Sedrick Rowe, a 29-year-old farmer, stood in a field of grass next to an open fire pit, filled to the brim with hemp engulfed in flames. Another pile of dried, discolored stalks—altogether worth about $1,500—lay on the ground nearby.
“This what burning money looks like,” he said.
Earlier that day, Rowe’s apprentice, Heather Wilson, had noticed that the leaves, once a vibrant green, had withered and turned brown. Wilson had walked from row to row assessing the damage, leaning in to inspect a four-foot-tall stalk that, unlike the others, seemed to be healthy. It collapsed under her touch, no roots to keep it grounded. The culprit was Southern Blight—a soil-borne fungus that Rowe and Wilson were becoming intimately familiar with—and it had wiped out half their crop.
On that balmy morning last summer, the pair were a few months into an experiment being undertaken by just a handful of growers across Georgia: the revival of hemp, a once successful crop that fell victim to drug-war hysteria in the 1970s. Legalized by a bill signed by Governor Brian Kemp in 2019, hemp agriculture brings to Georgia an industry projected to reach $1.9 billion in U.S. product sales by next year. Whereas, previously, hemp-derived products had to be imported from surrounding states, Georgia can now grow and process its own.
But as a young Black grower, Rowe’s experiment with the crop reaches beyond his own immediate success or failure. He represents a tradition lost over the course of the 20th century, one that now finds itself in need of nurturing, too: In the early 1900s, the United States was home to nearly a million Black farmers; in 2017, there were fewer than 46,000. Rowe, who turned 30 this year, wants to empower Black people to thrive in the farming industry, recognizing in it the possibility of economic self-sufficiency and even generational wealth. And he hopes hemp will be part of that.
As a first-generation farmer in a state that’s lost more than 98 percent of its Black farmers over the last 100 years, Rowe recognizes that cultural shift will take time.
“When people think ‘farmer,’ they see someone 25 years older than me, looking tired, wearing overalls,” Rowe says. “But, man, I hate overalls.”
Eight months after the Southern Blight disaster, Rowe ambles through a field wearing a black long-sleeve Columbia sport shirt, faded khakis, and brown work boots. A former Fort Valley State University running back, Rowe stands six feet tall and proud as he gives a tour of his farm in Albany, the slow rhythm of his deep voice punctuated by his fist hitting his palm. The sound of cars passing on the highway reaches every corner of Rowe Organic Farms, where an orange Kubota tractor, a silver-roofed shed, and 10 acres of freshly turned dirt sit waiting like an empty stage.
This swath of land off GA-300 is crowded with farms bigger and more established than Rowe’s. Down the road is a 90-acre family farm and market. Behind Rowe, hidden just beyond a fence of tall pine trees, is a 1,600-acre hunting farm that stretches to the Flint River. In 2020, Rowe made history here as one of the first farmers in South Georgia to raise a crop of organic hemp.
“I get a lot of people asking me if this is weed,” Rowe says. “Honestly, if you look at them side by side, you can’t tell the difference.”
Hemp and marijuana both grow in tall, thin stalks with bushy leaves and sticky buds, and they both emit a potent, earthy smell. The first difference is chemical: Though it’s derived from the same species as cannabis, hemp has significantly less THC, the compound responsible for weed’s high. Consequently, the second difference is legal: If any hemp plant’s THC levels reach above .33 percent, it’s considered a Schedule 1 drug and must be destroyed.
Rowe spent four months last summer tending his new crop, minding THC levels, battling Southern Blight and other encroachments to his small acreage of land. He and Wilson harvested the crop twice—in September and December—and shipped it to a processor, which extracted the plants’ cannabidiol (CBD) oil and packaged it in one-ounce bottles that Rowe will sell on his website for $105. All in all, Rowe made $30,000 as a first-time hemp farmer. This summer, armed with hands-on knowledge from his first growing cycle, he’s getting ready to do it all over again.
“It took me time to learn the land, the business, to learn everything,” Rowe says. “I spend a lot of time out here by myself, smelling dirt and seeing dust.”
Despite the industry historically being an uphill battle of land access and federal assistance, Rowe is determined to succeed. He’s been farming on his own since 2017, producing and selling organic peanuts, watermelons, and collard greens in Albany and other small plots of land throughout the state. Now, he wants others to join him. When his hands aren’t in the soil, he’s seeking out young Black farmers to connect with. “I wanted to give a whole ’nother perspective of farming,” he says. “I wanted to prove it doesn’t look like a struggle anymore.”
