In a new era of entrepreneurship, representation, and legacies, Black women have been focused on reclaiming time, space, and land. Countlessly, these women have cleared the smoke that clouds the mirrors which reflect all that has been contributed to society. They are the heroes of today — making sure that we are seen, heard, and valued.
Among these bold entrepreneurs stands Angela Dawson, founder of 40 Acre Cooperative and the 40 Acre Ranch. Dawson has made it her mission to widen the selective lens the world gives to the agriculture industry by showing that it is more than the never-ending fields of grain, livestock, and almanacs that most picture. It is a community that thrives on the support of farmers, the visibility of the underrepresented, and the inclusion of progressive ideals that have helped propel our country forward — despite the journey that still lies ahead.
Dawson made the shift to create a seat at the table for black farmers after leaving a career in public health at U of M and putting her life savings into her farm in Northern Minnesota. As a connoisseur of the local food co-ops in her home state of Minnesota, Dawson couldn’t help but notice the lack of black-owned co-ops operating in their communities. She discovered that black farmers made up fewer numbers by population now than ever before, leaving only 1.3% of black-owned farms in America today.
The 40 Acre Cooperative and the 40 Acre Ranch were established to get Black farmers back their land and build generational wealth in the community, while helping farmers navigate barriers in accessing the market. This includes things such as: obtaining a grower or processor license, reviewing and improving their business plans, providing access to budgeting and farm management software, and its Hemp Incubator Program that provides support and mentoring for farmers from seed to shelf.
Angela has employed 60% of female farmers and provided over 100 black farmers with the tools and resources they need to succeed with the first Nationwide Cooperative Supporting “Socially Disadvantaged” Farmers, and doesn’t plan to stop any time soon. Here, Angela sits down with BAUCE to discuss the start of the 40 Acre Co-op and the legacy she envisions it holds for the future.
You’ve planted so many seeds for not only black farmers but black women farmers within the agriculture industry — and in return, you’ve harvested opportunities and a community that will last through decades. How important is a legacy to you in all that you do and how has that impacted the choices you make every day for the 40 Acre Co-operative and the 40 Acre Ranch?
Angela: Wow, that’s such a profound question. I mean, that’s the reason why we farm, right? Farming is the oldest occupation of the black man and woman in America. So that was our original occupation when we came here, and I must say that we perfected it to benefit the entire world. When you think about the inventions that we created — people still use technology today, and that’s why it was so important for me to highlight this legacy. You know, not only do we just have this legacy of this being our original occupation, but it has really critically improved the state of agriculture. So, that makes it even more important for us to honor this community. I mean, for them to be the most vulnerable population for extinction in the US on the human side is just not tolerable for me. So you have the important legacy part, and my family legacy as well, which was lost through systemic racism. That’s what was really important for me. Now what’s so exciting is that I do have a daughter who’s really encouraged about this, and she’s taken on farming full time for her own family.
After being denied a microloan twice for your vision, the infuriating realization that black farmers were still being suppressed was brought to the forefront. Aside from the start, how have environmental racism and microaggressions impacted the things you go through on the job today?
Angela: I’ll just start with the micro-aggressions because it’s so real for me. Even as we talk about this new Justice for Black Farmers Bill, you know, one of the first things that came to my mind when people were saying, “oh, this is so cool, isn’t this great?” that black farmers finally get this bill. The first thing I thought was that this happened before when we had the socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. That was a billion-dollar settlement and it took 30 years to not even be completely settled. Most of the money that was supposed to go to black farmers out of that settlement went to other people — white women and other socially disadvantaged “farmers”.
So I am happy about that progress, but I’m a little bit more cautiously enthusiastic about what it could mean, because are we supposed to go right back to those USDA offices all of a sudden? Is that woman going to be better because she does an extra couple of million dollars in the budget now? I mean, am I supposed to go back to that same humiliation and disrespect that I experienced and get re-traumatized since they’re going to be nicer now that the bill was passed? I mean, what are we going to do about the culture in agriculture that allows them to be so comfortable with treating black farmers that way?
