UPDATE 7/16/2022 Floods this week devastated Jason Tartt, Sr.’s T & T Organics. Please donate: https://www.edge-us.org/
When I first heard about West Virginia’s cannabis market, all I could think of when it came to the Mountain State was a former coal powerhouse with a lot of trees – and no, not cannabis but the actual land that was blanketed by the Appalachia region.
Four years after it legalized medical marijuana, the state has finally seen its first dispensary open, with Trulieve Cannabis Corp. being the first mover to open in Morgantown. While medical marijuana and the ongoing legalities around cannabis legalization at both the state and federal level drag on, the plant’s “cousin,” industrial hemp – the type of cannabis that has less than 0.3% THC expressed in its flower – has been a popular industrial crop that’s seen expansion and growing interest in West Virginia farming.
Among the West Virginian farmers discussing hemp is a rarity: Jason Tart, one of the country’s few Black farmers who’s not only hoping to increase the depressingly low 2% makeup of Black-run farms in the country, but also reversing the stigma and negative narrative surrounding hemp based on his personal experiences and first-person account of how the plant helped his family and network. In a recent interview with YES! Solutions Journalism Magazine in January, Jason expressed his desire in building an everlasting and enduring farming economy that would be made for people like us, by people like us.
Get to know Jason and his mission to improve the land, and our people, in the interview below:
1. Let’s first start with some basic background: Can you describe how community agriculture influenced your upbringing? Did it influence you directly to become a farmer as a profession?
In West Virginia, growing food just came with the territory for most people in the area when I was growing up. Gardens were a very common thing and many raised small numbers of livestock for personal and community use also. It really gave me a great appreciation for family and community and showed me to never take any blessing for granted. Hard work and discipline were a part of normal life for us and it helped shape my work ethic and commitment to getting the job done, whatever the task. Furthermore, being able to see what folks in this region were doing to sustain themselves years ago played a vital role in helping me to shape my approach to agriculture and in understanding what agriculture in Appalachia truly is. Mountain farming is very different from what one might think when discussing agriculture.
2. Describe your life navigation as an early adult (in your 20s) – did you maintain your relationship with agriculture while you were away from your community? How, and why, did you return to agriculture after your military and contractor work?
Upon graduation, I joined the military, serving as a Military Policeman. I had a family most of my 20’s so my focus was primarily on caring and providing for my wife and three children. Upon leaving the military, I got into DoD contracting work. This became my career path, once I left WV after high school, my connection to nature and agriculture was none. I spent about 15 years in the DoD contracting world and then ended up moving back to WV to care for my mom. She was diagnosed with Sarcoidosis which required a change so I moved my family back to WV to care for my mom. Once we returned, my mom and I started a small garden, which is where my engagement with agriculture as a profession stared.
3. In the beginning of starting McDowell County Farms (MCF), what barriers and hurdles did you have to face in regards to resources, financial support and technical support? Were these barriers typical in what you saw and heard from other farmers?
Once we started MCF, we started to really engage with the industry and all the agencies around the state who we thought could assist us. We realized right away WV did not have a plan for economic development if it didn’t involve energy. Most of the state agencies had no real plan for agriculture. When I joined the Vets to Ag program (a WV Department of Ag initiative) we also realized that the idea of agriculture by those in leadership was based on a traditional ag model. Most of Appalachia is mountainous so there is very little access to flat land. We also live in a very poor area with some of the worst health statistics in the country. The culture here is one that does not promote a healthy lifestyle. The typical food desert community and very few people here have any interest in changing this situation. We did try working with the WVDA but realized we were of no significance to the leadership there, they blew us off. Being a black farmer in WV has had it’s own set of challenges, so we have worked mainly independent of any WV run organizations, as they demonstrated no desire to support us.
4. West Virginia has beautiful land, and rich agriculture but it’s not known for that. What would you like people to know about your home state as it pertains to the richness it offers to prospective farmers, young and old?
