The Resurgence of Industrial Hemp

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Hemp's fibers are among the planet's strongest, its seed oil the most nutritious and its potential as an energy source vast and untapped.
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In "Hemp Bound," Doug Fine learns how eminently possible it is for the long-misunderstood plant to help us end dependence on fossil fuels, heal farm soils damaged after decades of monoculture and bring even more taxable revenue into the economy than its smokable relative.

Get ready for America’s newest billion-dollar industry: Industrial hemp. Well, it’s not really new. As prohibition on hemp’s psychoactive cousin unravels, bestselling author Doug Fine explains why one of humanity’s longest-utilized plants is poised to rejuvenate the US economy. In Hemp Bound, Fine embarks upon a humorous yet rigorous journey to meet the men and women pioneering hemp’s reemergence in the twenty-first century. The following excerpt highlights a few of those hemp pioneers.

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Industrial Hemp Pioneers

Dr. David West, Geneticist,

Actual Twenty-First-Century American Hemp Researcher

From his home alone in Prescott, Wisconsin, along the St. Croix River, the sixty-five-year-old West said that what is, on the surface, his unusual journey from legendary Big Ag researcher to legendary hemp researcher actually follows what for him was an obvious course. After pioneering the use of molecular markers in plant breeding (now part of the standard commercial plant identification tool kit), he “watched the seed industry get taken over by the chemical industry” in the 1990s. At the same time, he told me, “One day I saw a helicopter land in a neighboring field [in Wisconsin] to eradicate feral hemp. Now, as a plant breeder, I’m quite aware of what hemp is. I thought, What the hell is going on here?”

In a 1994 paper titled Fiber War, West declared modern hemp’s agricultural value, a radical view for someone with unimpeachable creds in what was fast becoming the GMO monoculture world (which industry he had by this time left, saying, “I don’t want to grow terminator corn for Monsanto”).

His notoriety from that piece and subsequent writing on hemp (as well as the co-founding of the North American Industrial Hemp Council) led, in 1999, to him being contacted by Hawaiian representative Cynthia Thielen (R-Oahu), who is still in office and to this day battling for hemp production in the Aloha State. She’s trying to find a replacement for the declining sugarcane industry, help remediate soil, and find an animal feed that can be grown on the islands.

“Cynthia basically said, ‘Do you want to come to Oahu to grow hemp?’” West explained. It was an Is this a trick question? moment. Or as West, who thought that maybe he was on Candid Camera, puts it, “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The half-acre project, which got its federal permits to acquire hemp seed at what West described as “the last second,” ran from 1999 through 2003, and began with a state Hemp Day declared by the governor for the morning of the first planting on December 19, 1999.

“There were cameras, the Kahuna ceremonial blessing, the whole deal, then everyone went home, and it was me on a fenced-in, alarmed patch of dirt, dealing with every problem farmers have always had to deal with.”

One of his first discoveries, he told me with an It’s funnier now snicker, was that “birds love hemp. Took a while to rig a netting system that kept them out. They ate the whole first planting.”

The project was funded by a hair care company interested in a publicity stunt for what West called a “dash” of hemp oil in its product. West was fine with that. “When I saw like-minded people at energy fairs speak about hemp without any real knowledge—and how could they have knowledge?—I realized that what we really needed was some studies. But I also knew, since I worked for seed companies for years, how much that kind of research costs.”

West groaned like a hungry man when I told him I was just back from a visit to the sixty acres of hemp that Colorado farmer Ryan Loflin was able to cultivate in 2013. “My study was on a very small, academic scale, but we wound up showing that hemp could be viable in Hawaii’s latitude, which is important because growing hemp is all about the photoperiod. It was a Chinese cultivar that worked best. Grew more than ten feet tall. And it was on former Dole plantation land.”

When the project wrapped, West said, George W. Bush was in the White House, 9/11 had happened, and almost no one was paying attention, not even the reps at Alterna, the hair care company. But he rigorously recorded his data and methods, because “I knew people would care about hemp again.”

West calls himself retired today, but he’s still researching ditch weed in Nebraska and trying to fund a hemp genome project. I watched a YouTube video where he visited a feral Midwest hemp field, dissecting several plants’ morphology. His explanation for all the activity is that it’s involuntary. “When you open one door with hemp genetics and even with American hemp history, a dozen other doors open,” he said.