I think that those microaggressions aren’t that different than the ones that I left corporate America. It’s the reason why I left corporate America and decided to become a full-time farmer because being in an office stuck with someone for eight to ten hours a day with these constant micro-aggressions was wearing on my health. So, farming and agriculture were always a very healing practice for me. So when I set out to realize my dream of farming in 2018 and was treated that same way — it was a little deeper that time because it wasn’t just me. I had 50 pigs, four goats, and two kids. It was difficult for all of us. I think the progress being made drives home the need for us to look at this. Yes, it’s good that we have this national attention on these issues, but now the work is just starting.
How hard was it to adapt to the rigorous life of farming coming from Corporate America?
Angela: Well, I tell you, it’s so funny because it was rough and now I almost feel like I can handle anything. This is because not only is it just, farming pigs, but it was farming pigs and not having the money, resources, and the right capital to do very manual things that should be automated.
So I felt like I had the original “sharecroppers” experience for that year. Everything was manual and on a shoestring budget. I was feeding my animals before I was feeding myself. It was a trial by fire for sure. I do know other farmers who have it a lot easier with beautiful sprawling estates and all the space that they need because they have the capital infusion for their farms. The way that I had imagined it working was like those farms that I saw were on the same contract that I was trying to get to. So I was imagining myself building these beautiful huts for my pigs and having these beautiful rolls of vegetables for the CSA. Yet, it certainly didn’t turn out that way. I do think that with some technology, things can be made much easier, and I’m certainly one of those farmers who believes that we need it. I mean, my exact reason for the Co-op was because I thought that the old sharecropper narrative has got to go for our community. There has to be prosperity, it has to be abundant, it has to be healthy for us, it has to be in our favor, it has to make us money, it has to do the environment well, and it has to leave us a legacy. It can’t be these kinds of situations where we’re destitute and have to use the lowest and the worst of materials and resources because nobody wants to give us anything. That is the reason why the co-op is was founded because this narrative has got to go back.
So because things are constantly moving forward in the world today — like the lack of need for the old sharecropper narrative, what have you done to make your business adaptable, and what is next for you?
Angela: So really, that’s one of the main important things. It’s one of those things where we are leveraging the resources and the audience of the co-op to bring that technology and those advances to our members. One of the main ways we’re going to do that is through our new training institute called the Hemp Training Incubator Program. It’s an institute that I created that is set to modernize the black farmer. I say that in a way that all of us will be modernized together; meaning that we’re all going to be put on the same page because there’s a lot that has changed in agriculture over the last 100 years, and there’s a lot that has changed about black people over the last 100 years. So the point of this training is to get us all in the future, especially with hemp. I do have partnerships with some industry and technology experts. We have a company that’s building us a seed container unit with the most high-end engineering and complex programming that I’ve ever seen in a grow operation. We’re giving specific training on that for people who are ready for it. Our whole training curriculum is a 10-week program that covers everything from the ethos of black farming in America today, to what is the right growth plan for your specific farm site, and what tools and technology and resources do you need to have the most productive crop.
We cover all of that in our training, and it’s something that I’m requiring as mandatory for our members who want to grow with us and who want to participate economically in the co-op. I feel like the ethos, understanding, and mission base is more of a priority before we start talking about all the economic opportunities that are there. This is because we have a lot of trauma that we’ve experienced over the generations regarding farm financing, and I think that we have to do some collective work to move us forward in a way that acknowledges what happened in the past and also what helps empower us to build what we want for the future.
It was Angela Davis who said “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change –I am changing the things I can not accept,” and when we look at all that you have done, we see just that. You didn’t just create your seat at the table — you built a new table from the ground up. What were the things that you could no longer accept in this industry, and how was that journey like changing them?
