In 1865, the year slavery was abolished in the U.S., those who were newly freed received a promise from the government: They would receive 40 acres of “tillable ground” set aside from confiscated Confederate land. Some also received a mule, and the package quickly became known as “40 acres and a mule,” according to NPR.
It was the U.S. government’s first documented attempt at reparations. But the idea didn’t last long—before the end of that year, President Andrew Johnson reversed the order and displaced those who were formerly enslaved from the land they had just received.
The story is symbolic of the discrimination that has permeated the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nearly since its inception in 1862 and is still being experienced today.
Once Angela Dawson had her own negative experience while trying to obtain a loan from the USDA in 2017 and began learning of injustices throughout the department, she decided something needed to change. In 2019, Dawson founded 40 Acre Co-op—named for the 40 acres and a mule once promised to Black farmers—to help socially disadvantaged producers nationwide reclaim land and close the wealth gap by growing hemp. Based in Minnesota, the co-op presently works with farmers across seven states.
“The co-op is really about honoring the legacy that we come from, which is this broken promise from the government and the USDA about how they were going to get things right with Black farmers. It never has happened,” Dawson says. “Hopefully with our cooperative, we can bring these issues to light and create more equity and justice in the agricultural system.”
Farming was once an integral part of Dawson’s family.
Her father’s family once operated an agricultural food hub in Iowa, Dawson says. But like many Black farmers around the turn of the 20th century and into its early decades, Dawson’s family was deprived of ownership opportunities and eventually lost claim to their land.
Dawson wanted to restore that family history.
“I’m the one of the ten [children] who decided to reinstate our family farming legacy by purchasing land here up north and farming full-time,” says Dawson, who purchased land in Minnesota in 2017 to grow produce and raise organic hogs.
But when she applied for a loan with the USDA, she says she immediately felt an air of contention.
“It felt like they were ignoring me,” Dawson says of the loan officers. “When they came out and did a site visit, they kept asking why I was there.”
Dawson says the USDA immediately denied her loan, citing a missed student loan payment ten years prior. She soon learned that loan was supposed to be in deferment at the time, but despite an explanatory note from the bank, the USDA still denied her loan application.
USDA tells Hemp Grower it can't comment on personal experiences with customers, but an agency spokesperson outlined what happens if loans are denied:
"...If an application is denied, the applicant is notified in writing as required by [Farm Service Agency] procedures. This letter provides clear, specific reasons for the denial, citations of requirements from regulation, and handbook sections that are not met by the applicant. The letter also describes the reconsideration, mediation, and appeal rights to the National Appeals Division. The loan officer is instructed to advise the applicant of potential actions or alternatives that might resolve or help resolve the issues that resulted in the denial of the loan application.”
However, Dawson says USDA officials simply said she wasn’t eligible and didn’t offer any other options.
Dawson couldn’t afford to keep up with the farm, and soon after, she sold it.
The setback was a blow to Dawson’s plans. But she soon learned of the USDA’s long-documented history of discrimination. From lawsuits and extensive reports proving racial bias at the USDA to the agency fudging its numbers to make it appear Black farmers had made a comeback, Dawson discovered a much larger issue was at hand.
“My story isn’t as bad as others. That’s when I decided ... we can’t just wait for a government agency to change its whole entire culture,” Dawson says. “I really felt the co-op model was the best way to address these issues with Black farmers.”
Healing Through Hemp
With the help of her husband, Dawson was able to secure a smaller 10-acre farm about two years after she sold her first one. At Grand Risings Farms in Hinckley, Minn., she and her family began growing produce and hemp and raising chickens and goats. “The revenue from hemp is really carrying most of the farm,” Dawson says.
She had her first experience with cultivating cannabis in 2017, when she took a sabbatical from law school and began working at a medical grow. “I saw from seed to shelf the market opportunities for cannabis, and also for the first time in my life, I was able to pay off two car loans,” Dawson says.
So, when she decided to found a co-op, “it definitely was a no-brainer to say cannabis would be the cash crop that could get us equity quicker,” Dawson says.