Like most extinctions, the disappearance of Black farmers in the United States was gradual but steady.
Following the Civil War, newly freed Black families and their descendants spread across the United States, either squatting on, sharecropping, or purchasing small plots of land. By 1920, about 14 percent of all U.S. farmers were Black (though only a quarter of them owned the land they worked). Most of the country’s Black farmers were concentrated in the South, with more than 130,000 of them in Georgia. In the decades that followed, due largely to Jim Crow–era intimidation and violence, many fled north in the Great Migration; by 1964, there were fewer than 11,000 Black farmers in Georgia.
At that time, Donnie McCrary was 11 years old, living and working on a white-owned farm in Marshallville in central Georgia, with his parents and eight siblings. McCrary grew up watching his father work land he’d never own and was well aware of the landscape facing him a decade later when he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. Nevertheless, in 1974, a 21-year-old McCrary applied for a loan from the Farmers Home Administration, a former USDA agency created to fund and protect loans for rural farmers and their families.
“My first loan officer was a Black man at FHA in Macon,” he says. “It was like having a man on the inside who cared about my success.”
McCrary used a loan to purchase farm equipment and land in Fort Valley, where he grew berries, muscadines, collard greens, and sweet potatoes. He was a decade into running a successful family farm, when extreme heat, drought, and rain hit the area back to back. Then came the 1985 blizzard.
“It wiped everything out,” McCrary says. “I went back to Farmers Home, explained what happened to the farm and that I couldn’t pay towards my bill, and the Black guy set me up with a guaranteed loan.” In a guaranteed loan, a third party assumes the debt obligation in the event that the borrower defaults. McCrary was “guaranteed” $50,000 of the federal funds allotted to farmers in his county in the event of a disaster.
“When the bill came due, I went back to FHA, but the Black guy had been moved to another county,” McCrary says. “This white guy said he didn’t know nothing about a guaranteed loan. He said they don’t even do guaranteed loans, and if they did, I wouldn’t qualify.”
McCrary, shocked, returned with his signed paperwork and a bank representative to vouch for him, but to no avail. He was forced to file bankruptcy and lost his farm.
Ninety miles south in Lee County, Shirley Sherrod and her husband, Charles, were suffering a similar fate. In 1969, the couple had partnered with other civil-rights and land-collective activists to found New Communities, a farm that would house dozens of Black families thrown off white-owned land for registering to vote or signing their children up for white schools. At more than 5,700 acres, it was the largest single plot of land owned by Black people in the country. But, in the early 1980s, the community was also hit with disasters—natural, then man-made.
“The thing that really got us was the drought,” Sherrod says. “When we went to the local Farmers Home Administration office to try to get an emergency loan—like all farmers were doing—we were told, You will get a loan here over my dead body.”
That incident launched Sherrod and New Communities into a three-year legal battle they would eventually lose. In 1985, the USDA and FHA foreclosed on the land and sold it for one-fifth its value, displacing the families who lived there.
Soon after, Sherrod joined the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, where she helped Southern farmers craft business plans, access funding, and expand into new markets. She met hundreds of families facing the same battle she and McCrary had just lost, witnessing the near extinction of Black farmers firsthand.
“No matter how much [the Federation] did, it wasn’t stopping the land loss throughout the South,” Sherrod says. More than a decade later, she and McCrary joined Pigford v. Glickman, a landmark class-action lawsuit addressing the USDA’s discrimination against Black farmers.
The lawsuit was fueled by a USDA-commissioned study showing minority farmers across the country received less than their fair share of money for crop payments, disaster payments, and loans. The discrepancy was particularly egregious in disaster payments like the ones McCrary and Sherrod sought: Between 1990 and 1995, less than 1 percent went to Black farmers. The study helped show why Black farmers were losing faith in the FHA, the USDA, and the farming industry as a whole. In 1999, a billion-dollar settlement was reached, to be dispersed among Black farmers, provided they could prove a similarly positioned white farmer got loans they were denied.
“There was so much paperwork to complete, hoops to jump through,” McCrary says. After a decade of fighting, he would walk away empty handed.
