their property. It became a major push factor for the Great Migration.”
“Then the federal government got involved and refused to give loans or crop allotments or insurance to Black farmers,” she continued.
There were also instances of sheer opportunism, such as “elders dying without a will, and people stealing the land from the family.”
Resistance also continued. By the 1960s, Black tenant farmers were getting fired and kicked off their lands for registering to vote. It was in this era that civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer “gathered up 70 of these now-homeless sharecroppers and started a coop.” This was the Mississippi Freedom Farm Cooperative in the Magnolia State’s Sunflower County, which lasted into the ‘70s.
Despite such inspiring examples, hold on the land became increasingly precarious over the years. Today, as Penniman cited the 2017 USDA census, “white folks own 98% of arable land in the country, which is higher than ever before.”
Penniman named “theft of land” as first among “the conditions that prevent the flourishing of Black agrarianism.”
With current prices for traditional crops such as soybeans depressed due to globalization and trade wars, many farmers from coast to coast are looking to newly legal hemp as a lifeline. As with the cotton-legume transition over a century ago, hemp is also a crop that holds out hope to replenish soils, now depleted by generations of over-reliance on petrochemical fertilizers.
But the structural barriers that Black farmers face could be as much of an impediment with hemp as any other crop — unless the industry adopts meaningful equity measures.
Recent decades have seen resistance to discrimination and related land expropriation in the legal arena. As recently as 2018, a group of Black farmers from across the Mid-South region brought suit against the Iowa-based Stine Seed Company, charging that they had been sold poor-yielding inferior soybean seeds at a trade show, while white farmers got the high-quality seeds — long a common practice in the industry. A judge ordered the case into mediation, but it has still not been settled.
More significant was the class-action suit against the USDA. The Department’s complicity in the expropriation was blatantly evident. By 1982, Black farmers were receiving just 1% of USDA farm-ownership loans.
A 1997 report by the USDA National Commission on Small Farms examining the department’s own practices flatly admitted: “Discrimination has been a contributing factor in the dramatic decline of Black farmers over the last several decades.”
The Pigford Case
After years of discriminatory treatment from the USDA, Virginia farmer John Boyd founded the National Black Farmers Association in 1995. In 1997, Boyd and 400 other Black farmers launched their ground-breaking class-action suit against the Department, Pigford v Glickman — named for one of the lead plaintiffs, Timothy Pigford, and then-Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman.
In 1999, the government settled the case for $1 billion, and more than 16,000 Black farmers received $50,000 each. But there were many farmers who were not party to the first suit, leading to the second one known as Pigford II. In December 2010, President Obama signed a bill authorizing $1.25 billion in compensation to the late claimants, settling the second suit.
But this created a second class of late claimants, and the Black Farmers & Agriculturalists Association was founded to pressure for their rights — with, unfortunately, a degree of rivalry and claims of bad faith between the two groups.
And, inevitably, there was backlash from the political right, with figures such as Minnesota’s Rep. Michele Bachmann making assertions that many of the claims in the case were fraudulent.
In an interview with National Public Radio after the settlement, Boyd took a realistic view of the limited justice that had been won: “Fifty-thousand dollars will not purchase you a farm, buy a John Deere tractor and a disc harrow. That’s not going to happen. But for Black farmers who may still have their farms and they want to go out and plant their crop next year, they will be able to do that.”
Even after the Pigford settlements, egregious cases of disenfranchisement continued — along with claims of USDA complicity. July 2016 saw a rally outside the Supreme Court building in Washington to demand action in the case of North Carolina farmers Eddie and Dorothy Wise, who were evicted from their farm that January by armed federal marshals backed up by Nash County deputies. The couple had lived on the hog farm for more than 20 years before it was foreclosed on the basis of a defaulted loan from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency — which they charged gave them unfavorable terms in a discriminatory manner. In May, the Supreme Court had rejected their case demanding the return of their property — on the basis that they had not been party to the Pigford suit. Dorothy Wise died the following year, while living in a hotel.
A “Moral Disgrace”
Among those speaking at the Supreme Court protest was Eddie Slaughter, Georgia representative of the Black Farmers & Agriculturalists Association, and himself a party to the original Pigford case — who today takes a dim view of its outcome.
