Quick, name one multi-billion dollar industry that isn’t part of the national banking system. Better yet, name one industry in America that has no access to federal funds when a natural disaster hits.
In the age of pandemics, firestorms, floods, and basically watching as a slow Armageddon overtakes the country and the world, government emergency relief funds are crucial to the economic survival of any business, large or small.
Even if the disaster itself doesn’t touch you, the ripple effect to your city, county, and state will affect your business’ bottom line. That’s why government agencies step in, for the health of your region’s economy, with a true trickle-down effect.
But if you are part of the rapidly growing, 13.2 billion dollar cannabis industry operating in a state legal to do so in the U.S., you are out of luck, as the land of opportunity just isn’t the same for you as it is for the rest of the country’s industries.
The irony is, 37 states, three territories, and the District of Columbia, are now legal for medicinal cannabis, with 21 states now legal for adult/recreational use; with CBD (at least conditionally) legal in all states.
What this means in real time is, federally funded relief isn’t there in the most challenging of times for cannabis or hemp farmers, and manufacturers alike. While food farmers across the country are being federally subsidized, with empathetic organizations like Farm Aid raising more funds, cannabis and hemp farmers are left to fend for themselves or go under.
SBA and FEMA
This is the hypocrisy that hemp farmers and product manufacturers, such as the Sisters of the Valley, are now facing. Sales plummeted during the pandemic of 2020 when cannabis was deemed “essential” by the government, yet they had to fight tooth and nail to get any relief at all from the Small Business Association (SBA), a federal agency that isn’t allowed to recognize “marijuana” companies. Semantics eventually won over, as the Sisters grow and manufacture nationally legal, non-psychoactive, hemp products.
“When we were finally given help, after jumping through hoops most didn’t have to go through, it wasn’t a gift or a grant we received, it was a substantial, long-term, low interest loan from the SBA”. Founder, Christine Meeusen, otherwise known as Sister Kate, said of the dilemma. “Then the floods came last December and our sales fell again. When we went back to the SBA for additional help they turned their backs on us. There hasn’t been enough time between the pandemic ending and the floods coming for us to recover, and the storms keep coming.”
The SBA works in association with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). As noted in its website, getting a loan from the SBA “keeps all disaster assistance options available to you.” That is, if you are not conducting your business under the federally illegal cannabis or hemp industry.
“The SBA approved a deferment of payment for our pandemic loans by three months, based on the recent floods and mudslides and the economic impact to California businesses,” Sister Kate added. “So the department who gives deferment on loans thinks we’ll survive long enough to pay it back, but the arm that gives the loans is now telling us we will fail.”
Important to note, the SBA considers a small business one with a revenue of $50 million, annually. With just 9% of small businesses making $1 million or less annually, and 86.3% making less than $100 thousand a year, it appears the SBA may be overlooking a vast array of small businesses as failing in the face of daunting disasters.
Humble, Misunderstood Hemp
To understand the seeming discrimination stemming from the treatment of the Sisters and cannabis or hemp farmers in general, it’s important to know the difference between the two plants of high tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) cannabis and high cannabidiol (CBD) hemp, the plant the Sisters farm and make products from.
What’s little known is, it took Southern Humboldt County farmer, Lawrence Ringo, nearly 15 years to hybridize THC back down to its original count of less than 4%. In the final analysis, Ringo’s low THC cultivar, now called hemp, tested with nearly 14% CBD, with the same full spectrum of beneficial compounds found in cannabis.
The Sisters only grow and manufacture products from this nationally legal, low-to-zero THC hemp, but that fact seems to be lost on the powers that be that hold the purse strings of much needed funds to help them get through paying off a pandemic loan, this last flood, and the next wave of water that came in an “atmospheric river” flowing through California and its agricultural communities.
It Takes a Village
Sister Kate came from the corporate world of finance, crossing over into the cannabis industry after being helped herself with the plant for symptoms from menopause.
She modeled the Sisters of the Valley after a non-denominational, ancient order of women in France known as the Beguines. The Beguines were caregivers, apothecaries (makers of plant medicine), weavers, and seamstresses in the rural communities they served and lived in.
It’s a simple concept, farm good medicine, make good products, help others. The concept, “It takes a village,” is a life lived by the Sisters via their own vows, as follows:
A vow of servitude – serving the people by making medicine with the cannabis plant;
A vow of obedience to the moon cycles, (all medicine is grown and made within this cycle;
A vow of ecology, to protect the earth;
A vow of activism, to protect the plant and access to it;
A vow of living simply;
And a vow of chastity.
(Note: they do not believe you have to be celibate to be chaste.)
