She pushes. He pulls. They both use their bodyweight to heave the makeshift hemp seed dispenser across lumpier soil. Sweat scampers down their melanin-filled skin with each jerk. And by the time they’re done, the two have planted up to 2,000 hemp clones on 1 acre of land. “Dropping the clones took us hours in that heat,” said Heather Wilson, 37, of Albany, Georgia. “I think we both lost a lot of weight that day.”

Certified organic farmer Sedrick Rowe, 29, is the only South Georgia African-American producer licensed to grow a variety of hemp as a testing ground for crude oil. Gov. Brian Kemp legalized the controversial crop in the Peach State during 2019. And farmers like Rowe broke historical ground summer 2020. Doing so in the midst of a global pandemic. Wilson serves as his agricultural apprentice through it all. She too is becoming one of the state’s first organic hemp growers during a landmark time in Georgia’s farming industry — and one of only a few Black females in a billion-dollar business.

“I can’t lie: This type of work takes time and requires a lot of energy,” said Wilson.

Working with neon acrylic nails, the Dougherty County educator spends most farm days watering and examining their hemp orchard. A phone call to Rowe last year started their ag journey. But the conversation wasn’t about hemp. It was about corn. “For some reason I was stuck on growing corn for myself,” said Wilson. “When he explained what he was about to do with hemp, our conversation changed.”

Rowe submitted his application to grow hemp through the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s Georgia Hemp Program. Meanwhile, Wilson attended local hemp workshops and compiled information about the multipurpose crop — different types, best practices and strategizes for record keeping. Rowe received the green light to grow it on his Albany-based farm. By June 2020, the operation was off the ground. Wilson helped Rowe run drip tape to create an irrigation system. She also assisted with plowing the land and planting (by hand) three of the five hemp varieties Rowe purchased from Hartsock’s Horticulture Inc. in Calhoun, Georgia. Legal, easy-to-farm hemp strains the two have already grown:

  • BaOx: This popular hemp flower is sticky, dense and jam packed with cannabinoids. The aroma is a musky-earthy mix. The flavor is a blend of sweet and spicy. Helps with stress and inflammation-related pains.
  • Cherry Citrus: A candy-like taste with a tart finish, this hemp strain has a fruity flavor and potent scent. It’s a wide grower with moderate buds. The stain is effective against insomnia and anxiety.
  • Wife: The flower produces a tropical, sweet flavor with a hint of a skunk aroma. It features dense green buds. This alluring strain helps alleviate headaches, inflammation and stress as well.
  • Berry Blossom: Its flowers form an aroma of acaí berries and raspberries. Growing long and feathery leaves, this strain too helps with anxiety, stress and inflammation.
  • Stout: This sweet-and-sour-smelling flower has a thick, frosty coating. Its buds grow into oversized, dense, pepper-shaped olive green nugs with purple undertones. It treats chronic pain, fatigue and nausea.

Dating back to 8,000 B.C., hemp’s earliest use was for woven fabric. Cannabis farming in America, though, was illegal since 1937. Now that new hemp legislation (2018 Farm Bill) has changed regulations, Southern farmers now experience why it’s one of the world’s most versatile and valuable natural resources. Two years ago, the total sales of U.S. hemp-based products were roughly $1.1 billion and expected to double by 2022, according to market research firm New Frontier Data. The plant offers more than 50,000 different uses achieved by hulling, pressing or separating it.

Hemp seeds produce oil for fuel and cooking, and are sources of protein; hemp stems help make paper and fabric, and are good for other commercial uses; hemp fiber strands are spun into thread, making clothing, ropes and fine linens; hemp dried stalk fragments develop plastics, non-toxic paints/sealants, construction materials and dioxin-free paper; and it’s medical value is in relieving stress and treating illnesses.

Collectively, Wilson and Rowe have planted up to 4,356 clone strains on 2.5 acres. However, the region’s heat wiped out half of it by way of Southern root rot — a common disease that attacks hemp when the soil is warm and moist. “It’s been a learning process,” said Wilson. “Sedrick has been such a good teacher throughout this year.” Wilson could handle the uncompromising high temperatures on farm workdays. Hair net and garden hat ready for daily projects. From birth, Wilson has breathed South Georgia. A part of the Black Belt Region known for pecan orchards, cotton fields, cleared pastures and church.

Attending Monumental Faith Ministries as a kid, she became close to Rowe’s grandmother, faithfully referred to as Madea. But she didn’t make the family connection to him until recently. Ironically, Wilson also didn’t know the depth of her agricultural background until she did a little family digging. Her paternal grandmother, Jothenia Murray, lived in Sumpter, South Carolina. Murray was a Gullah Geechee who came from sugarcane farmers.

On Wilson’s maternal side, her biracial great-great-grandfather, Tom Potts Sr. (Papa Tom) came from a slave and plantation-owning father and slave mother in Georgia. Papa Tom married a Black woman nicknamed Momma Julia. That part of Wilson’s family line sharecropped throughout the decades. “My roots go all the way to The West Indies and back,” Wilson said. Her great-grandmother, Bessie Anderson, lived in Lowndes, Alabama, too. Anderson’s father was Creek Indian.

Family stories and rural childhood memories nudged Wilson to return to the land. And by the end of September 2020, she was helping Rowe harvest 2,000 plants. He macheted the roots. She chugged the mini Christmas tree-shaped flowers on the back of veteran farmer and mutual mentor Donnie McCrary’s pickup. The three formed a human assembly line from McCrary’s truck to a U-Haul moving van where the hemp would hang and dry for a day. Then, the potent product traveled to processing plant Pretoria Fields about 15 minutes up the road. After cutting, loading and unloading in Pretoria Field’s warehouse, they now wait.

“At minimum, this entire project was about $60,000 for a few months,” said Rowe. “With all we put in it and being completely hands on, we should take away about $30,000.”

Not bad for first-time hemp farmers. Wilson walks away from the project results with a smile. The Southern belle knew she was meant for this type of ancestral labor. Within a three-month timespan, the innovative farming duo made history in South Georgia. The ag adventure with Rowe light bulbs Wilson to build a hemp consulting venture next. Her goal is to help organize and guide other young, Black farmers interested in hemp. “I’m loving the land and getting back to us as a people,” she said. “I can see us farming for a long time and teaching other farmers about the possibilities with hemp.” Photos by Kevin Dantes