June 19, 2021
If you visit Clarenda Stanley, AKA Farmer Cee, at her farm in Liberty, North Carolina, you might hear the soulful sounds of Erykah Badu or Bill Withers drifting across the field. Or, you might hear something a little more…spirited. Stanley plays music for her plants, and like any skilled farmer, she knows exactly what they need to thrive.
“My hemp ladies like a chill vibe. They don’t like stress,” Cee says. “Hibiscus likes an uptempo vibe. The mints are indifferent; they’re like, we’re going to take over anyway. The tea camellias like something jazzy. But when I take it out to the field with the holy basil…it’s time to crank things up. Holy basil likes to keep it lit.”
As the owner and primary operator of Green Heffa Farms, a company that makes meticulously crafted herbal teas using organic hemp and other botanicals, Cee is a powerhouse. She balances the full-time roles of farmer, small business owner, and environmental fundraiser (as well as mother and grandmother) with aplomb, even when it means 18-hour days are the norm. She’s a wealth of knowledge about sustainable agriculture, plant medicine, and navigating the complicated landscape of the hemp industry. She’s unshakably confident, yet warm and wholly authentic. She’s also got a killer sense of humor—and the ironic origin story to match.
Reflecting on how she got into farming, Cee says, “It’s supposed to be this idyllic story: I woke up one day and had an epiphany and my spirit moved me into farming. None of that! I couldn’t wait to leave the farm.”
Cee grew up in the Black Belt of Alabama, an agricultural region marked by poverty and enduring racial segregation that harkens back to its antebellum roots. She became a mom at age 15, then had her second child a few years later. “All statistics would say that I was headed down a certain path, but I was fortunate that I was fairly good in school,” she says. Cee graduated from the University of Alabama, Huntsville with a marketing degree and later earned a masters in education, both of which she put to work in higher education, government, and eventually fundraising, which she still does.
In the meantime, Cee went through a divorce, relocated to North Carolina, and remarried. While she quips about her judgment with the second marriage, it was that relationship that set her on the path to Green Heffa Farms.
Her second husband (in the midst of what Cee sardonically calls a “career transition”) was the one who first suggested growing hemp, which had recently been legalized under North Carolina’s Industrial Hemp Pilot Program. That was enough to set Cee in motion, and she decided to buy some farmland. The marriage didn’t last, but the farm did. “I had to keep what appreciates over time,” she says. “And it’s not the man, but the land.”
Cee’s grandparents were farmers, and though she’s grateful for the values they instilled in her—a reverence for nature, a love of fresh produce—she initially had no interest in living an agrarian lifestyle. “I grew up learning about George Washington Carver and all of the contributions that Black people have made to agriculture. So I had a firm foundation, but absolutely no interest in toiling. And that is what I saw farming as: hard work with little financial reward.”
Despite her reservations, a new future was unfolding. “I was going through a divorce, I had this land, I was working in the environmental space, and I was facing some hard truths [about] environmental racism, climate justice, and understanding my role as a fundraiser,” she says. Her career in environmental fundraising was often inspiring, but could also cause disillusionment—especially when the people holding the purse strings or in leadership positions had values different from her own. “You want to raise money for things you feel good about,” she says.
Cee’s kids were old enough to take care of themselves, which presented her with an opportunity she hadn’t had since her teen years: to make a decision about what to do next, independently of their needs. “I realized I actually had a blank slate for the first time in my life,” she recalls. An inventory of her interests, passions, and skills led to an unlikely conclusion—or maybe, the career she was fated for all along.
“I spent a lot of time with myself. What do I want to do? I care about the environment, I love being outside, I care about being a catalyst for change, I care about helping other people.” Cee realized that maybe she could be a farmer, if she could do it on her own terms—differently from how her grandparents did it, but using the wisdom they imparted to her, as well as her own experiences in marketing and fundraising. The result was Green Heffa Farms.
Cee quickly learned what she was up against as a Black woman trying to make a living as a farmer. From getting approved for a loan to capturing the attention of retailers, she says that systemic racism and sexism have constantly appeared as obstacles in her path. “The agricultural complex was designed for white men, preferably wealthy, with land holdings, and extra points if they were a follower of a Protestant or Christian belief system,” she explains. “Here’s me, the complete opposite of that. I’m on the other end of the ideal spectrum.”
Farming and land ownership are deeply meaningful symbols of freedom and autonomy to BIPOC communities. Yet there’s a dissonance between the history of agriculture—an industry that was in many ways built on the suffering and exploitation of Black and indigenous people—and modern venture capitalism. “I personally had some issues with being put in that position [where] I have to go to you to get the money, and then I have to go work in my fields and make money, in order to pay you back the money that the system already gave you an unfair advantage in the acquisition of,” Cee says. “So that, for me, was problematic—That my labor still resulted in lining the pockets of those who have always benefitted from Black labor.”
Throughout agriculture legislation, historic inequities persist. According to the National Young Farmers Coalition’s 2020 Land Policy Report, 95% of farmers are white, and white people own 98% of all farmland, which results in a similarly imbalanced distribution of financial support. (This year’s American Rescue Plan granted $5 billion to BIPOC farmers, but 2020’s HEALS Act granted $20 billion to the agriculture sector on the whole.) “It’s not really much money at all, a pittance actually” Cee says, “especially when you look at the farmers who it is to benefit: people who have lost millions of acres and untold amounts of wealth, as well as the ability to have accumulated wealth.”
