written by Dianna Benjamin
How the Cannabis Industry Can Support Black Farmers
America was built on the backs of black farmers. These farmers were forced to work the land on pain of death and torture. They worked without compensation and were often treated worse than animals. They were killed and tortured anyway. Still, they worked the land. The exploited labor of African slaves became the cornerstone of the South’s economy.
The Racist History of U.S. Agriculture
After Emancipation, black folk continued to work the land. Most worked as sharecroppers in a system that exploited black workers almost as badly as slavery did. Despite this, the number of black operated farms grew until it reached its peak at 926,000 in 1920.
Since then, that number has dramatically declined. The 33,000 black farm owners in operation today make up only 1.4% of the US farmer population.
The decline of black farmers was no accident. Black farmers were unable to obtain loans without credit history during the Reconstruction Era. Sharecropping kept black farmers indebted to planters.
Later, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) intentionally withheld loans and delayed and denied applications based on race. While white farmers received lawful support from the USDA, black farmers were denied the loans they needed to continue to operate their farms. Black farmers have won multiple class action lawsuits filed against the USDA, but these victories cannot undo the multi-generational consequences of discrimination.
Obstacles Black Farmers Face Today
While race unquestionably underlies barriers black farmers face, these are the most pressing obstacles they must overcome to succeed:
- Access to land. Obtaining land on a farmer’s income is the top challenge farmers face today. In today’s market, the cost of land exceeds the value of what farmers can produce.
- Student loan debt. The cost of student loan debt is a heavy burden on a farmer’s income. Student loan debt makes it difficult for farmers to obtain the additional credit they need to operate their farms until harvest.
- Labor. Many farmers complain that it is difficult to find skilled laborers. A lack of laborers decreases a farmer’s production output. This minimizes income and increases the risk of injury due to overworking.
- Affordable health insurance. Farming is one of the most physically demanding occupations in the U.S. Farmers need healthcare, but affordable coverage is difficult to come by. This is an enormous impediment to business growth.
In 1982, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights predicted that black farmers would be extinct by 2000. The Commission was wrong. The number of black principal operators has increased by 9% even while the number of principal operators of all farms has dropped by 4%. This increase speaks to the centuries’ old resilience of a population that continues to contribute and survive.
How the Cannabis Industry Can Support Black Farmers
The legalization of cannabis is the first step toward social equity, but it cannot be the last. States that have already legalized cannabis should implement the following policies to promote social equity within the farming industry.
Allow black farmers to participate in cannabis production. In some states, Cannabis growing is reserved for farms that have decades of consecutive farming experience. In Florida, for example, the law only permits nurseries with 30 consecutive years of experience to farm medical cannabis. These kinds of laws make it difficult for black farmers to participate in the green rush because of the discriminatory USDA practices impeding black farmers from holding on to their farms.
Fund programs that help disadvantaged farmers acquire land. Finding affordable land is a top challenge for farmers entering the agriculture industry. Cannabis tax revenue can be used to fund grants offsetting the costs of buying farmland for the first time.
Support resolution of heirs property. When a landowner dies without paperwork clearly designating who inherits the title, that land is called heirs property. Until title issues are resolved, landowners cannot obtain loans to farm the land. This problem primarily affects black farmers. Cannabis tax revenue can support programs that assist with this legal work.
Create student loan forgiveness programs for farmers. Farmers can receive student loan forgiveness after farming for a prescribed length of time. Alternatively, minority farmers who choose to further their education can be eligible for grants that support the cost. Cannabis tax revenue can fund these programs.
Fund farmer training programs in institutions of higher education. Allocate cannabis revenue to invest in farmer training programs at universities, technical schools, and on farms as a part of apprenticeship programs. This support can equip these programs with resources while making them more affordable for students.
Expand Medicaid. Farmers need affordable healthcare because farming is dangerous. Use cannabis tax revenue to expand Medicaid.
Support farmer-targeted marketing campaigns advertising federal and state programs for farmers. Farmers who don’t know about federal or state programs don’t take advantage of them. Use cannabis revenue to increase communication between state departments of agriculture and minority farmers.
Support Black Farmers, Support U.S. Agriculture
The U.S. agricultural industry is in danger. Almost 94% of farms are owned by people over the age of 35. In the next 20 years, two-thirds of farmland in the US will transition to new ownership. If nothing changes, the US will lose nearly one hundred million acres of farm production. The implications this will have on the US economy are staggering.
The American economy was built on the backs of black farmers. This was done without the consent of the millions of Africans who were stolen from their homes and forced into slavery. Today, black people are choosing to pursue agriculture. So much of the history of black farming has been about choice, or the lack thereof. It is the economy’s turn to give black farmers back what it has taken: the power to work the land on their own terms, the power to be independent, and the power to build generational wealth.