Hemp cultivation is a taboo subject in the United States, particularly in non-white communities.
Not only are there access barriers to non-white communities learning about hemp cultivation, there’s a strong negative stigma associated with Black people and hemp (or cannabis), part of the generations-long ‘war on drugs’ in the United States.
Damian Fagon, the founder of Gulleybean, wants to change the script, sharing hemp cultivation knowledge so more people, especially Black and Brown people, can access the multi-billion dollar opportunity of hemp.
Featuring insights from Buffer’s Small Business, Big Lessons podcast episode eight and the accompanying unpublished interview, Damian shared his journey from hemp farmer, to teacher, to business accelerator leader, and the economics behind why he focuses so hard on encouraging people to become hemp farmers.
Finding farming and facing challenges
After years in the Peace Corps in Guatemala and a few more in Washington, DC at the State Department, Damian Fagon wanted a change.
Instead of focusing exclusively on diplomacy, he wanted to work in economic development. This shift brought him to New York City, where he did his Masters of Public Administration at Columbia’s School for International and Public Affairs (SIPA). While there, he said he balanced business education with policy work, explicitly focusing on learning how he might help farmers get better yields from their crops. His goal was to return to Guatemala and other South American countries to help economic development through farming.
Damian realized that while the medical cannabis market is fairly large (around $5 billion in the United States), it pales in comparison to other types of crop farming. However, the possibility for hemp plants, he said, have multiple other use cases from textiles to plastic alternatives. But there’s one key problem: the war on drugs.
“The problem with the crop and with the genetics we have access to, is that the United States spent the last 80 years with a federal ban on studying and growing the hemp crop,” said Damian.
After graduating from Columbia, Damian found investors in Philadelphia who would back him in a hemp farming operation in rural South Carolina. Unfortunately, the crop failed and Damian returned to New York City.
Determined to figure things out, Damian spent a lot of time – and money – learning the ropes of hemp farming from consultants in states that had legalized recreational cannabis. As he flew around and paid consultants, he couldn’t help notice how gatekept this knowledge truly was.
“The people who’ve had access to growing cannabis own farms and they own land, and they live in communities that have very traditional agricultural roots,” said Damian. “And only 2% of farmers nationally are Black, and so the disparities that already existed in agriculture and land access are just being amplified in the cannabis space.”
After learning more about hemp and cannabis farming, he set up shop in the Hudson Valley in New York. Unfortunately, though, he had to deal with significant challenges around fitting in as a non-white person (and immigrant to town) in a region that’s majority white and settled for generations.
“I’m not saying that all the people in these communities are racist, but they don’t have a lot of experience in diverse conversation, diverse engagements,” said Damian. “There’s not a lot of immigrants moving out there either. So, that challenge is very real and very, very personal.”
From farming to business incubation
After successfully navigating hemp farming in the Hudson Valley, Damian wanted to leverage his knowledge to have a wider economic impact for Black and Brown people in urban areas.
First, he started teaching at Medgar Evers College, a historically Black college (HBCU) in Brooklyn. He not only taught the agricultural tools of farming, but also brought in the business side, especially the opportunity in hemp and cannabis cultivation.
“I’ll be teaching horticulture, but a lot of it will be a larger discussion on the supply chain business opportunities in cannabis so that people can actually see it the way it exists in other states and identify places where they can position themselves to make money [or] start a business,” said Damian.
Second, he started working on a much larger project in the Bronx: a hemp business incubator.
“The idea with that project specifically is to create a facility and an environment wherein interested people in the Bronx – entrepreneurs, formerly incarcerated people who formerly grew cannabis in the basements of public housing in the Bronx and were arrested for it – those people can access our facility, rent equipment and launch their own cannabis businesses,” said Damian.
The goals of this incubator, said Damian, are three-fold:
1. Micro-cultivation pods: These pods will allow people to rent equipment and space to start growing hemp legally on a micro-scale.
“The facility will be designed in a way where growers, particularly first time growers from the city, from the Bronx, [can] pursue a micro business license,” said Damian.
2. Cannabis and hemp education: Spreading knowledge of hemp farming, the economic opportunity behind it, and the job opportunities for people who don’t want to start a business right away. This arm, said Damian, will be run by a nonprofit organization set up by Damian and his team.
“They have a lot of experience working with marginalized communities, formerly incarcerated, formerly homeless, particularly young people, helping them get jobs in high demand industries,” said Damian.
3. A business within the incubator: Damian said this part is still being fleshed out, but he wants to see the incubator run its own hemp cultivation business so it has an active revenue stream to fund other activities.
“I do want that facility to have its own business that can make it self-sustaining,” said Damian. “There will obviously be a level of profit sharing with those who come in and utilize the spaces to start their businesses, to pay for the overhead, but I don’t want to start something that is reliant on continuous funding and sponsorship from donors and corporate sponsors.”
A global impact waiting to be recognized
There are so many possibilities for hemp and cannabis, whether medicinal or industrial, beyond recreational use. And Damian sees this potential as a massive way to uplift historically impoverished nations.
“I saw that crop as potentially transformative for the global south, specifically West Africa, Caribbean, Latin America, Southeast Asia; some of these regions that are perfectly suited for cannabis commercial cultivation, and I wanted to learn how to grow the crop,” said Damian.
Thinking about the reason why he landed on hemp farming as his means of economic development, he ties it back to his family and his passion. Even the name gullybean, for example, came from a crop his father still farms in his native Jamaica.
“I fell in love with farming through Gullybean,” said Damian. “… With adult-use cannabis legalization in New York, there has never been a better opportunity if you’re interested in inclusive economic development [and] generating wealth in low-income communities… there’s never been a better time to be focused on the cannabis market.”