He then launched into perhaps a twelve-minute (and riveting) tale of one of the original “hempreneurs,” David Myerle, who went bankrupt in the 1820s after planting and contracting for hemp in Kentucky, Missouri, and elsewhere.4 One problem? The U.S. Navy kept rejecting his multi-ton hemp deliveries, either for quality reasons or because of corrupt ties to another supplier. A bigger problem? Too many of his workers were dying of pneumonia trying to implement his special water-based hemp-processing regime.

Grant Dyck,

Hemp Farmer

This is the guy actually doing it—has been for seven years. Today it might not impress a journalist to interview another GMO corn farmer about the latest developments in monoculture. But Dyck is one of only a few thousand North American hemp farmers at the moment. Certainly one of the few who wear Carhartts. So I think it’s safe to say that the thirty-six-year-old lifelong Manitoban farmer was among the most valuable sources I interviewed for this project.

In the United States, everything related to hemp cultivation is weighted down with “What if?” It’s the crystal-ball scenario in which pundits make their fortune. But Dyck partly makes his living from the crop, and so I listened up in his two-hundred-acre frozen hemp field as he stomped through months of white crust and handed me an armful of the previous season’s harvest.

“Due diligence would be my first piece of advice,” he said when I asked him what might save American farmers from some sleepless nights (or bankruptcy). “Do your research. Read all you can. Logistically, you’ve got timing issues. Adequate irrigation before planting is essential, for example.”

He was just getting started. He’s a very tall, clean-cut guy, and he was rubbing his forehead as he conjured up what looked like slightly stressful memories. “If you plant too early, you harvest when it’s hot and wet—that’s its own drying process. If you harvest too late, the plant’s dry and you’ll lose the seed as soon as the combine hits it. It requires good management to crop hemp.” At least pesticides are a non-issue. What Dyck is trying to leave us with is the awareness that hemp might grow like a weed, but harvesting is a whole other ball game, like putting versus the long game in golf.

I wouldn’t say that Dyck’s in-the-field wisdom should bring every putative farmer down to earth. Excuse my generalization, but I think a third-generation North Dakotan is going to be able to handle any nuances required by a plant that has, after all, survived three-quarters of a century of taxpayer-funded eradication efforts along Nebraskan ditches. It’s the eager-beaver newcomer who would be wise to do his or her due diligence. Professional farming is like professional anything. The marketplace (and, in this case, Mother Nature) will separate the wheat from the chaff. Oh, and in case farmers are wondering, Dick said you’ll need between twenty-five and sixty pounds of seed per acre, depending on variety.

Barbara Filippone,

President of EnviroTextiles

Based in Glenwood, Colorado, EnviroTextiles is a woman-owned industrial hemp and natural fiber manufacturing company that has offices in three countries, supplied President Obama with a hemp reelection scarf, and is the largest importer of hemp textiles in the United States. But what Filippone told me breathlessly was the reason she was contacting me is that her company, which is worth fifteen million dollars, had just earned approval from the USDA BioPreferred program, which promotes the purchase and use of biobased products. “Hemp’s already creating jobs while still a schedule one narcotic,” she glowed.

The victory was a long time coming. “I worked in China for nineteen years and for thirty-seven in plant fiber, as well as three years qualifying to be a government supplier,” she said. But with a deep belief that natural fibers are the only future option with petroleum-based synthetics on the endangered list, she was confident hemp would win out in the end.

“The federal government knows hemp is an alternative to cotton that’s drought-resistant. The military knows it—I’ve been speaking with them. Cotton’s done. China knows it, too.”

Filippone gave a very bottom-line reason China is moving away from cotton. “It uses too much water and pesticides,” she said. “They have no choice.”

Since she is so seasoned in the real-world economy, Filippone is not shy about offering advice to the tide of newcomers who are already becoming both her colleagues and her competitors.

“It’s time to learn how to be a real businessperson,” she said with a touch of the scalded tone that i recognized from my grandfather’s admonitions about the business world. A competitive landscape is going to “eat” the naive, she added. But she also offered assistance. “i’ve been around the block many times. I can help those who want government approval in other hemp niches, including construction.”

