By Rachael Carlevale
To celebrate Black History Month and diversity in the hemp industry, Let’s Talk Hemp recently interviewed several Black leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators. While we couldn’t highlight everyone who has contributed to the community, we hope that reading about these six Black leaders inspires you to learn even more about them and the hemp industry.
Frederick Cawthon –-Verge Agritech
U.S. Hemp Roundtable Vice President for Minority Empowerment Frederick Cawthon is the co-founder and CEO of Verge Agritech, which is focused on advancing research and education, creating everyday life products, and developing lifestyle brands that transform customer experiences with hemp and cannabis. Cawthon, a counselor to the hemp industry, draws from his over 20 years of experience in program and product management for Fortune 500 companies. Inspired by the power of hemp to heal his mother, Cawthon said, “It’s not a movement, it’s a ministry” – and asked, “How can we move the ministry?”
Cultivating from seed to produce extracted CBD and smokable flowers, Cawthon partnered with Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, a historically Black college. The school provided housing and support for the farmworkers, as well as additional resources to conduct research.
Said Cawthon: “Being one of the change agents in the industry aligns with my vision of sustainability and is an aspect of how I give back to Mother Earth and society. I recently, on behalf of the Hemp Association of Tennessee and in collaboration with Tennessee State University, the University of Tennessee and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, was awarded a nearly $5 million U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Climate-Smart Commodities grant. The grant aims to expand the production of industrial hemp as a climate-smart commodity, evaluate its greenhouse gas benefits (GHG) and promote the value of market development to a cross-section of production agriculture, including small, medium and underserved farm producers across the state of Tennessee.”
Cawthon said he is focused on “creating great products, advancing the understanding and knowledge of the hemp plant and creating technology in this space.” Cawthon is an active hemp advocate, participating and volunteering at local hemp events. He also serves as the president of the Hemp Alliance of Tennessee.
Jimmy Jenkins – “Green Rush Fever In the Red Hills of North Florida”
The author of “Green Rush Fever In the Red Hills of North Florida,” Jimmy Jenkins shares the story of how his small family farm became a major hemp cultivator. In 2019, Jenkins partnered with Florida A&M University, a historically Black college in Tallahassee, Florida, on its Industrial Hemp Pilot Project.
As a child, Jenkins visited the family farm to help his grandparents with their hogs and with cultivating and weeding corn, sweet potatoes, melons and other crops. He went on to pursue a career as a lawyer. Later, after caring for his parents and witnessing the healing power of hemp, Jenkins became an activist for the plants and dedicated five of his 100 acres in northern Florida to hemp, conducting variety trials to test the genetic cultivar Cherry Citrus. “I got to be a steward of the land, and I got to reconnect with that part of myself,” Jenkins said.
An advisory board member on the University of Florida’s Agricultural Program Pilot Project, Jenkins champions the hemp industry.
“There needs to be more inclusion, there needs to be more ownership by the marginalized demographics; we need more women owners, more minority farm owners; we need all of these things for this industry to really take off and get its next big push,” Jenkins said. His plans include cultivating hemp for fiber, increasing awareness through his writing and focusing on developing his own genetics. “We have to care for this environment or we are going to lose it,” he said.
Dr. Bridget Williams — Green Harvest Health
Dr. Bridget Williams serves her community in Ohio and Michigan as a medical doctor, author, cannabis educator, speaker and life coach who helps people to reclaim their wellness. “I will listen to you, learn about your journey and, together, we will set you on the path of growth, wellness and strength!” proclaims the board-certified physician, who seeks to use medical cannabis and hemp to assist in her patients’ healing.
As the developer of the CBD curriculum for the Cleveland School of Cannabis, Dr. Williams helped expand awareness of the plant’s medicinal uses. Inspired by her patients who benefited from cannabis, she decided to share their stories in her best-selling book, “Courage in Cannabis.” The book features a collection of 18 diverse authors and the stories of how cannabis changed their lives. A second volume, “Courage in Cannabis, Volume 2 – The Triumphant Stories,” is to be published in Spring 2023.