Mountain farming is a mode of farming that is unique and presents a wide range of opportunities. Things that most folks wouldn’t consider when thinking of agriculture. And most of the things unique to this region can be very lucrative if done correctly. Honey, maple syrup, fruit, livestock, medicinal herbs and several other products are here. The education and awareness around what agriculture is in Appalachia is very limited in the area so we are working diligently to create training and development around these opportunities. We have the capacity to produce lots of food and be major contributors to the food supply chain in the US and definitely the east coast. There are jobs and small business opportunities in Appalachia, it’s just not coal anymore and the state of WV at least is really behind in identifying economic development opportunities for the state. Agribusiness can certainly be a big one
5. There’s not many Black farmers who exist in the country, how are you working to build the next generation to increase representation?
We are currently doing some workforce development and entrepreneur training with Economic Development Greater East (EDGE) and Coalfield Development, two non profits to train people in areas we’ve identified as economic drivers in the region. We are on our second training class now and 90 percent of the trainees over the last two years have been African American. The current group of 5 is made up of all African Americans. We’ve also started a youth organization (American Youth Agripreneur Association). A non profit that focuses on training young people in agribusiness. We want to ensure we reach folks at the right age and also ensure we focus on getting the information on these opportunities to the African American communities throughout the region. We work with WV State University, one of two HBCU’s in the state and also the National Resource Conservation Service with the USDA on the 1890 land grant scholarship program. A lot has changed since we started.
6. Can you describe why it’s important that more Black community members embrace agriculture and returning to stewarding the land to improve a community’s health and wellbeing?
The majority of African Americans in the US live in poverty, live in the inner cities and live in food desert communities. African Americans in rural communities face these same conditions and in most cases, have access to even less opportunities than those in the inner cities. WV has no black agenda, agriculture or otherwise. Agribusiness is in a growing need, as the country is experiencing shortages and big ag has created real problems with the environment and doing business sustainably. Small farms once ruled agriculture in the country and it’s obvious that method is the future. Black farmers made up about 20% of the farmers in the country at one time and big ag had a lot to do with their demise. With us living in mostly food deserts, poor and drug infested communities, agriculture just makes sense. Black people in the US are statistically the sickest group of people. We have no choice, getting engaged with food production and policing what our communities are being fed is critically important if we are going to change the situation for future generations of black people. Food is our medicine and medicine is our food, we have to stop letting Big Agriculture and Big Pharma continue feeding us lies.
7. How did hemp/cannabis make its way into your life and what drew you to the crop?
My father, brother and I are all disabled veterans. Seeing the suffering veterans face and living in McDowell County, WV with this opioid situation, it’s obvious hemp/cannabis could do some major good here. I know many veterans and people in the community that would prefer a more natural form of treatment and not deal with the addictive effects of pharmaceutical drugs. McDowell county is more known for drug overdoses than anything else.
8. Dream a little: Where do you see your farms in 5 years? Where do you see your community in 5 years? What steps are you taking to ensure your dream and concepts are turning into reality?
In 5 years in see my farm producing honey, maple syrup and poultry. Having some value added products in place is also a part of my 5 year plan. My farm will also be a place that people (young and old) can come to get training on food production in Appalachia and a support system for others who are looking to engage the food business. A model for black businesses in the region. We are continuing to develop the training facility here and build our network to build a food system within Appalachia. Building a bridge between black farmers in rural communities and black communities in urban areas to get control of our food desert situation. Black farmers should be at the forefront of the food crisis in black communities and we have to build platforms to make those connections. Taking products directly from rural black farmers to black businesses and consumers in urban areas. There are numerous business opportunities on both ends if we can figure out how to make these conversations happen. Building education and awareness in our communities and working with community leaders to see where everyone fits.
9. Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about you, your business or the dream you’re trying to accomplish? Fill out anything you want to emphasize for this question.
Our plan is also to promote black farmers/producers and to build a food system to deal with the needs of black communities. We are also launching our own meat sauce in May. It will be in collaboration with Y’all Company and we hope to do several other products. Stay tuned!
Jason Tartt from CNN’s United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell
Tauhid Chappell is an Executive Board Member and a credentialed Parliamentarian of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, the first and oldest association of Black journalists in the country. An 8-year veteran of the media industry, he’s worked as a social media editor at The Washington Post, joined the Philadelphia Inquirer as an audience engagement editor, then moved to the Free Press, a media policy nonprofit focused on equitable access for broadband and internet, the break up of media conglomerates, equity and reparations in media and the defense against government surveillance.