Ras Jag of Åyaora Traditions a seed to body grassroots farm located in Chaparral, New Mexico. Photo credit: Åyaora Traditions

Black hemp and cannabis farmers reclaim what is lost in the archives

Hemp’s importance and the people who cultivated the industry in America was almost erased after prohibition of growing the crop, but Black farmers are pushing back for another narrative.

The oxymoron of cannabis culture sits in the history of America’s hemp industry. A crop encouraged by colonial authority, as far back as the 16th century, hemp was a central crop in America’s global economy and the United States’ rise as a superpower.. Most importantly, what is often erased is that the hemp industry was birthed, maintained and prospered from the labor of enslaved Blacks.

| Watch: Provision to aid Black farmers passes in stimulus bill

As early as 1585, Spanish conquistadors encouraged hemp production in its colonies. Eventually, hemp production flourished in Mexico. On the other hand, France rejected hemp production initially, but saw its profits. As a result, by the late1700s, it boasted hemp crops in its North American terrifies.

As well, hemp production extended to the British. By the mid-1600s British colonial authority urged plantation owners in Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland to grow hemp instead of tobacco because the profit margin would be better. Added in their encouragement, tobacco was seen as immoral according to their Puritanical Christian doctrine.

As the British became a more dominant colonial force in the New World, the British Navy began to rely on hemp production in the American colonial territories of New England. In those areas, hemp was used to make ropes, sails and caulked wooden ships because it was not only a resilient, but a strong fiber that excelled in performance in comparison to other textiles of the day. In fact, hemp production by American colonies fueled British global domination because it relied so heavily on its maritime armed forces.

Ironically, current day reports show the majority of marijuana arrests in many cities where there are African Americans, Blacks make up the majority of arrests. This is most glaring in Chicago where 78 percent of marijuana arrests were Black between 2012 to 2014, while just 4 percent were white. More disturbing is the current decriminalization of cannabis has led to a nascent marijuana and hemp industry that prohibits anyone from legal growing and selling the plant if they have a criminal record, even if using or selling cannabis. Added, the licensing and process ranges as a six-to-seven figure start up. Ultimately leading the cannabis industry today is predominantly white, just like their slave owning predecessors.

But few even know the significance of cannabis sativa in the Americas, and the US specifically. Plantation owners from New England down to North Carolina, and especially in Kentucky, built financial empires from hemp farmed by enslaved people.

Here are 12 facts that will spark your curiosity about the history of hemp and its prominence in America

  1. Hemp is the non-psychoactive cannabis sativa plant
  2. As early as 1585, the Spanish colonial authority encouraged hemp production, which flourished in Mexico.
  3. In the mid-1600s British colonial authority urged plantation owners in Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland to grow hemp instead of tobacco because the profit margin would be better.
  4. Hemp was the first American textile.
  5. Hemp is considered as fueling the first “Made in America;” albeit Colonial America when colonists were encouraged to make products from hemp such as cordage, textiles, and bags after they grew tired of importing textiles.
  6. British Naval ships began relying on hemp production in the American colonial territories of New England because hemp was used to mail ropes, sails and caulked ships. In fact, the hemp production by American colonies fueled British global domination because it relied so heavily on its maritime armed forces
  7. After the American Revolution, the US Navy became the biggest buyers of hemp from US farms
  8. Hemp grew throughout the US, but was the main cash crop in Kentucky because of the loamy, fertile soil of the state’s Bluegrass section. 
  9. Slavery was the key reason the hemp industry flourished in Kentucy
  10. When hemp was prohibited and listed as a drug or narcotic, it gravely disrupted the Kentucky farming economy
  11. Black farmers in Kentucky who cultivated hemp were also targeted when it became prohibited. Today, Kentucky loses 8 out of 10 farmers about every quarter.
  12. Hemp pulp was used to manufacture banknote paper for the US dollar.

Reclaiming their crops

Ras Jag on his hemp farm in Chaparral, New Mexico. He is one of the few Black farmers growing hemp and in that region. Åyaora Traditions is on the Black Farmers Index, a project launched and curated by Ark Republic. Photo credit: Åyaora Traditions

Slowly, but surely, Black hemp farmers are emerging. Previously, Ark Republic reported how Panama Chavis convinced his family to turn their North Carolina farm into harvesting hemp for CBD products for his Harlem-based company. Fourth generation farmer, Patrick Brown turned some of his family acreage into growing hemp for a line of products. Included in this resurgence are women like of Ruby’s Happy Farm and Green Heffa Farm.

Åyaora Traditions located in Chaparral, New Mexico, the regenerative farm led by Ras Jag, is a Jamaican elder in the Rastafarian tradition. The multi-generational farm uses a seed to body to concept. “We grow all of our plants from seed and process them ourselves using traditional Herbalism methods,” says Ras Jag about Åyaora’s line of body care, tinctures, CBD oils and smokes.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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