Angela: What I couldn’t accept was the absence of generational wealth for black people. It was unacceptable that black people could not carry on generational wealth and build the acres that we have worked so tirelessly on over these centuries. All of the efforts that we put in this land for us to not have any of it to share with our predecessors is just not acceptable. That comes from me as a farmer. But then, also as just a black woman in society today, the very significant gaps in ownership rates for black candidates business owners — and we’re talking about the black bodies that very much sacrificed most of the jail time, their lives, and their freedom during the prohibition of the cannabis plant. So it’s just not acceptable for that many lies to have been sacrificed for this plant to now be legal and for companies, investors — mostly white men, to make millions of dollars off of the same plant. Those two things are the reason why the cooperative exists and why we’re focusing on hemp and cannabis.
You made some great points on how lucrative the market is. How do you think that generational wealth within agriculture can impact the community on a larger scale? What can investing in something like this trickle down to everyday living years from now?
Angela: Well, the main thing that needs to happen, is that the cooperative model also needs to be reinvigorated in the black community — which is another unique thing about the 40 Acre Co-op. We used to have a co-op at the turn of the century that had a million members in it, and it was a national co-op. One of the things that we’re going to do in our and our trauma revisiting work is asses the question of why did it take over one hundred years for a co-op like this to exist with us nationally? The reason why we have to have a cooperative model is that’s it’s the best way to more equitably distribute resources. I mean, we have that old traditional capitalistic model, but it has not served us well at all. I also don’t feel like people have created a way within the current banking and capitalist system to bring equity to people. So, I think the cooperative model is one of the closest tools that we have for that. It’s not perfect, but it is very successful. I have great examples here in Minnesota, which is why I chose it. Minnesota has more co-ops per capita than any other state. We have some of the highest-grossing co-ops as well in the state. So, I’m trying to adapt that model to my community and the cultural norms that we’re used to is a challenge, but I think it’s worth us exploring it again.
As a black woman dominating what is reported as a predominately white playing-field, how do you level it while keeping your sanity safe? Do you find it hard at times to go from having to be so strong and unshakable to being vulnerable when it comes to yourself?
Angela: I mean, there are those moments I do find a lot of balance and grounding when I talk to other black farmers just because in those circles, I don’t have to justify my existence. I don’t have to earn my place at the table and I don’t have to prove who I am, because, in my farming communities, we are mostly speaking the same language. In those circles, the conversation is about who has the resources to get it done and how can we get the resources to get it done. There’s a much more comfortable conversation for me when I’m in those circles and I do connect with them a lot. I find when I don’t connect with my farming community, I do tend to get a lot more frazzled and it does become stressful — especially in Minnesota. It’s not that diverse in a predominantly white, rural town. I’m sure there’s some of that “proud boy” mix because they have their territories up in this area.
So there’s a physical aspect to safety here, that I do make prominent and known to my peers in Minnesota. Then, there’s also the intellectual and mental safety with trying to always represent in a good way while also having to still know that I’m not welcomed by everybody at the table. So it is an interesting challenge, and it does require a lot of self-care and discipline in trying to stay focused on the mission.
How does it feel now to have a village of black farmers that you can pour into; is it surreal?
Angela: It’s incredible. I know that even some of my relatives who have been dispersed because of our farming losses in previous generations are getting brought back to our original state, like our grandparents and our great grandparents. Everyone is just kind of like, really, “do you think we could ever get back to farming?” Some people don’t even really believe it. And for me, it is amazing because not only am I making connections with my people in farming, but we’re also working with some of the native Indian territories in our communities. It’s almost like repairing some of what happened in history a little bit. It’s something that I feel like I’ll keep doing as long as I feel like it pleases our ancestors. It’s that feeling of knowing that the work we’re doing is leading to something that they would have wanted. I know that my great-grandparents would have wanted to leave me land.
I know that they never wanted to lose their land and move into the city, so I think it’s very pleasing in that way. I also get a lot of calls, e-mails, and messages from black farmers just saying “I’ve never had a chance to have this conversation, thank you for bringing up this conversation, and thank you for bringing my family to start to begin to think about generational wealth again.”