Michael Bowman,

National Hemp and Sustainability Lobbyist

“Check your email—I just shot you a photo of me with [U.S. agriculture secretary] Tom Vilsack,” Colorado’s Bowman told me when, in April 2013, I had asked, “C’mon, really? Hemp is going to be federally re-legalized in this session of Congress? It never gets more than a snicker in committee.”

“At least in the House,” he said.

He was right (and I still have that and other Beltway action photos he sent during what turned out to be the partly victorious whirlwind hemp effort in 2013). The tide had turned. Common sense had prevailed. Or maybe the money the Canadians were making had finally talked.

It’s safe to say that Bowman (along with years of effort by other hemp activists) was a key figure in the lobbying effort that saw Colorado representative Jared Polis’s groundbreaking hemp research bill sneak into the FARRM Bill, thus (if Congress finishes the job in 2014) ending one of the most counterproductive agricultural bans in human history.

A towering fifty-four-year-old farm boy intellectual who emerges from weeks of communication darkness to call me at weird hours from weird time zones after tracking down cabinet officials and key congressional “maybes” on hemp, Bowman laughs like a good ol’ boy, never has a negative word for anyone, and gets things done by operating according to a sort of Zen-inspired seven-year patience plan.

“It started with a community center I worked on [he’s from a small, conservative farming town of 2,354 called Wray] back in 1983,” Bowman told me over doughnuts in Denver. “I saw that a project that takes six months to accomplish the goal isn’t even enough of a challenge for me. Renewable energy was years in the wilderness. Hemp was years.”

Bowman’s graying around the fringes and not wearing a peace sign t-shirt, “always a plus on the Hill,” he said. After he was instrumental in his home state’s passage of the first substantive renewable energy requirements in the nation in 2004 (for which, as a resident of downwind New Mexico, I am very grateful), Bowman realized what a difference an individual can make in state politics.

So he thought he’d see if that was true on the federal level. He paid his own way to DC in 2013 and crashed with friends while pounding the legislative and executive branch hallways every day for two months to speak the truth about hemp. And what did President Obama say when he bent the POTUS’s ear about hemp as a biofuel source during a 2012 Oval Office visit that he’d earned as a White House Champion of Change for his renewable energy work? “He listened respectfully,” Bowman said.

“This is not a new crop,” he told me, draining his coffee mug. “We’re just late to the game in recognizing its value in the digital age.” Indeed, at least thirty countries cultivate industrial cannabis today.

John Roulac,

Founder and CEO, Nutiva

Given that I’ve been pouring a tablespoon of Nutiva’s organic hemp oil (Canadian-grown, for now) into my family’s breakfast shake every day for half a decade (to the tune of about eight hundred dollars per year and willingly counting), I thought it worthwhile to ask the company’s fifty-four-year-old founder about his personal and entrepreneurial journey. Turns out his arc is similar to that of a solar electrician friend of mine in New Mexico, who’s so busy that he describes himself as a “failed hippie.”

“I was a forest activist in the California redwoods in the 1980s and early ’90s,” Roulac told me. “And the opponents would say, ‘If you’re not gonna cut down trees, where will our houses come from?’ That led me to hemp fiber, one of the strongest in the world. Then I discovered that the seed is one of the most nutritious available.”

That discovery still moves Roulac profoundly, judging by the fact that for about the next eight minutes I couldn’t type fast enough to keep up with the guy’s love song to hemp oil. It’s making him rich—the we’re hiring button on the privately held company’s home page is large—but clearly Roulac was feeling it.

Highlights from his serenade include this, when I asked how hemp oil compares with other omega-rich oils like flax: “Flax is fine, hemp oil is divine. Hemp has what flax, chia, and fish oil don’t: both GLA [gamma linolenic acid] and CLA [conjugated linoleic acid]—omega-6 fatty acids that are superfoods. GLA is an anti-inflammatory, and CLA is a building block of cell membranes, to just scratch the surface on those two. So hemp has a better fatty acid profile than flax. The shelled hemp seed—the hemp heart—is a gift from the universe. One little seed gives you magnesium—a master mineral involved in three hundred chemical processes in the body—zinc and iron. Vegans in particular can be short on those. Hemp is just nutritionally superior to flax and will surpass flax sales in the coming decade.”