The Sisters farm by the age-old and sustainable farming practice of planting by the cycle of the full moon. And though they’ve been called witches, this practice is actually quite mainstream, as any current Farmer’s Almanac still lists moon cycles and when to plant. It’s not sorcery. The moon dictates the ebb and flow of the sea and the length of days for a greater yield.
That said, the making of their products is also done as a spiritual practice, likened to a Japanese tea ceremony, with purposeful movements that honor the plant, sun, and the soil that gives life.
And while the farm in California is considered its headquarters, the Sisters and now Brothers of the Valley, can be found globally, advocating and educating in their own communities on the plant as medicine.
Ignorance is Not Bliss
Jumping through hoops in the conservative County of Merced in the San Joaquin Valley in Central California is nothing new to Sister Kate. When they first homesteaded the farm in 2015 under California’s medical program they were met with resistance.
“In 2016, the City of Merced threatened to ban cannabis altogether,” Sister Kate recalled. “I don’t think they expected a fight, but we showed up in front of the planning commission in our habits and spoke out; we went on local news and advocated and educated. That’s what we do, and will continue to do as an order. We may grow and manufacture hemp, but we fully support the cannabis industry, and consider THC to be a beneficial compound.”
Turns out, the people of Merced also wanted cannabis, and by 2017, the Merced County Board of Supervisors implemented regulations, allowing residents to grow up to six plants per residence for personal use.
But the ignorance of the plant is still alive and well in the county, and as of January, 2022, the city of Merced had accepted nine applications for dispensaries, only allowing one single shop.
It’s important to note that limited access by banning retail shops is another form of discrimination against those who need access, and for the industry as a whole to survive. Limiting safe access hurts the farmers when distribution fails, as supply and demand can’t be met, with the illicit market continuing to meet the needs of the people.
The Sister’s ship globally where hemp products are allowed, but one third of their sales come from disaster-prone California.
Saving the Sisters
Sister Kate has poured her heart and soul into the creation and continuation of the Sisters of the Valley, but she’s admittedly 64 years old this year and has pondered having to sell the farm and walk away, defeated by mother nature and indirectly, the federal government.
“I’ve already laid off and cut hours off staff,” Sister Kate lamented. “The employees whose pay we had to cut had their rents raised in town, so the hardship is felt all the way around. Last week I notified all my vendors that we have to operate on one third our normal budget, and thankfully, they reduced their costs to us by one third.”
A request for help was sent to Congressman John Duarte but Sister Kate isn’t hopeful, as the newly appointed representative of the 13th District is said to be conservative, not educated on the plant, hemp or otherwise, and not sympathetic to their plight.
In a follow-up letter to the SBA’s Loan Specialist in the Office of Capital Access, with Senator Diana Westmoreland copied, Sister Kate begged to get just 10 or 15% of the initial loan from the pandemic, in an attempt to at least clear the high interest debt garnered since the floods of December 2022 hit. But, the request was firmly denied, with an invitation to resubmit the paperwork again.
“I was so naive. I thought since we’ve had one economic disaster after another, we’d get the same help,” she surmised. “I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around any small business having a good profit and loss statement after the pandemic, but that’s what they are basing this decline of additional help on. One family-run Mexican restaurant in town closed after 30 years—was help for them denied, were they also told to fail?”
Unsure that they are being discriminated against because they grow hemp, Sister Kate said you’d have to be inside the SBA to know if they are using different criteria for cannabis or hemp companies as they are for other businesses. She is aware that there are likely only a handful of qualifying businesses in the county, with the City of Merced allotted more than 27 million to disperse.
“The process itself is humiliating,” Sister Kate continued. “They accused us of misuse of funds and violations in launching new products. We countered, and had to educate them about how when working in plant medicine, research and development of products is part of the ever-evolving industry. But in the end, they said we’ll go under because of lack of profitability. No shit Sherlock, we were breaking even from the pandemic, while paying back the loan, when the mudslides came!”
As the finger of God that is the SBA’s Office of Capital Access decides who to help and who goes under during some of California’s worst natural disasters in history, Sister Kate is feeling the frustration of the Sister’s once thriving business now on the chopping block.
Nine years of being an upstanding business in the community, all the while paying state, federal, payroll, income, sales, and property taxes in full—never owing anyone—with the reality of failing ironically coming down to nature.
“We could survive one economic hardship, but not two, and certainly not three in a row,” she concluded. “It’s hard to believe that we may have to close down because of floods and mudslides, after all we’ve fought for this plant. In the end, the headlines won’t read, ‘spiritual women making topical salves and natural plant tonics from hemp.’ They will only hear that we are growing ‘the marijuana,’ and nothing more. Because right now the negative stigma following this industry is greater than the truth of what this plant can do.”
To help the Sisters of the Valley ordering products right now is key. They also take donations via the website, www.sistersofthevalley.org