So, those kinds of things are so real. Even for me to be able to establish my generational wealth for my children is just something that is life-changing for me. I hope that other farmers will get to have that same opportunity.
This was all on you taking a chance on yourself by leaving from your public health career at U of M and putting your all into your business. It’s said that you either gain wings before you fly or find out you have them while flying. Did this leap scare you into finding your wings or invigorate you into spreading them?
Angela: I think there’s a little bit of both because there are some very scary times around here. For example, there’s still a lot of instability in cannabis. I made some leaps and I’ve been burned. To illustrate — we don’t have safe banking. When we first started getting large amounts of money, my local bank accused me of trafficking and shut down my account.
So we always kind of are under the threat of, not being sure if we are ever going to be shut down. We have to be careful about dotting the I’s and crossing our T’s when it comes to licensing and permits and stuff like that. But it’s also something that I feel like we can’t stop now. I see in other states, for example, in Virginia — where those states are going forward with the legalization of cannabis or marijuana, and they are cornering and leaving the black farmers out so that they only get the crumbs of what’s left from the grants, programs, buildings, capital, and the resources. So for me, even with the risk of having my account shut down and being reported for trafficking, it is so imperative for black farmers to be at the leading edge of this legalization and have open access to this plant. Because, with all of the sacrifices that we made for it, there is no way that I’m going to allow for our farmers to be left with 10 percent of the crumbs after they distributed everything in my state.
We are aggressively raising funds so that we can have the appropriate legal support for all of the different things we are doing because we are always at risk. We’re black, we’re dealing in cannabis — some people think it’s illegal, some people think it’s legal, and then we’re also cooperative where some people don’t understand that business structure. The more I get advanced in this business, the more I have to continue to trust my intuition and the plan that was given to me originally. I have to believe that this is something that has to succeed and that it’s not just me anymore.
It’s like me and all the members of the co-op. This is something that we’re committed to making successful. So even though the fears, we just have to buckle down and keep going. This is a very bumpy and unstable market. So we have to keep fighting and do the work even when some of those fears come in.
How have you had to adjust to the pandemic as a business owner?
Angela: Well, I think one of the biggest challenges that we face as a co-op is that about 60% of black farmers do not have access to high-speed Internet and the pandemic put everybody on Zoom. Before the pandemic, we were having in-person meetings. You know with black farmers, sometimes you’ve got to look them in the eye and talk to them. They have been taken advantage of by so many other companies. So I always want to do more hands-on work with the farmers so that they know I’m just as invested in their success as they are. Sometimes that takes in-person meetings and so we were having a lot of field meetings. We called out in other states — we did some in Virginia, Illinois, and out here in Minnesota.
Then the pandemic came when we had more planned. So now we’re kind of doing it on a case-by-case basis. I’m planning to go to Georgia in a couple of weeks, but it’s not as easy as the way that we wanted to be. We wanted it to be more physical and more in people’s space so we could go out and do assessments of farmland. It’s making it a lot more difficult because farming is a hands-on activity and not really wi-fi friendly. So for black farmers, it’s been a significant barrier for us to get progress.
Then, we’ve had family members, a lot of our members, and the members from the Indian reservation struck with the coronavirus. It has impacted my farming partner. He didn’t get the coronavirus, but he has diabetes like a lot of black farmers do. So those health problems became more concerning. It was the reason why we couldn’t travel as much because he had a compromised immune system and we couldn’t allow a lot of interaction with a lot of other farmers. So there are some unique challenges, but we’re trying this hybrid style of delivering our training this year, hoping to get over it. It does require a lot more work for me to write because I’m not able to be there physically. I’m answering more emails and doing a lot of calls. I’m on the phone all the time and I’m also using technology and unique ways to try to communicate with people– which is something I’m learning from this pandemic.
Can you tell us about the food security program that you’re planning to implement?