While she’s hopeful about the future, Cee is wary of complacency, or letting policy makers off the hook. “We have a tendency to pat ourselves on the back if we offer someone a seat at the table,” she says. “I don’t want a seat at your table if you already set the agenda before I came. Call me in when you are setting the agenda. Then you don’t have to offer me a seat at the table because I already have a seat there with my name on it. It’s where I belong.”
Cee’s strong sense of social justice is mirrored by her passion for sustainability, and she runs her business accordingly. She grows her medicinal plants organically, and is selective with her cultivars, choosing only non-GMO plants that are naturally suited to North Carolina’s weather and soil. Any ingredients for her teas that aren’t grown on-site are consciously sourced as much as possible from fellow female and/or BIPOC farmers who share Green Heffa Farms’ environmental values.
While Green Heffa Farms is currently transitioning to USDA Organic certification, they’re also implementing regenerative practices to preserve the health of the soil and maximize its climate change-mitigating powers. Before she bought it, Cee’s land had been used to grow tobacco, corn, and soybeans in traditional row-crop style, which can lead to soil erosion and depletion. For the first two years, Cee left the soil unplanted and allowed it to heal. Now, she uses cover cropping, crop rotation, and nitrogen-fixing plants to replenish the soil.
Among Cee’s goals for Green Heffa Farms are to add solar power and shift to no-till farming (a method of planting that preserves soil). However, these upgrades require investing in new equipment. “One of the things I realized quickly in farming is, it takes green to be green,” she says, adding that conventional practices are, unfortunately, often more economical. For now, she’s practicing low-till farming, being conscious of the farm’s energy usage and waste, and planning to phase in more regenerative practices as she’s able. “We really just try to keep environmental well-being at the forefront of everything we do,” she says. “It can be frustrating because of course I want us to be greener, faster. However, my motto is ‘grow slow so we don’t owe.’ So, we do what we can as we can, and always the best that we can.”
One of Cee’s proudest sustainability achievements? Recycling an old sharecropper’s cabin, which she transported to her farm and is now in the process of renovating. She describes the scene of the house movers stopping traffic and narrowly dodging power lines with a laugh; though her Instagram stories show that the process has been a labor of love, picking up an old house and moving it nearly 10 miles isn’t an experience she’s eager to repeat.
From the beginning, Cee knew she didn’t want Green Heffa Farms to ever put profits before principles, and it’s clear that she farms consciously in every sense of the word: environmental, but also spiritual. “I’m really picky about the food I purchase now,” she says. “I don’t want food grown by spiritually raggedy people.” By way of an example, she offers the difference between factory-farmed and humanely raised chicken. “I want a chicken leg from a chicken who never had any idea it was coming, and it was the happiest little chicken before it met its maker. I don’t want the cooped-up, miserable chicken!” Cee says it’s the same with plants—and especially important when you’re growing plants specifically intended to enhance wellness. “How you treat them is going to determine how they respond.”
Green Heffa Farms’ organic, loose-leaf herbal teas are as thoughtfully and soulfully crafted as you’d expect them to be, once you get to know Cee. “Both my maternal grandmother and my mother were unofficial herbalists,” she shares, adding that plant remedies were commonplace in her childhood. When she decided to start farming, she knew she didn’t want to grow food initially (too much pressure), but she’d always loved herbal products, especially tea. So she tapped into the wisdom of her elders, then used her characteristic studiousness to fill in the blanks.
“I just started learning, plant by plant. Every plant that is in our teas, I studied, from its medicinal uses to traditional knowledge to the binomial nomenclature. Then I have to pair it with hemp flower to see how the terpenes and flavonoids play together.” Cee says she’s judicious with her blends; too many botanicals in one tea can be counterproductive. Instead, she focuses on finding the perfect balance of function and flavor, seeking plant ingredients that complement each other to achieve the desired result.
If you’re seeking a sip of calm—say, while navigating the labyrinth of farm loans—choose SaniTEA, a blend of hemp flower with soothing terpenes plus calming lemon balm (a type of mint). Prices of roller crimpers got you down? Try FixiTEA, a mood-lifting mix of hemp, vibrant hibiscus, and refreshing peppermint. Butterfly pea flower and hibiscus give Rich AunTEA a vibrant color, as well as the promise of a fired-up libido and radiant skin (who could say no?).
When Cee returned to the farm—albeit a different one from her youth—it was a reinvention of self, but also a kind of homecoming. And while life looks different now than it did a few years ago, some things have remained the same. “I haven’t changed who I am,” she says. “I haven’t curated my spirit to the point where I am inauthentic, because then you create another box to be in.”
She’s the first to admit that compromising would probably make certain things easier, but it’s something she’s simply unwilling to do. And when asked if she’s thriving right now, even with the long days and late nights, she says yes.
“I’m proud. That little patch of land was so sad two years ago! Nothing on it…it looked pitiful. Now, even being able to have this conversation, it’s like, you know what? You go, girl.”
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