And it went on like this for a while. Let me tell you, as someone who finds living preferable to the alternatives, I was all ears.

The business side kind of blends with the societal side with Roulac, and on both counts you can’t accuse the fellow of failing to think big. “Our goal is to change the way the world eats, and to improve the food systems across the food chain. And we’re already doing this.”

How so? “Today we’re working with states like Kentucky to get hemp grown domestically. I testified there,” he told me. “But our biggest issue is that we only sell certified organic seed and oil, and there isn’t the infrastructure yet with hemp. Believe it or not, even though GMOs are banned in Canadian hemp, which is a nice gesture, today most Canadian farmers are GMO farmers who use hemp as a bridge crop for three months and there’s plenty of pesticides applied the rest of the year at least. It’s part of the GMO cycle. We working to build that organic market.”

For that reason, toward the end of our conversation, Roulac added a challenge to consumers: “If you want to see a green future, buy organic hemp. The more organic hemp you eat, the more organic hemp will be planted, and the healthier the planet will be.”

Now, I’m a journalist of some experience, and I recognize a line out of an industry trade group playbook when I hear it. But I’ll cut Roulac some slack and include his talking point, for two reasons. First off, he’s talking about a plant that it is at the time of this writing a federal felony to cultivate. And second, as a sustainability writer for two decades who’s just back from visiting a lot of hemp farms and reading a lot of hemp research, and as a fellow who’s had to work with drought-affected soil on my own ranch, I can tell you he’s right.

Simon Potter, Biologist,

Sector Manager for Product Innovation, CIC

The forty-five-year-old Potter is excited to come to work every day, and this, of course, is a blessing for anyone. When Potter was giving me the tour of half a dozen hemp research projects at the Composites Innovation Centre (a government/industry joint venture in Winnipeg, Manitoba), his role was that of a generalist—he enthusiastically explained hemp insulation, hemp tractors, and hemp energy.

But as a biologist by degree and calling, Potter got particularly jazzed—perhaps a little pleasantly surprised—when I asked him about the microbiology of the plant. Especially the tiny battle going on during the part of the hemp-harvesting process known as retting.

Which is to say I never saw him so excited as when he smacked the poster-sized blowup of a microscopic green image like a headmaster and told me about the “fungal attack” he’s trying to understand during this vital and risky part of the harvest process.

Retting is that fungal attack. And this is a good thing, because it softens the plant’s outer hurd, or bark, which can then be removed for access to the gold within: the strong hemp cordage that already makes some, and in the near future is going to make so many more, of our industrial products. The retting process can take three weeks, leaving a valuable crop that’s just survived a four-month growing season dangerously exposed to the elements.

Since he works for an organization that can afford what Monty Python called the “machine that goes ping,” Potter can get 3-D views of what is essentially an in-the-field post-harvest microbiological battle that farmers have been intentionally harnessing for eight thousand years. “Once we understand retting, we hope we can make the process easier and more uniform,” he told me optimistically as I stared at his chart. I’d never seen fungus so close up. It looked like a string of Tic Tacs.

In short, nature allows hemp’s interior treasure box to open only at her own slow pace. It would be like drilling for natural gas, then having to simmer it outdoors for three weeks at a specific temperature before it could be used in a power plant or stove.

“We’re also going to look at the internal chemistry and structure of the bast part of the hemp plant,” he said of his next months’ work. “This X-ray diffraction pattern here tells us a lot about where the strength of the fiber is going to be.”

Which is all well and good for researcher Potter—I like to see a fellow who’s living his dream. But what kept crossing my mind during my tour of the center’s projects was this: As hemp is fully reintegrated into the world economy, which country has the advantage—the one putting its best biologists to work maximizing the plant’s potential, or the one whose federal law enforcement bureaucrats are fighting tooth and nail to keep domestic farmers from even cultivating it?

Smart people are working on hemp, is the point I’m endeavoring to convey, and very few of them, as yet, are Americans. Potter seems quite willing to share the knowledge, though.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Hemp Bound: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Next Agricultural Revolution by Doug Fine, published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014.