The Sherrods, with New Communities, were initially denied a case but appealed the decision and eventually received $12 million, which they used to purchase the 1,600-acre Cypress Pond Plantation near Albany, once the property of the largest slaveholder in Georgia.
But on a broader scale, the damage to Black farmers was done. By 2017, just 35,000 of the country’s 2 million farms were Black owned and operated, and Black farmers, on average, were making less than $40,000 annually. Today, the profession itself is in decline, too: U.S. farm producers are, on average, 58 years old, and only 8 percent of the nation’s farms are owned by someone 35 years or younger.
For her part, Sherrod continued to fight for fair farm policies and was hired as Georgia’s Director of Rural Development under the Obama administration. A year later, she was forced to resign when late conservative media personality Andrew Breitbart took part of a speech she’d given out of context and accused her of being racist. The state department apologized two days later and offered to rehire her, but she declined, choosing instead to cultivate the next generation of Black farmers, which led her to Rowe.
Long before he had Albany land, Rowe had Albany roots. He grew up here, raised by a single mother who retired after 30 years as a police dispatcher and still works at the sheriff’s office. Twenty minutes down the road from his hemp farm is Westover High School, where Rowe commanded another field as a linebacker. Football was his first love, but when he thought about his future, he always came back to farming. Growing up surrounded by farmland in rural Albany, it felt natural to him. His friends and family weren’t so sure.
“People told me there’s no money in farming,” he says. “Sometimes, you have to take that leap of faith. I felt like someone just needed to show them, prove it could be done.”
So, Rowe leapt, graduating from Fort Valley State University with a bachelor’s degree in Plant Science in 2015. Right out of college, Sherrod hired him as an agriculture specialist at Cypress Pond Plantation, where he trained under McCrary, who’d since been hired as the Sherrods’ farm manager. Rowe surprised him.
“I don’t see a lot of young Black farmers coming up,” McCrary says. “Even if their parents didn’t lose land and had something to pass down, the younger generation usually doesn’t want it because they saw all of the challenges their parents went through to fight to keep it.”
Rowe stayed there for two years, growing oranges, grapes, and pecan trees, getting 50 acres of the land certified organic, and learning how to manage the business of a farm. Then, after earning his master’s in Public Health from FVSU, he set out to buy his own land. He was only 26 at the time, but his work at Cypress Pond had introduced him to Georgia Organics, a nonprofit connecting organic food demand directly to suppliers. Rowe found his footing in Georgia’s still emerging organic industry.
“I knew trying to survive was going to be hard because I was a young, minority farmer,” Rowe said. “So, I went about it as a niche market.”
With help from Georgia Organics—which provided USDA grants to farmers growing organic peanuts on a small scale—Rowe proved his green thumb on leased lots throughout the state. He became a founding member of the Georgia Organic Peanut Association, a farmer-owned cooperative marketing USDA Certified Organic peanuts. GOPA would go on to create space for new and small acreage farmers, buying their harvests and handling the logistics of using organic processors, shellers, and blanchers.
Rowe said being on the front end of organic peanuts helped him stay afloat: “It gave me a way to survive in farming.”
In 2017, he found his 10-acre plot in Albany, securing a lease-to-own deal with the previous owner, a Black businessman who, Rowe says, wanted to see him succeed.
Then, when Governor Brian Kemp signed Georgia’s Hemp Farming Act, Rowe saw an opportunity to experiment.
• • •
Hemp can be processed for CBD oil and used in lotions, salves, and edibles, or it can be made into textiles and paper. At the turn of the 20th century, hemp farming was fairly common in Georgia, according to Tim Coolong, a horticulture professor at the University of Georgia.
The anticannabis movement arrived in the U.S. in 1937 with the Marihuana Tax Act, which regulated importation, cultivation, possession, and distribution of cannabis. In 1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, which classified hemp as an illegal drug and banned its cultivation, regardless of THC levels. It wasn’t until 1999 that states began to legalize the crop again. North Dakota was the first, starting a trend that would take two decades to reach Georgia. Finally, in 2019, House Bill 213 passed and Kemp signed it into law, giving farmers the chance to start playing catch-up.
