Black Farmers See New Opportunities in Burgeoning Industrial Hemp Industry
Just northwest of Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks, past the Mennonites in horse-drawn carriages, there’s a winding road that leads to a forgotten piece of Missouri’s black history – Lake Placid.
The black-owned cabin retreat flourished in the mid-1900s. PC Turner, a Kansas City physician, designed it as a place of restoration and refuge for black families across the state during segregation . But over the decades, many once sought-after cabins have fallen into disrepair.
“We have what I call decay – buildings without walls,” said Brendalyn King.
Last year, she and her partner Osei Doyle purchased 244 acres of rolling, forested land just beyond the cabins with dreams of rebuilding them using hemp-based materials.
The couple, co-founders of the Salem Hemp Kings, are one of 127 licensed industrial hemp growers in Missouri, and they plan to create the first black-owned industrial hemp processing facility in the state.
The United States Department of Agriculture’s first-ever survey of hemp production released last month found a glaring diversity problem: Only 6% of hemp growers are black in an industry worth nearly $825 million. Cannabis has been a tough market for people of color to break into, but some, including King, hope hemp offers a new avenue of entry.
“We want to be a black-owned hemp processor. We want it to be part of our legacy,” she said. “We moved here for this. We had a bit of sideways, small forks in the road, but it ended up being a nice road to land on.
King grew up in St. Louis, while Doyle was born in Trinidad and Tobago. They met in Brooklyn, New York, more than a decade before deciding to pack up and pursue hemp cultivation in the Midwest. In 2020, the couple moved to the St. Louis area on the promise of buying land in Illinois.
But their two growing seasons have been difficult. First, they lost money because they had no buyer to buy their hemp flower. During the second season, a rainstorm destroyed much of the crop. Then suddenly, the deal to buy the land fell through.
“We felt like we were directing ourselves,” King said.
Leon Moses, agricultural superintendent at North Carolina A&T State University, said the challenges of growing hemp for black farmers have remained largely the same since cultivation was federally legalized for production in 2018. He helped set up a research-based industrial hemp program. Black institution in 2016.
“I don’t see a lot of opportunities, but I see opportunities,” he said.
Moses said the biggest obstacle for black farmers is access to land and capital. Dramatic loss of land over generations left about 1% of all farmland in the country to black farmers.
He said if the federal government wants to increase diversity in the industrial hemp industry, it should provide the resources to purchase land.
“First and foremost, give low interest loans or grants or those kinds of things that make funding available,” Moses said. “If you want inclusivity and you want diversity in hemp, then my first thought would be, look at what you could do to help them get involved, and you create opportunities.”
Angela Dawson is one person trying to create opportunities for black farmers in hemp.
She is co-founder and president of the Forty Acre cooperative in northern Minnesota, and she runs a hemp mentorship program for black farmers in seven states, including Illinois and Indiana.
Dawson, also an organic food producer, said growing hemp is a good way to supplement his income.
“We use hemp as an economic base and a stimulant to really create opportunities for our businesses,” she said. “It’s really hard to be an organic farmer. This usually does not translate into revenue.
Dawson said growing hemp requires specific techniques and the right strain to thrive in the environment. She has spent the past three years developing a healthy hemp strain that will not exceed the legal limit of 0.3% THC, which is the psychoactive component of the plant. Testing too high can result in farmers losing their entire harvest.
She teaches farmers how to grow hemp for CBD, the plant extract used in things like lotions and oils, on as little as two acres of land. Most of the farmers she works with have 10 acres of land or less.
King and Doyle have over 200 acres to work with in Lake Placid, a place they say they fell in love with immediately when they found it in 2020. With the help of friends, they were able to purchase it and have plans to restore the earth as a place of dark serenity.
They still have a long way to go to realize their dream. Last fall, the Missouri Department of Agriculture turned down their application for an industrial hemp fiber processing grant they had hoped to launch their operation. Now they are planning a Juneteenth fundraiser.
King said they’re still years away from planting their first crop, but she’s not going anywhere.
“I know it’s a lifelong process,” she said. “‘To know that we have a lot of ideas but also to see my horizon of life, I say to myself ‘yes, I have 50 years to do it actively’.”
Their goal is to rebuild the community that once thrived and center it around the possibilities of hemp production.
Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan
Harvest Public Media reports on food systems, agriculture, and rural issues through a collaborative network of NPR stations throughout the Midwest and Plains.
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