“No farmers got land returned even though we won in court,” he tells Project CBD. “I do not know one Black farmer who received justice, and that’s a moral disgrace. Our damages were more than $50,000 each, it was hundreds of millions of dollars. We still need debt relief. We owe more on interest that we do on principle. They wait until you die, take your farm, throw your wife out. It’s economic terrorism. Equal justice under law still not exist in America for Black and poor folks.”
Slaughter, who has a farm in Georgia’s western plains, wants to grow hemp, but sees structural racism as a barrier to Black farmers such as himself reaping the opportunities of the 2018 Farm Bill.
“Now we’re trying to transition from traditional crops like corn, peanuts and soybeans to fiber hemp,” he says. “Cannabis and hemp can give us a way out. The CBD market is flooded, but fiber could give us an equal playing field, which could help relieve pain and suffering. But politics is muddying the water. This puts us at a real hard dilemma. When you try to apply for the license, only the rich farmers are going to be able to afford it.”
Under rules issued by the Georgia Department of Agriculture last year, an annual hemp cultivation license costs $50 per acre, up to a $5,000 maximum. A hemp processing permit is a further $25,000 up front and $10,000 every year after. No licenses were issued last year, and applications are only now being considered for 2020.
Slaughter has lands in the adjoining counties of Marion and Schley. He speaks proudly of these holdings, which come to some 200 acres. “They’ve been in my family five generations and four generations. I call it God’s country. It’s beautiful.”
But, like many farmers struggling with debt, Slaughter is not actually working the land himself — except to grow vegetables for his own subsistence. “Peas, collard greens, beans, okra, kale, cabbage — just so I don’t have to go the grocery store.” Most of his lands are under cultivation by renters, who grow corn and cotton.
“The renter doesn’t have debt burden, so he is free to buy the inputs,” Slaughter says, referring to pesticides, herbicides, and such. “And he can stay away from the USDA, which is above the law.”
Slaughter says he wants to get back into commercial agriculture, as a hemp grower — as soon as he can get debt relief.
Medical Marijuana Mired in Controversy
Where medical marijuana is concerned (as distinct from industrial hemp), Florida actually did adopt an equity measure, as a result of pressure from Black farmers. But stalled by litigation and politics, the measure has never been implemented.
Florida’s medical marijuana program has been mired in controversy since its inception. A 2014 state law allowed CBD-only cannabis products. Two years later, Florida voters passed a statewide ballot initiative for a full THC-inclusive medical cannabis program, and Amendment 2 became a part of the state’s charter. But the amendment’s enabling legislation imposed a “vertical system” that activists assailed as inherently favoring large enterprises. The grower also has to be the processor and dispenser, and each such entity can have up to 25 dispensaries. Applicants were only considered if they have operated for at least the past 30 years and must have the capacity to produce a minimum of 400,000 plants. These entities are known as Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers (MMTCs), and there are now 14 of them up and running, with another eight licenses issued but not yet operational.
Among those dissenting from the rules was the Florida Black Farmers & Agriculturalists Association (FBFAA). The organization pointed out that by the state Agriculture Department’s own statistics, not a single Black farmer in Florida could meet these qualifications. Lawmakers responded by including a provision creating a special “Pigford Class” of MMTC licenses. These licenses would be set aside for the approximately 250 Florida farmers who had been Pigford litigants. These growers would also have to be members of the FBFAA. Pigford Class cultivators would be able to apply to the state Department of Health — specifically, its new Office of Medical Marijuana Use (OMMU) — for a waiver from the usual strictures of the “vertical system.” Initially, the law called for the issuance of at least one Pigford Class license.
But the provision was challenged in the courts before it could take effect. In January 2018, a Tallahassee judge ruled for Columbus Smith, a farmer who was a Pigford litigant but not a member of the FBFAA. The judge accepted his contention that the portion of law mandating FBFAA membership violated the state constitution. That provision was subsequently stricken from the law by the state legislature.
But another challenge was launched by Donivon Craig Tingle, both an attorney himself and a Native American farmer, now based in the Florida Panhandle town of Destin but originally from the Lumbee Tribe in the Carolinas. Tingle was a party to the Keepseagle v. Vilsack case, first filed in 1999, similarly charging that the USDA had systematically discriminated against Native American farmers and ranchers. The USDA agreed to a $760 million settlement in 2011. Tingle argued that the Florida law was discriminatory for not having a similar provision for Keepseagle litigants.