Rowe was among the first to apply for a license through the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s Hemp Program, joining fewer than 170 other farmers in a new, highly regulated industry. Applicants first submit to an extensive background check—anyone convicted of a felony involving the sale of or trafficking in a controlled substance is barred from the hemp program for 10 years. Applicants must find a registered hemp processor willing to work with them and provide an affidavit from that vendor saying as much. (Processors, who strip CBD oil from hemp, pay $25,000 a year for a license from the Department of Agriculture; there are currently only six in the state.) Finally, applicants provide GPS coordinates for their farms and storage and pay $50 per acre for a license.
Last summer, three months after submitting his application, Rowe broke ground on his hemp farm, planting more than 4,000 seedlings with Wilson. Then came the hard part: learning how to nurture the crop in Georgia’s climate.
Coolong oversaw one of the state’s first research hemp fields back in 2019; on three acres spread across the state, he worked with two dozen varieties of the plant, testing growing conditions and gathering research to share with farmers. He says a lot of the challenge comes down to genetics: There’s not a lot of research available to show which varieties of hemp are the best for certain conditions or locations, and there’s variability in the genetic sets available in the marketplace. “If you buy a certain variety from one seed source then look to another source for that same variety, when you get the seed or plants, they can look very different,” he says.
Genetics, along with timing of harvest, can also lead to another hurdle: maintaining the legal level of THC. Typically, once a hemp plant begins flowering, the longer it is left in the field, the higher its THC levels will rise. If that number is allowed to creep high enough in even one plant, a farmer potentially could lose everything planted at those GPS coordinates.
Rowe sends a $50 sample to a lab to independently test his plants’ THC levels every 20 days or so, but nothing is official until someone from the Department of Agriculture comes out and pulls their own sample (for which Rowe also pays). He estimates he spent about $1,200 on red-tape fees like licensing and testing last season—about 10 percent of his operating costs and more than enough to have covered his Southern Blight losses. Farmers and politicians alike have criticized hemp regulations for being cost-prohibitive.
Still, Rowe says the potential profit is enough to try again. His USDA Certified Organic label earns him a 4 percent markup on his CBD oil, which helped him end 2020’s growing season in the black.
He wants to stake a claim in hemp from which other generations can profit as well.
“I feel like, if I can get good at growing hemp and master this market, it’s a product I can say Black people are tied to,” he said. “This is something they can’t take from us.”
Rowe’s success as a young Black farmer is marked by the fact that he’s an anomaly, a realization that first hit him at a convention sponsored by the National Young Farmers Coalition in Colorado.
“When I tell you there were so many young farmers from all across that state, I was shocked,” Rowe says. “Then, I thought, Okay, but how many of them are Black? And it was only a handful of them.”
Rowe came home from the convention and created his own chapter, the Southern Georgia Young Farmers Coalition, to connect farmers to resources, information, and each other.
“If you don’t have a market, now, you do. If you’re having trouble with transportation, we got farmers from Atlanta all the way down to the border of Georgia,” Rowe says. His goal is to educate other would-be farmers and show them the potential in the industry. He credits similar, farmer-first organizations such as the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, New Communities, and GOPA with helping him get his own foot in the door.
Young Black farmers could also see help from the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, a provision in President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, introduced by U.S. Senator Raphael G. Warnock. The bill created a $5 billion fund for minority farmers: $4 billion for debt relief and $1 billion for technical assistance and grants. It’s the kind of aid farmers like McCrary and Sherrod desperately needed 40 years ago. Warnock says he hopes the bill will help provide equity for farmers of color.
“This part of the bill provides the kind of technical assistance that makes [farming] possible for people who have historically been locked out to get in,” Warnock says.
Although Rowe is wary of government assistance, he plans to apply. His goal is to turn his farm into a hands-on research lab for other young Black farmers in the area.
“I’d love to have some paid interns out here,” he said. “People can come here and learn proper crop rotation and how to manage the labor. If you’ve never drove a tractor, people can hop on mine.”
Rowe is explaining his plans for his small shed—he wants to add windows and air conditioning—when a minivan pulls onto his property. “That’s Miss Erma,” he says, before closing the door and walking to greet her. “She does some farming around here.”
A middle-aged Black woman rolls down her window and says, “You’re a hard man to catch, Sed,” before asking what he knows about growing a variety of nuts that won’t affect people with tree-nut allergies. “Would you be interested in testing some out?”
Rowe is nodding before she’s finished asking.
This article appears in our June 2021 issue.