She decided to take a slightly different approach with 40 Acre Co-op than the traditional local model. Dawson instead established a national model open to minority farmers to provide them with quality genetics and education.
Her first year of work with the co-op consisted of finding and addressing gaps among members. One of the main gaps was access to quality genetics, so Dawson says she worked with labs to try to discover the best hemp varieties she could offer farmers. She now offers genetics to members at a discounted rate.
The co-op includes several membership tiers. Producer members get a Class A membership, while investors get a Class C membership, which gives them a percentage of return from the co-op.
Based on farmers’ activity with co-op, they will get a percentage of profits returned to them in either equity or cash.
Farmer members also receive a portion of the profits from their crop. They can either sell the hemp back to the co-op or sell the hemp to someone else, and they will receive a certain percentage of the profit based on what they decide to do.
Dawson says farmers grow the type of hemp that will both grow best and sell best in their region. The co-op’s main focus for now is on growing for CBD and smokable flower using sustainable and organic practices.
“Mostly, the co-op wants farmers to grow the genetics we have and grow it in our way. We feel like quality needs to be consistent,” Dawson says.
In the first year, Dawson received an overwhelming response. “The idea grew so much that we wound up needing to demonstrate, so we secured 40 acres up the road,” Dawson adds, and that land is where she now grows a majority of her hemp.
Specialized Training and Partnerships
Dawson’s co-op also consists of thorough training for members, which touches on cultivation techniques, the industry overall, public policy, access to capital, business planning and financial management. Dawson even has a certified psychotherapist to address financial trauma minorities have endured for generations.
“The training program starts at a basic level and includes a lot of education for Black farmers specifically around issues in agriculture,” Dawson says. “We have a really great lineup of consultants and experts who are offering their skills through our training program.”
Some of those experts involved in the training are part of Charlotte’s Web, the country’s largest CBD company by market share, according to Brightfield Group.
“Black farmers are really the original farmers of the U.S., and farming is the oldest occupation for Black people in this country. The entire system was built on our backs.”
-Angela Dawson, founder, 40 Acre Co-op
The partnership is symbiotic: 40 Acre Co-op helps educate Charlotte's Web employees on challenges and opportunities for the Black hemp farming and manufacturing community. Meanwhile, Charlotte’s Web is also providing education for members of the co-op, as well as free seeds to at least seven farmers who are part of it.
“The best thing we can offer are our internal resources and external connections. We’re providing our expertise around growing techniques and what we have learned with farmers. Our marketing and creative team will also work with them on their website,” says Penny Tompkins, manager of corporate social responsibility at Charlotte’s Web. “We want to amplify her message and help connect her to exterior resources.”
“I think it’s really important, whether it’s marijuana or hemp, for those in the industry to know we have a duty to work with organizations to help [minority farmers] gain some equal footing,” Tompkins adds.
Future of the Co-op
The co-op now has more than 50 members in seven states. Dawson says members are a mix of experienced farmers looking to add hemp to their rotations as well as new farmers looking to grow more specialty crops.
Although demand for membership has been “a little overwhelming,” Dawson says, she is looking to continue expanding.
Meanwhile, the federal government is attempting to begin addressing discriminatory issues at the USDA, starting by setting aside at least $6 billion for socially disadvantaged farmers. A USDA spokesperson tells Hemp Grower cultural changes are also coming:
"USDA has continued the effort to provide access to credit to all farmers and ranchers. We are committed to building a different USDA, one that is committed to equality and justice, celebrates diversity, and is inclusive of all employees and all customers. First, we must redress the discrimination that has proven to be systemic, evidently reflecting the way we have designed our programs. Second, we must establish the support systems to enable socially disadvantaged producers to have the opportunity to succeed. The Department plans to harness new tools and new approaches to ensure civil rights and equity across USDA and commit to closer engagement with socially disadvantaged communities to co-create and co-own solutions."
But until that comes to fruition, Dawson hopes her co-op can not only help improve wages for and numbers of Black farmers, but also help them reclaim ownership over one of their original American identities.
“Black farmers are really the original farmers of the U.S., and farming is the oldest occupation for Black people in this country,” Dawson says. “The entire system was built on our backs.”