“There is no rational basis for granting an opportunity for black farmers to obtain a medical marijuana license while denying to Native American farmers the same opportunity,” Tingle wrote in his complaint.
And litigation was also launched challenging a similar preference in the law for former citrus producers, further holding up the whole process. The upshot of it all is that four years after Amendment 2, no Pigford Class license has been issued. And none of the state’s 22 MMTC licenses is held by a Black-owned enterprise. Nor Native American-owned, nor Latin-owned or Asian-owned.
Minorities for Medical Marijuana
Erik Range of Orlando co-founded the national organization Minorities for Medical Marijuana (M4MM) with figures as such as Niambe Tosh, the Boston-based teacher who is the daughter of reggae legend Peter Tosh. Range also runs the Orlando-based Art420 company, which commissions art for display in cannabis dispensaries.
Range tells Project CBD his involvement was spurred by the “lack of minority participation” at the Marijuana Business Conference (MJBizCon) expo that was held in Orlando in May 2016 — “from a speaking standpoint, vendor standpoint, even the patrons.” He sees M4MM’s role in Florida as “introducing minorities to the conversation — making sure they voted yes on Amendment 2, but making sure after it passed that they got involved in the legislative process.”
Their lobbying efforts did succeed in getting “diversity language” in Amendment 2’s enabling legislation. License applicants must submit a diversity plan, although Range says there has been “little enforcement in application.”
He decries that while none of the 22 MMTC licenses is held by a minority-owned business, several are owned by major chains, including some backed by Canadian capital. One of the early license-holders, Trulieve, received a big capital infusion in 2018 when it merged with a Toronto-based former mining company, Schyan Exploration. Trulieve’s CEO Kim Rivers is a woman, making it the only exception to male domination among the 22 license-holders.
Issuance of new MMTC licenses is tied to growth of the patient population. Impatience is growing with the restrictive licensing regime, and the Tampa-based company Florigrown has launched litigation challenging it in the state courts. A part-owner of the company, strip-club owner Joe Redner, is a cancer patient who credits his survival to juicing fresh cannabis leaves. In 2018, he launched a separate suit demanding his right to home cultivation — which the Florida law makes no allowance for. The courts ruled against him, and the state Supreme Court rejected his appeal.
The group Make It Legal Florida is aiming to get a general legalization initiative on the 2022 ballot — and has launched litigation against the state for what it calls unfair bureaucratic obstacles that kept the initiative from reaching voters in 2020.
“Piss Poor” Licensing
“How do we create a space for individuals from those communities disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs to become license-holders?” asks Erik Range. “Before we get to recreational, I’d like to see that one Pigford license in place — but even that, forgive my language, is piss-poor. More than one lucky person should be able to get in the game and compete in one of the top three cannabis markets in the country.”
Meanwhile, Florida’s first hemp cultivation licenses are just now being issued — and, in contrast to the medical marijuana program, there is no cap on licenses. “Black farmers who wanted to get into medical marijuana but couldn’t are now getting into hemp,” says Range. “They are now working together to purchase inputs, sharing equipment, holding educational seminars, cooperating in marketing efforts.”
Range recently co-founded the Legacy Farms Group, to help in such efforts. The limited liability corporation partners with hemp farmers to purchase seed and broker their crops in a contract relationship with the growers. It is now working with two licensed Florida hemp growers, with a third in the works, all Black.
Range cites the establishment of an Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program at Tallahassee’s Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University – one of the country’s foremost Historically Black Colleges and Universities – as a positive step forward. He has been appointed by state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried to Florida’s Industrial Hemp Advisory Committee, heading the consumer education subcommittee.
Range supports the idea of the medical marijuana program adopting the “open model” of the hemp sector. But he admits: “The conservative powers that be in this state are not in favor of that.”
Meaningful Black participation in the hemp sector provides a last chance to correct the limitations of the medical marijuana program, in Range’s view. “It’s been hugely disappointing, from a diversity and inclusion standpoint,” he says.
