LOUISVILLE, Ky. - In America, Black farmers make up less than 2 percent of all farmers in the country, owning just 0.4 percent of all U.S. farmland, according to the United States Department of Agriculture Census.
It’s a confounding reality given African Americans historic relationship to the soil but some farmers hope a newly legalized cash crop, hemp, can eventually equal the playing field.
“Everybody was worried about the legal aspect of it. I’m retired from the military. Of course, you don’t want to do anything that would mess with your retirement and your benefits. You don’t want to lose the potential property that you have,” said Joe Trigg, a Glasgow, Kentucky farmer.
Trigg had his trepidations about hemp. The Cannabis plant can make more than 25,000 products -- everything from a rope, to cable, to bioplastics, but because of its close association to marijuana, it was federally banned in 1937, only to be resurrected when the Farm Bill was signed into law on December 2018.
Due to the disproportionate criminalization of Black Americans possessing marijuana, Trigg was understandably cautious. According to the ACLU, Black Americans are nearly four times more likely than Whites to be arrested for marijuana.
Though hemp is not a psychoactive drug, he didn’t want to do anything to put his land in jeopardy.
“If you own a piece of this here great country of ours then that puts you at a different category. You are a landowner. You’ve got property. You’ve got something that others will loan money against. You’ve got equity,” said Trigg.
After his failed attempt to become Kentucky’s next Agriculture Commissioner, he decided to take a chance, in hopes hemp will be a lifeline for small farmers like him. He’s raised beef cattle through Trigg Enterprises with his family for more than thirty years. Though he’s all in on hemp, investing about $15,000 on 1.5 acres, he has concerns about the potential for monopolization among industrial agricultural corporations.
“You can’t compete. This trickle down effect that everybody keeps wanting to harp on. I’m here to tell you there’s only two things that trickle down on a farm, it’s some poo and some pee.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced The Hemp Farming Act of 2018 that ultimately led to hemp being removed from the Schedule I controlled substances list. Kentucky’s Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles acknowledges Trigg’s fears but says no farmer will be left behind.
“The small hemp grower is actually succeeding right now because hemp is different. Unlike tobacco, corn, and soybeans, where you grow it in a similar way, hemp is grown differently depending on what the final product is and say like a CBD crop, it will be grown a lot differently than a grain crop or a fiber crop. What we’ve seen is a lot of small farmers are looking at niche markets or they are able to excel and replicate what they are doing across the state,” said Quarles.
The average size of a farm in Kentucky is 169 acres, and a harvest season of soybeans can bring in approximately $84,000. Take out the soybeans and replace them with hemp, a farm of the same size can make an estimated $5,000,000 each season, according to Hemp Business Daily.
Austin Wright, a Small Farms Agent at the historically Black Kentucky State University, agrees with the commissioner. It’s quality, not quantity.
“Hemp is not a crop that you can just drop and grow immediately. You have to be educated. You have to know the law. You have to know the rules. You have to know the science in growing. You can grow organic hemp if you have 2-3 acres. Organic hemp gets a higher value,” said Wright.
A pound of dried hemp flower sells between $20 and $50, all depending on the quality of the Cannabidiol content – also known as CBD. Though he concedes it will be an uphill battle, Wright believes hemp can aid in revitalizing Black farming in America. Of the 75,966 farms in Kentucky, only 333 are fully Black-owned, according to the USDA Census.
“We’re losing 8 out of 10 Black farms almost every quarter,” said Wright.
“The industry of row cropping for most African American farmers is dying at a high rate and being that hemp is new, it is extremely critical that we have it,” he added.
One of the reasons growing hemp can be risky is that farmers have to make sure that the crop has less than .3% THC. THC is the component in marijuana that can get people high. Stress or bad weather can up the level of THC and if the authorities find out about that increase, farmers could be forced to burn the crop.
“I’m a fourth-generation family farmer. Ours was kind of left down through the generations by will,” said Ronald Bunton.
Bunton has already invested $10,000 in working to get his hemp operation off the ground in Woodburn, Kentucky. Despite the risks, like Trigg, he’s convinced it’s worth the effort. With $1.1 billion in revenues in 2018, New Frontier Data estimates revenue will grow to $2.6 billion by 2022.
“My dad always taught me if you lose a little money in the beginning, you know not to go back a second time but if it’s money-making, you want to be in on the start as well as on the finish,” said Bunton.
Trigg’s son, Joseph Dean Trigg, just 19 years old, has worked the land since he was eight. He says he’s tired of seeing his father struggle and is relying on hemp to carry on the family tradition.
“The amount of work that my father and his brothers and cousins have put into it, I don’t want it to go to waste,” he said.