Eight-foot tall spires of bright green hemp line an acre of well-kept furrows, looming like Christmas trees over every human working. The sun is still hot to work under, but it’s quiet out. The pungent, earthy aromas of soil and piquant leaves hang in the air.
It’s the first harvest season at Handèwa Farms, a collectively owned, women-led hemp farm in Rougemont, North Carolina. Surrounded by woods and tucked into a tract of Occaneechi Saponi ancestral land off Hobgood Road—about 40 minutes north of Durham, between Roxboro and Oxford—the farm would almost be easy to miss.
But it’s well-worth paying attention to.
Handèwa describes itself as an “Afro-Indigenous led farming effort.” The farmland it sits on was gifted by Respite in the Round, a neighboring retreat center, and the restorative effects of the center spill over to the farm space, where founders A.yoni Jeffries, Chef Abbi Jeffries, Kisha Jeffries, Will Jenifer, Chaka Harley, and Chelsey and Kiaro Holts work with volunteers to harvest the plants. They bend down to the root of each of the hemp cultivars and cut the base, before hanging plants to dry in greenhouses.
Handèwa is one of the rare Indigenous farming operations in North Carolina. The Jeffries are enrolled members of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, and Chelsey Holts is a member of both the Lakota Nation and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation.
Historically, Native women have often led tribal farming efforts. Generations later, at Handèwa, they produce organic hemp sustainably, following the Indigenous philosophy of caring for the land. Handèwa is is a reclamation of cultural dignity.
“It really means a lot to us to work on ancestral Indigenous land,” Chelsey Holts says of the connection to the land. “Most of us have Indigenous ancestry, and it gives a deeper sense of purpose … For me, I’ve been looking into our ancestry and learning more about native practices. So I feel like this has been a learning experience overall.”
Hemp is no stranger to North Carolina. It was historically cultivated by the Tuscarora Nation, whose name translates to “the hemp gatherers” and who used the plant for numerous uses, including for insulation and medicinal purposes. The latter use was the main draw for the farm founders, who wanted to produce CBD for its healing properties, incorporating it into salves, lotions, and tea.
“All of us are very interested in holistic health and not having to resort to pharmacy drugs to treat medical issues,” Holts says. “We are really into returning to the earth and seeing how the earth can be our medicine. So hemp was a big product for us, because we could treat anxiety, pain, even recovery from postpartum conditions naturally.”
It’s been a challenging first year for Handèwa. After forming the collaborative in late 2019, they built it against the backdrop of the pandemic, incorporating in March and planting in late April and early May. Several members of the collective—including A.yoni Jeffries, whom the INDY profiled in March—are musicians who have suffered an acute loss of income during the pandemic. The farm’s budget is still scrappy, and they rely on help from volunteers.
This first season has focused on hemp, potatoes, and corn. In late October, high winds from Tropical Storm Zeta swept through the Carolinas, destroying several hoop houses that contained a portion of the crops.
“We got on site last week, and everything was flipped over,” Holts says. “We were disappointed—feeling like we’d just have to start over. We were so close. We were able to salvage as much as we could. All of the funds that went to the greenhouses—we’re not going to get that back.”
To process the remaining harvest, the collective will need more space. To fund this, they’re rolling up their sleeves and focusing on the farm’s Generational Campaign, a fundraiser to help Handèwa meet several goals, including purchasing harvesting equipment and an adjoining tract of land. To date, they’ve raised about $15,000 of their $75,000 goal.
“We still have a long way to go, but we’ve been really overwhelmed and appreciative of the support from the community,” Holts says.
In the Tutelo-Saponi language “Handèwa” means “generational.”
“With everything going on, we want to be out in the country, turning back to those roots,” Holts says. “Everyone is dealing with the anxiety of public spaces and staring at computer screens all day.”
The long-term plan is to build a legacy. Indigenous culture teaches that our actions affect the next seven generations. In the future, the team at Handèwa hope to have a setup where they’re able to teach urban gardening, provide food to food-insecure areas, and potentially start satellite versions of the farm. Holts says they would also like to expand their crop variety, possibly growing corn, beans, and squash.
For now, their main focus is the hemp harvest. It’s a business, but for Holts, it’s also personal. She says that helping people deal with pain and anxiety naturally, as well as working with farm volunteers and seeing their personal progress, has been rewarding.
“For all of us at Handèwa,” Holts says, “the most important thing is giving back to our community.”
An earlier version of this article misstated that Handèwa Farms is a cooperative model. The farm is not a cooperative, and currently has founders and volunteers.
Comment on this story at email@example.com.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.