When Brendalyn King and her partner, Osei Doyle, quit their jobs and left Brooklyn, New York, in 2020 to buy land, they had high hopes of entering the growing industrial hemp industry.

They moved to Salem, Illinois, to farm on a family friend’s land until they were able to buy the property. However, they never got a chance to purchase the land. After a year of some failed crops and financial losses, the couple moved from Illinois to Missouri, King’s home state, in search of property to restart their farming operation.

The promise soon faded as they struggled to find affordable land, funding opportunities, and a buyer for their products. Ultimately, they suffered financial hardship, so last year, they stopped farming.

King and Doyle are among the thousands of hemp farmers who lost money during the pandemic. The high labor costs, supply chain issues, and regulatory barriers are compounded for Black farmers who struggle to access capital and technical education because of present and historical discrimination by the government. Additionally, Black farmers say the confusion over the difference between hemp and marijuana has hurt sales of hemp-derived products — which include cannabidiol, or CBD, oils and lotions.

As a result, some farmers have been forced to destroy their hemp crops or grow less or none at all. Experts say this contributed to the drastic 71% decline in all industrial hemp production in 2022 from the previous year, according to a recent report from the United States Department of Agriculture.

The report released last month shows losses across every metric, including the number of acres hemp was harvested and planted on. The data is from a second annual survey USDA sent to hemp farmers to learn more about the market.

Chris Hawthorn, field crops section head for the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, or NASS, said he is unsure of the factors contributing to the decline because the agency doesn’t collect that type of data. But through conversations, he’s heard that farmers have had difficulty finding a market for their hemp products.

“We don’t have a whole lot of data on the hemp industry yet,” Hawthorn said. “It’s a unique crop. It’s not something like corn, where you grow the corn and take it to your co-op. … In most cases of hemp, you kind of need somebody lined up to take your crop.”

The pitfalls of the bill that legalized hemp

The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, also known as the Farm Bill, legalized the production of industrial hemp, the same plant that contains tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Although hemp and marijuana are essentially the same plant, hemp doesn’t give the high effect that marijuana does because of lower THC levels.

The federal government imposed strict regulations, one being that the hemp plant should contain below 0.3% THC levels. Hemp also has more than 50,000 uses, including fiber, food, paper, biofuel, bioplastics, and medicine.

Some farmers take issue with part of the law that gives states’ authority to create and implement hemp production programs. They say the laws aren’t necessarily clear on what is considered legal or not.

In Virginia, a grower must be registered with the state, submit a planting report within 14 calendar days, submit a harvest report, find a registered dealer or processor, and undergo food safety inspection if the product is intended for human consumption.

In South Carolina, it’s unclear if products can be consumed. The law allows farmers with state-approved licenses to grow, manufacture, and produce hemp. However, the state attorney general said that “raw and unprocessed” hemp flowers are still illegal, but that isn’t outlined in state law.

Black hemp experts say most hemp farmers were limited with the type of CBD products they could sell, and hoped there would be federal guidance on consumption of CBD products such as dietary supplements or food items. The guidance never came, and instead, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said there was a lack of “adequate evidence to determine how much CBD can be consumed, and for how long, before causing harm.”

The need for more federal guidance

The Galloway family (from left) — A.M. Harris, Elizabeth Galloway, Ruben Galloway, Shondolyn Galloway, and Rhonda Harris — transitioned from selling timber to planting hemp in 2019. (Courtesy of Shondolyn Galloway)

Most times, farmers grow hemp alongside other crops, said Shondolyn Galloway, president of her family farm, Litt Lizzy Farms in Leesville, South Carolina. While Galloway educated herself on the federal and state laws in preparation for the hemp farm, her family sold sea moss gel, elderberry syrup, and other crops to stay afloat. They dipped into their 401(k) and crowdsourced to fund their operations because some grant or loan opportunities weren’t applicable to their farm.

“The idea sounds great. … But at times, the federal government, even those at local government, as we found, is still trying to figure a lot of things out,” Galloway said. “It often feels like we’re just riding in a wave in the middle of that.”

Separately, some farmers struggled to achieve the federal limit of THC in hemp plants, forcing them to destroy crops. Unpredictable weather patterns — such as dry temperatures and limited rain tied to climate change — affected the crops of others.

Unlike other crops such as soybean or corn, insurance to cover failed hemp crops is available only in certain counties and to eligible producers, said Antoine Mordican, an electrical engineer and founder of Native Black Farm in Alabama, which is another reason he says people pulled back. There are also no incentives to farm hemp, he added.

“It’s like you’re really just throwing money into the furnace until you kind of land on something good,” he said. “It just hasn’t necessarily been profitable. I’m still in red, and I put my life savings into it with the anticipation to lose it based on the knowledge that I’ll be able to get to prepare me for my opportunity later.”

For King and Doyle, part of the education gap stems from the lack of awareness of the types of funding and programs that are available.

Last year, they raised enough money to buy 244 acres for their farm and a resort, which is now near Lake Placid, a former Black-owned cabin retreat and recreational area in Missouri. However, they needed funds for their farming operation, so they cleared some land in preparation for it. They also learned about the beginning farmer loans from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.

After viewing the cleared area, officials determined the land would not produce the hemp well and advised them to keep the land fallow for a year. Additionally, they had to obtain new licenses to comply with state laws. They couldn’t grow last year and don’t plan to anytime soon.

Instead, they’re pursuing more education and selling other companies’ products to make money.

“Where would I have gotten that knowledge?” King said. “We’re on a learning curve, so we’re trying to understand how to translate what we’re doing into the grant [and loan] process.”

There’s still promise in the future of hemp

Calvin Frye, chair of the National Hemp Association’s standing committee for social equity, said the market is fairly new, but universities are conducting more research, which will help tremendously. He added that states are passing laws to expand the types of products hemp can be used for, which can create another revenue stream for farmers. In New York, a bill passed that allows hemp to be used for packaging, construction, and business operations. Montana passed legislation to use hemp in animal feed for pets, horses, and other livestock.

“Unfortunately, different states do things completely different, [but] I think regardless of what’s going to happen in the state-by-state manner … I don't think they’ll be so stringent that they’re going to stifle the advancement of hemp industries in those states,” Frye said.

Faye Coleman, a cannabis consultant, business owner, and secretary for the National Hemp Association, said there’s still promise in the future for Black farmers — who make up only 7% of the hemp farms. However, more equitable policies, comprehensive education, and accessible funding are needed.

“There’s been no one impacted more in this country than the Black farmer, so [with] policy and what’s coming down the pike, [there are questions around] will there be fairness in terms of policy, in terms of how things are regulated, in terms of resources that are available?” she said. “If it’s done well, it’s going to lower the barriers for those hemp-ready businesses. And if not, they’re going to continue to persist and people will not have those advantages.”

Although the economic benefits haven’t yet materialized, particularly for Black farmers, King, Doyle, and Galloway are still hopeful.

“Black people in America can very much be successful with it,” Galloway said. “We’ll have to find a way to wiggle into that space like everything else that America gives us the opportunity to pursue.”

Aallyah Wright is Worldacad's rural issues reporter. Twitter @aallyahpatrice