Angela: What’s so cool about black farmers is that we have multiple talents in growing and we grow all kinds of stuff. I mean, just everything from herbs to flowers, to animal livestock management. So that wasn’t a difficult decision to make. But it was clear after the pandemic that the food security problem for black people was exponentially tragic because we don’t have land to even grow our food to be sustainable. When the grocery shelves were vacant, people were looking at each other like, “what are we going to do now?”
Then it also was shown again in the situation with Houston where people got into a panic and all the grocery stores were empty. So that became a very clear sign that we definitely can’t only focus on one crop. Hemp is our cash crop — it is the way that we are going to sustain our land and get the capital and resources we need for the farm. This is not for just food production, but organic and sustainable food production. So that’s one of the other training pieces that’s a part of our training institute this year.
We are promoting organic and sustainable farm production, even though that’s mostly the way original black farmers farmed. We got out of that because of the way that agriculture changed. I think that’s something that agriculture is going back to holistically, because of all of the damage that has been done to the environment through corporate agriculture. So they’re looking for farmers now to find ways to solve the problems that were created by the same people who excluded us from agriculture. We have to do that through sustainable farming practices with our everyday food. So what I’m aiming to do with our food production program is not only teach our farmers how to grow for sustainability to feed themselves, but also for environmental sustainability using organic practices without chemicals so that we can improve the food supply chain and be healthier on the land.
Your 40 Acre Co-Op serves as reaching a hand back in the community to help move farmers ahead toward the aspirations they’ve set out for themselves. Did the need to be a ladder for the community come from having mentors of your own that you can count on?
Angela: In the early part, especially of my college career, I had a lot of community mentors who brought me along. My first one was my aunt, who is deceased now. But, she was a real strong, influential woman in my life. She used to bring me to some of the community meetings and the board meetings that she was on and just took me under her wing. I was always impressed with the way that she carried herself in the meeting, and how she usually always had the answer.
It was the community view that was benefited by her because she’s the one that made the city and other people create youth centers and places for children to go to be safe. It was watching her do that made it for me. I was a foster child for a while, so I went to her home to be safe. It was the experience with her and watching her as a community mother.
I also do think about the black farmers who held the torch for as long as they could. Some of them died before they were able to see justice, especially those legacy farmers who were part of the original Pigford class-action lawsuit.
They suffered poor health while also trying to fight the USDA at the same time. They weren’t able to hold onto their land to transfer it to their family, or just unable to live to see the justice from that lawsuit. So, I think it’s a combination of the community that I was raised in within Minnesota and my strong connection to black farmers all around the country that drives this.
What are some words of affirmation that you would leave behind for any black woman wanting to change an industry as significantly as you have?
Angela: I would say, one thing that carries me a lot is the thought of my ancestors and my children being so proud of me. Sometimes in farming, it’s isolating while in addition to being in this different space where people don’t always understand what I’m doing because I’m running a co-op and they don’t grasp the cannabis part.
So, I do rely on my cultural heritage which honors its elders and even the elders in the community, who deposit so much resilience in me during the time they educated me about my people, history, and the significance of the contributions of black people to this country. I am reminded that there is no way that this should be dishonored. So honoring the contribution of my people and being a part of that legacy of contributing to the change and improvement for agriculture is something that I think my people will be proud of.
That gives me energy while also keeping me accountable to do the work. When I think about some of the inventions that our people made and how isolating that might have been for them to be in the workshop all the time with people not knowing what they’re doing — it inspires me. They were isolated and that didn’t stop them from doing it, and their inventions changed the world.
So, that taught me that sometimes it’s okay if people don’t know, understand, or even respect what you’re doing. Despite that, it’s important to surround yourself with people who care about those things while having an outlet for taking care of yourself.
I think that it’s time for black women to shine as the fastest-growing entrepreneurial section in the country. There’s an African saying that if you educate a man, you educate a person; but when you educate a woman, you educate a community. It’s that time for women to show what our power is.