If you travel on Interstate 55 north of New Orleans, about an hour before you cross into the metropolis of Mississippi, you’ll find a small town nestled in the Black Belt region that encapsulates an indelible history of the first generation of African-American farmers. This sprawling rural land, with dirt roads and open fields and a population of roughly 1,400 people, is known as Summit, Mississippi. It may not be a hot-spot destination for most, but it’s where Dreka Gates is harvesting an empire.
For centuries, Black women have held a sacred connection with the environment. Historically, they were the primary farmers and breeders of livestock that provided the motherly care to animals and crops as one would a newborn. The interconnectedness with the earth is a unique intimacy that Gates said compelled her to relocate her family from the hills of California to this Bible Belt of the U.S.
The 43-acre blueberry farm that she purchased in 2020 held the promise of a new journey that she was excited to embark on—an endeavor that she admits has not come without a learning curve. Learning the science of gardening, tilling fields for planting season, and building a fully operational farm was a costly investment.
“I had to put wells in for water gas lines and propane tanks,” says Gates. Prior to this entrepreneurial endeavor, she was dedicating much of her life to the music industry, working alongside her husband. “We were going to make this work.”
In the hardest of times, Gates thought of her late great-grandmother nurturing acres of farmland, and of her 7-year-old self spending summer breaks in the sweltering heat picking peas on her great-grandmother’s farm. She knew she wanted to carry on the legacy of her ancestor’s sacrifice.
The sweat equity has paid off multifold for Gates, who’s now growing over 60 different varieties of fruits and produce, alongside tending to an increasing livestock of chickens, goats and even camels.
While farm life in the South still carries remnants of trauma from exploited labor and a coerced plantation lifestyle, a new crop of African-American farmers like Gates are seizing wealth from the soil their lineage built up to be a $1 trillion dollar industry. Gates says she’s adamant about passing the cultural connection of agriculture down to her children, something she feels has been lost in the Black community.
“When we were building the garden, I had this aha moment, like, ‘My ancestors are so proud of me right now,’” says Gates. “This is part of who I am and I’ve been disconnected from it for so long, we all have been.”
Preserving the history of Black farmers and their rich contributions to the nation’s food system is hindered by one sore reality: Roughly 48,000 out of 3.4 million farmers in the U.S. currently identify as Black (compared to some 1 million Black farmers who planted and harvested crops a century ago, according to the the latest dataset of farmland geographics from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
To help improve present-day numbers, Gates has utilized her platform to educate the Black community on the rewarding benefits of growing your own food in hopes of reinvigorating people to explore the practice of farming—“even if you start with a couple of plant pots on your window seal,” she says.
Applying her adoration for horticulture and the practices of traditional farming she’s gleaned over the past five years, Gates launched her cannabis brand, BE Provisions, in 2021 as well as her wellness line, DREKA. Originally, her products were for personal use, but after identifying the market opportunity for clean beauty brands, “I just decided I wanted to share it with everyone,” she says.
Her entry into the predominantly white cannabis space was somewhat serendipitous as she became enthralled with the medicinal use and healing properties of plants, eventually leading her to open a dispensary in Cassopolis, Michigan. She started off by partnering with a family in the village town who already had an indoor cultivation farm. It was a way for her to break into the industry fairly quickly without going through a prolonged process of state zoning requirements to operate a dispensary. She now splits her time between farms in Mississippi and Michigan.
Now, with a staff of 30 people and growing, Gates is intimately involved in scaling her cannabis business. You’ll often find her rolling up her sleeves to keep the 100 pounds output of product flowing each week. In what she calls a true full-circle moment, she became one of the very few Black women to own her own cannabis and CBD company. Her line of products include bath salts, gummy edibles and THC flavors like Tropicana cherry.
And the farm in Mississippi that started it all is still very much in action. While Gates isn’t currently selling any of the fresh produce she’s harvesting on her farm to the public, she does plan to be regularly present at local farmers markets and wants to eventually get into wholesaling products to supermarkets in the future. Meanwhile, with her cannabis brand and her eponymous wellness brand netting her millions in sales, Gates is now trying her hand at infused herbs and spices that she thinks will be a catch for southern cooks when she opens her second dispensary in Mississippi later this summer.
“Just picture Tulum inside of a building,” she says. “It’s going to be a whole vibe.”