Dr. Williams also owns Green Harvest Health, an integrative medical cannabis clinic in Pickerington, Ohio, and brings nearly 20 years of experience in family and occupational medicine from the Cleveland Clinic and training in life and cannabis coaching to her practice. She created her own medicinal and beauty CBD product lines to promote health and wellness. Dr. Williams also speaks throughout the U.S., educating the public on medical cannabis, CBD and wellness.
Sheena Myers — GenoType
Full-time mother, author, entrepreneur, U.S. Air Force veteran and hemp farmer, Sheena Myers is the founder and CEO of GenoType, a CBD hemp company named after her son, Geno, who was born prematurely. On a mission to heal her child, Myers soon discovered the benefits of hemp and in 2019 became the first black woman in her South Carolina county to receive a hemp license.
Myers is passionate about creating organic face, hair and body care products for adults and children, including African Black Soap, Antiaging Pomegranate Serum, Ghana Brightening Soap and Baby Cradle Cap Oil Treatment.
“I didn’t know if he’d make it or not … or if he did make it what struggles would he have,” Myers said of her son. “I began researching all ways to heal different disorders that can come with micro-preemies. That’s where I found out about cannabis oil and how it was a miracle worker for children with disabilities. To cut out the middleman, I then thought I could become a farmer and have an everlasting supply of hemp, which in turn would allow me to extract fresh CBD oil from my own crop for my Geno.”
Saying she is proud to be the “first African American female hemp/cannabis farmer in Charleston, Dorchester and Berkeley County, South Carolina,” Myers offers one-on-one counseling to others seeking to walk the hemp farming path. Her book, “Beyond Profit,” outlines how to start, run and grow a business from home.
Alexis Harris — Harris and Associates LLC
Alexis Harris is the owner and operator of Harris and Associates LLC, an Atlanta-based consultancy dedicated to creating sustainable business opportunities for diverse communities.
Harris plays an array of roles in the hemp industry: as a regenerative medicine supporter, a registered patient of Georgia’s Low THC Oil Registry and as caregiver to two debilitated family members. She is also a mother, a community activist and an entrepreneur. Harris has been able to hold several regional outreach initiatives and events to educate industry stakeholders, including elected officials, attorneys, patients, doctors and caregivers about the benefits, history and opportunities of the hemp plant. She has partnered with the president of the National Black Caucus, as well as with Hemp Inc, Status Network, Georgia Women in Ag, Georgia Hemp Association and the Smith Gambrell & Russell Law Firm, among other groups, to hold information sessions.
“I personally consider myself a dynamic being and do not like being isolated to the realm of ‘black’ anything, for example best black consultant versus the best consultant. And I am. However, as a melanated woman in the South, there are a lot of barriers an entrepreneur such as myself experiences,” Harris said. “In addition to the general ups and downs of business, I must create strategic plans to combat statistics like low accessibility to financial resources for women and women of color, socioeconomic factors and the fact that less than 20% of firms nationwide are minority-owned.”
Harris envisions and aspires to create an equitable hemp market and has coined a term, “parallel transitioning,” or converting existing business funds and actions to hemp-inclusive actions. For example, she plans to use lobbying dollars to hire grassroots organizations to promote programs such as her Annual Farmers’ Forum, which connects hemp farmers nationwide.
James Johnson — JJGRO Enterprises
Retired Air Force Master Sergeant James W. Johnson Jr., known as JJ, is a cannabis/hemp consultant, entrepreneur and community leader who founded JJGRO Enterprises LLC upon his retirement.
Johnson devoted countless hours not only learning about industrial hemp but also assisting farmers across 25 states to do the same.
“Those people that don’t know anything and want to do what’s right, those are the people that have my heart when it comes to this space,” he said.
Johnson’s efforts have grown and morphed into his current Hemp 101 seminars, which he shares for free with the community. The classes focus on rules and regulations at the federal level, industrial uses of hemp, testing and tips and tricks for navigating the industry, among other things.
“What I found as we were trying to approach farmers about growing hemp [was that] most of them did not know the difference between hemp and marijuana,” he said. “I had to put PowerPoints together to teach them. In doing that, I saw a need again, and a self-fulfilling thing coming into play, because I saw a purpose. I saw that I could do something purposeful with my life and with this community.”