Sitting on 6 acres in Elora, Tenn., is AJA Acres, a minority woman-owned hemp farm that cultivates and manufactures CBD health and beauty products and is dedicated to increasing minority farmer representation in the hemp and CBD industries.
Nicole Carter, CEO of AJA Acres, founded the company after a loved one was suffering from chronic pain and turning to narcotics to alleviate symptoms.
“I read about natural things that could help, and it was the first thing that came to mind,” she said. “Eventually, this person … became my first client. … That client [turned] to numerous other clients until I said, ‘I’m going to make this lifestyle.’”
AJA Acres cultivated 6,000 pounds of hemp its first growing season and manufactured its CBD health and beauty products at its facility in Birmingham, Ala. The company currently does not have an active cultivation license is Tennessee, as it does not plan to grow again until 2024.
Since the company’s inception, Carter has strived to make the industry more equitable and inclusive, as she faced several challenges when entering the industry as a minority female. Some of the challenges she faced included local farmers, organizations, and other individuals doubting or taking advantage of her.
“People telling me, organizations telling me how challenging it is going to be, [or] how I’m not going to be able to afford the equipment,” she says. “I just bought the farm, so I didn’t have enough credit to get equipment. Then, local farmers in the area are all older men, and I’m doing these things, and they’re saying, ‘Well that’s not the right way to do it.’ Or I’m trying to buy a tractor, and they’re trying to overcharge me.”
Making an Impact
Carter’s resilience helped her overcome those challenges, and now, AJA Acres represents a greater diversity of culture and color within the industry and is working to make it more accessible and inclusive for minorities through its community program, Helping Ex-offenders and Minorities Participate (HEMP), which has received grant funding from the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham in partnership with The Institute, a non-profit organization founded by Carter.
“The [HEMP] program targets minorities and women, and anybody that’s socially or economically disadvantaged to participate,” she says. “The goal is to ensure they have the information they need to know how to grow, how to get a license, … how to harvest, and ensure that they have the same access everybody else has.”
The HEMP program also offers “a diversion program for youth who have been incarcerated or have had cannabis charges and work opportunities for ex-offenders with cannabis charges,” according to the website.
The HEMP program also tries to host quarterly educational classes where individuals can go to the farm and learn about the plants or participate in taking care of them. Carter says AJA Acres also works closely with Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical (A&M) University, a historically Black land-grant university, who sends their students to the farm to learn.
“I think that’s what led us to the HEMP program,” Carter says. “It [started as] more of an internship because I had connections with Alabama A&M, and then the kids were so excited about it that it kind of rolled over to the program.”
The HEMP program also hopes to host educational workshops related to cooking or creating products with hemp in the future, Carter says.
In addition to the HEMP program, AJA Acres is also starting a vlog series highlighting minorities in the hemp industry.
“We didn’t know how many people of color or how many women participate in the industry. What we decided to do was start identifying and interviewing them,” she says. “We are in the beginning stages of this, but what we are doing is creating a vlog space where we go and interview these people at their places of work, or at a grow, and ask them about what they’re doing, how they’re doing, what their strengths [are]; things of that nature. So, it is uniting us all and sharing the same information, so that we all know that, at the end of the day, we can do something if we really want.”
AJA Acres is hoping to release roughly one to two vlogs a month and distribute them through its online platforms like Facebook and YouTube. The goal is to become nationally recognized, Carter says.
“Once we get enough series behind us, we’re hoping to get some real national traction, but we just have to lay the foundation first,” she says.
AJA Acres strives to educate the community and its vendors about its products through its online store and by offering local workshops in Alabama through its community partners.
“So, it’s very similar to the classes we spoke about before, which is just making sure that people know what’s available,” Carter says. “A lot of people still don’t understand the difference between hemp and cannabis or cannabis without THC versus THC. So, [it’s] just explaining to them that difference.”
Carter also referenced how many consumers at The World Games 2022 were unaware of the difference between cannabis and hemp. AJA Acres got invited to be a vendor at The World Games, which was an “11-day international multi-sport event organized with the support of the International Olympic Committee” in Birmingham.
“Even at The World Games, just for shock value, we put two pounds of hemp on the table, and people were just wowed. Like, ‘Oh my God, you just got that out here like that?’ You know, Alabama is super conservative,” she says. “So, it’s just interesting, just helping people understand the difference and trying to overcome some of the stigmas of the two.”
The Future is Bright
AJA Acres’ products are currently offered in local “mom-and-pop” shops, including a winery that uses the company’s hemp to make CBD wine, she says.
Carter says the company’s goal is to eventually get its products offered at Target and Walmart and into stores that lack minority representation.
“We want to start reaching out to some of these national entities [that barely] have any Black representation or any female representation in them and ask them just to pick one or two items and put it on their shelves,” she says.