Q&A With Angela Dawson, 40 Acre Co-op

There are significant gaps in capitalizing and sustaining farmers in my community, and a co-op structure helps fill the huge gap.
Photo Sarah Whiting

After we launched our Ecolution newsletter in September 2020, we offered a series of video-recorded conversations with Angela Dawson at her 40 Acre Co-op farm in Sandstone. Her focus is to work with Black and other socially disadvantaged farmers around the country to share resources and insights on hemp production. We recently asked her to go into more detail about the system she is creating.


Why did you choose the co-op model?

I chose the co-op model because of its flexibility and because it offers what other business models cannot. It gives me the ability to be self-determinant within a very tough industry. It gives me the opportunity to lead with integrity within a movement that has principles that resonate with me. As an independent farmer, I get to work on the leading edge of my craft and enjoy the process of helping others realize their cooperative business goals.

There are significant gaps in capitalizing and sustaining farmers in my community, and a co-op structure helps fill the huge gap where we need services and support. Instead of waiting for the government or industry to decide we are important, we organized a co-op to meet our farming needs.

We now have 30 active members in several states and two tribal territories actively receiving support and training from the co-op. We have a waiting list of over 300 people.

We have made extensive progress in a short amount of time, especially when you consider some peers in the hemp industry are much better capitalized and protected [such as the Wrigley gum family, a cannabis investment firm board includes former Republican House Speaker John Boehner]. We have made tremendous gains in just two years. We have our own strain of hemp that has been third-party tested and passed state inspections. We have a line of products launching later this fall. We are leading the national conversation about equity and diversity in agriculture.

People sometimes think of hemp as associated with drugs only. What is your hemp farm developing?

Hemp is one of the oldest and most versatile herb species in the plant kingdom. There are at least 25,000 documented uses of the plant — animal bedding, construction, environmental remediation, medical treatments, and textile production. Different varieties of the same Cannabis sativa plant can be applied to so many industries, but the U.S. is much further behind in the development of these technologies compared to other industrial nations. This is another area of growth we are advancing with the co-op — we track and gather the latest research, technology, and expertise that helps us create the best quality hemp goods for the marketplace. This progress is critical to our collective economic and ecological futures.

In our “Healthy Ecosystems” conversation, you had a great description of the Minnesotans you did not expect to be embracing you — as a Black hemp farmer in what has been largely a Trump-supporting community. Why are people coming to you?

We live in a small town in one of the poorest counties in the state. From the gap I stand in, we do not see that rural Minnesota has much to offer as far as robust and diverse rural economic investment or jobs that provide competitive, livable wages. We are regularly seeing at our farm a great talent base of young, able-bodied, hardworking people — with families and ambitions to support, and all kinds of practical farming capabilities. If given the proper training and support, they could be part of a thriving industry that is based on sustainable and cooperative principles.

Most of these people want to work with a vibrant, versatile, and sustainable crop — this is another reason why our waiting list to join the co-op is so long. People who we cannot hire become members and choose to be part of the progress we are making.

Photo Sarah Whiting

We are home to Land O’Lakes and CHS — two of the largest agricultural co-ops in the country, with billions in annual sales. The federal USDA is designed to support local farmers. What did you find was missing?

One would think with all of the financial resources and influence these companies have, and how they have benefited so greatly from the co-op model, they would have a more visible role in our communities. With the ways we romanticize the American Farm, it is surprising how little is done to support the average American family farmer.

Unfortunately, the agricultural system is set up for inefficient monocrops and row crops that mass-produce commodities like corn and soybeans. That is what most USDA funding supports, even though it is damaging to the environment and is not really profitable for the farmers.

Companies are making pledges to the environment and reducing reliance on fossil fuels, which is a good thing. We would like to challenge Minnesota’s largest cooperatives to level up their game and make their social equity and social responsibility pledges transparent and actionable.

Minnesota has made recent efforts to expand some of its local foods marketing. Yet clearly we are missing the mark with issues like equity and inclusion in the food system and onboarding diverse local food talent.

When it comes to policies that support small farmers, we must hold our leaders accountable to standards of sustainability, equity, diversity, and security in our food system. We also personally need to put our money where our mouth is by buying local as much as possible.

Transforming Justice reporting is made possible by Alicia Gibson, who ran for Minneapolis City Council in Ward 10, who says: “Thank you to all our supporters. We did not win this time around, but we created a movement that goes on. As peacekeepers, we are called upon to model political engagement and action that leaves no one behind and that listens before leaping. Let’s keep finding ways to do the most good.”

How has climate change impacted you thus far?

We live on the river, and it provides vital resources for our area. The recent droughts and floods and the overall instability of our climate generally make farming an even riskier proposition than it already was. This is why we need the support of local and national communities that care about issues like the environment, food security, and organic and sustainable farming. It is about creating spaces to have these dialogues and aligning our resources to create the world we want. That is what a co-op can do for us.


From “Winona LaDuke: Leader of the Green Revolution,” July 2020, Minnesota Women’s Press

The U.S. hemp industry was estimated to be worth $688 million in 2016, partly driven by the demand for hemp seed and oil in foods such as granola and in body care products. Many products are imported from China, followed by France.

Hemp comes from the Cannabis sativa plant species. The drug variety comes from the same species, but hemp has lower amounts of THC and higher concentration of CBD, which minimizes any psychoactive effects.

It is one of the fastest-growing plants and was first spun into fiber 50,000 years ago. By 1920, it was the source of 80 percent of the clothing in the U.S. During World War II, hemp was largely used for uniforms, canvas, and rope. A 1942 film called “Hemp for Victory” extolled its virtues for the war effort.

At one time, Minnesota had 11 hemp mills. With the growth of the fossil fuel industry and global expansion, corporations began to take textile manufacturing offshore, largely to Asia.

Hemp, says Winona LaDuke, an Indigenous environmental activist, “is about three times the strength of cotton, is resistant to mold, requires little water or pesticides, and leads to healthier soils.”


Resources

womenspress.com/ecolution-2-collectives

40 Acre Co-op, fortyacrecoop.us


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