Another Florida-based Minorities for Medical Marijuana board member is Matt Bowman, a former Naval flight officer who is now growing hemp — as well as Muscadine grapes and other fruits and vegetables — on his plot of land in Micanopy, an historic town outside Gainesville. He also recently co-founded the company Pharmenvee in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, to provide personal protective equipment to VA hospitals and local municipalities, often at cost.
“I don’t smoke at all,” says Bowman, explaining his involvement with cannabis to Project CBD. “I went into this with a medicinal perspective, because I thought it could help vets with PTSD and pain management. But I’ve since evolved, and today I think all grown people should have access if they want it.”
Bowman also got a hemp permit in Walterboro, SC, where he originally hails from, in 2019 — after having applied since 2016 for a license under the limited state pilot program that was allowed by the 2014 Farm Bill. Bowman says he was turned down repeatedly, despite the fact that the land he sought to cultivate on was a “century farm” — in the family for over 100 years. “Only 40 licenses for a state of 5 million was too limited,” he says. “They could have opened it up and had a more open and fair process.”
When former South Carolina state lawmaker and prominent CNN commentator Bakari Sellers was likewise turned down, Bowman said “it made me feel like I was in the company of other people who also got rejected for multiple years.”
But after the 2018 Farm Bill legalized commercial hemp cultivation, South Carolina “grandfathered in everyone who had applied previously, and 119 permits were given to grow hemp.” Bowman got 10 acres approved and grew some 5,000 plants — but many of them were destroyed when Hurricane Dorian waterlogged the fields in September. No CBD was extracted. “It was an experiment,” Bowman says with a philosophical tone.
Bakari Sellers also got his license, and told the Charleston Post & Courier that he was investing in other Black hemp farmers in his Hampton County. One of the state’s poorest, it is not far from Orangeburg — where his father, civil rights activist Cleveland Sellers, was shot and wounded by state police who opened fire on anti-segregation protesters in February 1968. The elder Sellers was the only person to do time over the events of that day, remembered as the Orangeburg Massacre; after he recovered from his wounds he would serve a year in state prison for failure to disperse.
Bowman says this year his brother hopes to grow in Walterboro, while he himself cultivates in Micanopy.
“Open Up the Door and I’ll Get It Myself”
In Florida’s hemp program, “the barrier to entry very low — just a background check and environmental study,” says Bowman, “there’s no application fee. Now the market is flooded, stuff from 2019 still hasn’t been sold. But we’re gonna do it anyway. That’s the cost of being a trailblazer.”
As for the medical marijuana program, Bowman is guardedly optimistic that under Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, it will switch to a “horizontal system.”
“But now it is still vertical,” he laments. “Vets and historically disadvantaged groups have lower likelihood of having the financial capacity to put up stores, security systems, and everything you need to put into your application to show that you have ability to go statewide on day one.”
Asked about the multiple legal challenges to the Pigford Class provision in Florida, Bowman replies, “I don’t view the litigants as the problem. I view the state’s failure to open it up as the problem. Licenses should reflect the state of Florida — it’s a diverse state, and the licenses should reflect that. If they get the state out of the way of picking winners and losers, we’d be better off. Now, none of the license holders are Black-owned, so we couldn’t be worse off.”
But Bowman is hopeful that a nationwide solution may be on the horizon. “As the nation comes to embrace cannabis, a lot of the systems put in place by states will be superseded by federal law, and the model will go horizontal — growers, seed producing, genetics. And the fittest will survive. Those with best business acumen will survive, and it’ll be like any other heavily regulated vice.”
“At the end of the day, America gets it right,” he suggests. “It’s not pretty, it’s messy, but I believe in the next 10 years cannabis will be legal across the country, and the best businessperson will win.”
Bowman spent much of his youth in the District of Columbia, which left him with some grim memories — and the determination to fight for a better future: “DC in the ‘80s was an open-air drug market, and the murder capital of the country at that time. I’m hoping the current Green Rush will be an opportunity for the next generation of African Americans.”
As a parting shot he quotes James Brown — “I don’t want nobody to give me nothing. Open up the door and I’ll get it myself!”
Bill Weinberg, a Project CBD contributing writer, is a 30-year veteran journalist in the fields of drug policy, ecology and indigenous peoples. He is a former news editor at High Times magazine, and he produces the websites CounterVortex.org and Global Ganja Report.
Copyright, Project CBD. May not be reprinted without permission.
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