Hemp Farmer Honors Generations
Angela Dawson went back to the land—with an eye on both the past and the future.
On the banks of the Kettle River in northern Minnesota’s Pine County, Angela Dawson is leading an informal, two-person tour of her land—at least the eight acres of it where her log home sits.
“Here’s the beautiful Kettle River . . . the Anishinaabe name is Akikko-ziibi, which means large kettles,” Dawson says. One of just six Minnesota rivers designated Wild and Scenic, the Kettle, which boasts class III and class IV rapids, is popular with whitewater rafters and kayakers.
But not today. It’s late September, and with drought spreading across Minnesota for the third consecutive year, the water level is low—although that can vary dramatically, with spring often bringing floods. Dawson, who bought this land in 2018, says neighbors tell her what used to be called “20-year floods” are happening much more frequently.
Dawson and her partner, Harold Robinson, live on this plot, where she grows a cultivar of USDA-compliant hemp she developed. The strain, grown year-round in dozens of solar-powered hoop houses, is used to make CBD chocolate, gummies, tinctures, and other edible CBD products.
Dawson also runs a farming cooperative nearby on another parcel of land she owns called Forty Acres, named for the Union’s Civil War “40 acres and a mule” promise to allot plots of land to freed slaves (who’d been prohibited from owning property). The policy didn’t last long; most land redistributed during the war was restored to white owners, regardless of who was farming it.
That legacy reverberates still; today fewer than 2 percent of land-owning farmers in the U.S. are Black. Reparative efforts, like the current administration’s plan to distribute $4 billion in loan forgiveness to farmers of color, have met with lawsuits and political outrage.
With the co-op, Dawson is helping nurture other aspiring farmers of color. Forty Acres currently has nearly 40 members—and a waiting list of 300, she says. Members attend workshops and help each other with harvesting, creating and executing business plans, applying for grants, and marketing and distribution. Dawson also is working on starting a land access fund with a legal consultation component to help fledgling farmers secure their own plots.
Generations of organic farmers
Prior to farming, Dawson spent nearly 15 years at the University, both as a student and an employee. She studied writing as an undergraduate, and later worked as the assistant to educator, writer, and civil rights pioneer Josie R. Johnson, whom she calls her mentor. After serving for three years as director of the Northside Food Project (now Northside Fresh) in Minneapolis, Dawson returned to the U of M, working as a writer and medicine/health project manager.
She began studying law at Mitchell Hamline in 2014, earning her J.D. in 2018. But Dawson’s love of tending the land never waned, and a 2017 stint on a cannabis and hemp farm in Oregon convinced her she wanted to return to the land.
Today she represents the fourth generation in her family to farm—“the fifth if you count the enslaved ancestor, ’cause that’s where it started”—but the first to own the land she’s working. Her co-op’s mission is to advance the needs of growers like herself: “Black and other socially disadvantaged farmers.”
Her goals include farming in a sustainable way, giving back to the land rather than merely extracting from it. Living on the river keeps Dawson mindful of climate change and of the need to ensure that Minnesota’s freshwater remains clean and abundant.
“I have a strong belief that small farmers, Black farmers, Indigenous farmers, are the original regenerative farmers,” Dawson says. Farming to improve the health of the land and water is what she spent her childhood weekends and summers watching her grandmother do. When Dawson first heard the term regenerative agriculture, which basically means farming in harmony with nature, “it was like, ‘Oh, you’re talking about the sheep manure my grandma was putting in the gardens!’” instead of chemical fertilizer.
Hemp, like its sibling, marijuana, is considered an environmentally friendly crop due to its disease resistance—it flourishes without pesticides—and low water needs. “About 15 tons per acre of carbon is sequestered by hemp,” Dawson says. “It uses less water than trees, which take years to grow before you can make paper out of them. Hemp grows in less than six months.”
Hemp used for CBD products differs from the kind of hemp grown for fiber and food, Dawson says, but she’s keenly interested in the latter, although it requires much more acreage and specialized machinery. “That’s something we want to get into,” she says. “Right now, the U.S. is importing 90 percent of the hemp used for fiber while [U.S.] farmers could be growing it. And it could be cleaning the land, and sequestering carbon. We need to invest in the infrastructure.”
She’s also closely watching the legal and regulatory landscape around recreational THC, which the Minnesota legislature quietly legalized in 50 milligram-per-package edible doses last summer. Dawson hopes Minnesota policymakers take further measures to remove barriers Minnesota farmers—particularly farmers of color and those committed to sustainability—face to entering a market that’s in many states dominated by large corporations.
“We really want people who are serious about being a sustainable farmer and turning into a business,” Dawson says. “We want you to be able to say, ‘Because of my membership in Forty Acre Co-op, I bought a farm, I bought a hoop house. I’m [selling] a product, we hired a couple people, we’re making a good income.’”