Featured photo: Maya Gilliam is the owner of Hempress Farms. All photos by Sayaka Matsuoka.

You really can’t tell the difference.

Maya Gilliam weaves in and out of the rows of potted plants with the star-shaped leaves, carefully picking out the yellowing ones as she goes. The afternoon sun beats oppressively down on her, but she doesn’t seem to mind. Occasionally, she runs her fingers on a tower of flowering buds, collecting the pungent sap on her fingertips.

“You gotta smell this one,” she says as she sniffs the plant. “That smells like some sticky icky.”

In other words, it smells like marijuana.

“When I started growing this I was like, ‘Oh I see why they want they want to ban smokable hemp,’ because it looks exactly like weed,” she says.

On a small, half-acre lot on her parents’ 86-acre property in Yadkinville, Gilliam has been growing and harvesting hemp plants since last November as part of her new business, Hempress Farms. Originally a digital designer, Gilliam traded life behind a computer for one focused on wellness in 2011, when she opened Ma’ati Spa in downtown Winston-Salem. The spa is still in operation, but in late 2019 Gilliam decided to try her hand in the booming hemp market, aiming to continue her mission of promoting health.

“I’ve always loved the plant for stress,” she says. “It helps keep my stress at bay. When I heard it was becoming legal, my parents encouraged me to get into it. They said they would help me with the land, but I would have to do everything else.”

Hemp, which comes from the same cannabis plant that produces marijuana, is legal in North Carolina but only if the intoxicating agent that’s prevalent in marijuana — THC — is low enough that it won’t get users high. Right now, the legal limit for the United States for THC level in hemp plants is less than 0.3 percent. Instead, hemp focuses on a different chemical compound — CBD — which has been shown to have calming properties and has become popular in the last few years in products ranging from lotions and teas to oils. There are even CBD products for pets.

Gilliam began her research a few years ago, connected with other growers and applied for her license to grow. In March, her first indoor hemp plants began to pop up. In June, her outdoor plants started doing the same. Now, she has 300 plants outside and 40 indoors. And she didn’t waste any time making her own CBD products, which is what she says sets her apart in the crowded hemp market.

“Vertical integration is key,” she says. “Everything from plant to bottle. That’s the best way to generate revenue. It’s better because there’s too many farmers. So many farmers with barns full of hemp flower and no one to sell it to. I actually created my products first before I even planted.”

Gilliam got into the hemp industry years ago but started planting in 2019.

Gilliam prides herself on doing every step of the hemp market process from growing, harvesting, and processing to selling hemp products. Her favorite items that she sells through a dispensary at the spa include CBD-infused body butter and her hemp teas.

“Most farmers throw away the leaves but I’m saving these leaves and I’ll sell them or give them away to elderly folks for tea,” she says.

To make tea, she’ll throw fresh hemp leaves into a pot and boil them with some honey. Sometimes she’ll add some dried hibiscus flowers or ginger to add flavor.

“I have people that come every week to buy the tea,” she says. “They say they don’t have any more pain and that they don’t even take their medication anymore.”

While CBD has been touted as a cure-all plant, according to an article by Harvard Medical School, studies have shown its effectiveness in treating epilepsy syndromes among children and for reducing inflammation. Other studies also found that CBD may help people to fall asleep. In 2018, the FDA approved the first CBD-derived drug to help treat rare, severe forms of epilepsy.

“It’s super healthy all the way around,” Gilliam says. “You don’t have to have a problem to try it. You don’t have to wait until your back hurts to take it. You can be taking it and then your back won’t hurt.”

But wellness isn’t the only reason why Gilliam got into hemp.

As a Black woman, she says that reclaiming the plant and helping others see it as an entrepreneurial possibility is another goal.

Gilliam began growing hemp plants in pots on her parents’ 86-acre land.

“I just feel like it’s so important for Black and Brown people to start growing legally what we’ve been locked up for, for so long,” she says. “This is actually totally in our wheelhouse. We smoke it, we’ve been smoking it. We been selling it. It’s time to do this in a way so that we’re not getting locked up. I mean we did build this country for free so I think we should get back into the farming thing…. Since we were slaves back then, people kind of went away from farming, but now I think it’s so important for us to come back to farming because we are some awesome farmers.”

Eventually, she wants to teach women in Ghana, where she has ancestral DNA, how to grow.

“If you teach a Black woman to grow, she’s gonna teach the kids and then you’ll have whole generations that know how to grow,” she says. “And if all Black and Brown people are growing, we save the earth from deforestation. Instead of tearing trees down in the Amazon you can grow hemp. It replenishes the land…. It creates food, shelter, clothing, it’s amazing.”

But as much as Gilliam loves farming now, it wasn’t always easy for her. She comes from a family of farmers, just one generation removed, but when she decided to get into hemp, she found that many of the old guard around her were white and male and didn’t seem eager to help her. She eventually found a woman growing hemp nearby who helped her get started and once she was a part of the community, the mostly white hippie-esque crew embraced her but she said it took some time.

And it can still be hard for a person of color to grow, especially out in the more rural parts of the state. As she drives from the outdoor farm to a converted trailer where she’s set up her indoor plants, a house with multiple Confederate flags and a noose in the front yard comes into view.

While the flags have always been there, Gilliam says the noose — which hangs behind a flag that says ‘Come and take it’ — is new.

“Welcome to the country,” she says. “I grew up around here, so I’m used to seeing flags, but I’ve never seen a noose before.”

Anytime she goes to her trailer, she says she lets people know she’s going and sometimes she carries her gun. But she doesn’t want to stop people from trying.

“I want people of color to know that it’s not that hard to get into this industry,” she says. “There’s this big misconception like it’s hard for Black people to get into hemp. No, it’s not. It’s just a limiting belief that people are perpetuating…. Don’t let the rumors stop you. Who knows? That rumor may have been started just to keep us from trying.”

Learn more about Gilliam and Hempress Farms on their website. Find Gilliam’s dispensary at Ma’ati Spa located at 707 N. Main St. in Winston-Salem.

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