Hemp Ninja Training: Relaunching an American Industry

Doug Fine views cultivating hemp as a patriotic act.

When you go from consumer to producer (of anything), your units of measure change. I’ve spent much of the past three years—in my customary role of comedic investigative journalist, camera crew in tow—surveying hemp farmers from Oregon to Kentucky. But in 2016, I became a hemp farmer. Which meant my shopping list grew from 16-ounce bottles of Nutiva hemp-seed oil to rodent-proof storage bins for two tons of hemp seed.

Even with my family’s considerable omega-3 needs, that’s an amount I would be hard-pressed to argue was for personal consumption. That’s because, along with 816 other licensed American farmer-entrepreneurs in 15 states (and counting), I’m trying to help birth an independent agricultural resurgence in the digital age—not while clutching a latte in a heated boardroom, but in an icy Vermont maple-sugar shack processing hemp that was planted from seed way back in the innocent spring of 2016.

And here’s the real reason why I’m grateful to shiver: The petrochemical era is winding down. It worked for a little while, if you don’t count a planet half-poisoned. But when the dinosaur juice we call oil no longer flows in viable quantities, we still have a shot at keeping the digital good life going. Visualize plants, fungi and algae providing everything from aerospace parts to car batteries. Actually, you don’t have to visualize: It’s already happening.

To demonstrate this near-future industrial revolution, I travel everywhere with a plastic goat, 3D-printed in Colorado from Colorado-grown hemp.

In hemp’s fiber lies our next-generation bio-composites and bio-reactor feedstock—plus our food, solar collectors and books. And as the demand grows for all of hemp’s applications (nutraceuticals are a major space at the moment), each acre planted to power this new bio-based economy will remove carbon from the atmosphere. How? By building healthy soil—perhaps our single highest-impact tool for environmental remediation and climate mitigation.

There is, of course, one little step before hemp and other bio-materials buy humanity a couple of centuries to completely work regenerative practices into the economy’s fabric. That step is creating an industry.

After a 77-year break, the hemp industry’s resurgence became possible thanks to Section 7606 of the 2014 Farm Bill, which removed cannabis with less than 0.3 percent THC from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) for farmers conducting research (including marketing research) as part of state hemp programs.

On the ground in 2016, this legislation meant that the nation’s emerging hemp farmers earned a start-to-finish, high-level ninja-training seminar called “Launching an Industry in an Unfriendly Business Climate.” For me personally, just making it to the frozen-fingers-in-the-maple-shack phase feels like one of those accomplishments I’ll someday relate to the grandchildren.

Keep in mind, I had to cultivate in Vermont in the first place because my own governor vetoed New Mexico’s bipartisan hemp bill in 2015, thus pushing this erstwhile regenerative entrepreneur 2,500 miles east. And I’m not the only one: Iginia Boccalandro’s Fat Pig Society co-op in Fort Collins, Colorado, grew a $300,000 crop in its debut season. “I’d love to still be [home] in New Mexico,” she told me. Instead, she and I are building the hemp industry elsewhere—for now.

The Hempire Strikes Back

Given the many potential benefits for the soil and the economy, the modern hemp industry’s early players stood ready to weather Mother Nature’s whims, the evolving-by-the-week patchwork of interim state and federal legislation that allows our existence, and—perhaps most threatening—the ravenous appetite of birds for omega-rich hemp seeds as they mature on the vine. (I spent a fair part of the 2016 season yelling at finches.)

Vermont hemp bird habitat
Vermont hemp bird habitat

Yes, those of us with multiyear game plans, at least, could handle these hurdles. We got our crops planted. We got the harvest in. We worked on preparing the resulting healthy products for folks. The collective mood could be described as “phew.”

Then, on December 14, our public servants in the DEA’s administrative echelons published a rule change surrounding non-psychoactive cannabis extracts. Several of my colleagues called me, rattled, and one big cultivator confessed in social media to being “terrified.”

This category shuffle was evidently in the bureaucratic pipeline for five years. It was a rule notice published in the Federal Register that established a Schedule I code under the Controlled Substances Act for cannabis-plant extracts. The problem with that action, according to Michael Bowman, chair of the National Hemp Association, is that the non-THC parts of the burgeoning cannabinoid industry (including CBD and CBN) were legalized with that 2014 Farm Bill provision.

“The whole of the hemp plant is legal” under the Farm Bill, Bowman said.

Now, few of the dozens of hemp farmers with whom I regularly interact are crazy enough to imagine that a soil-healing, economy-building, tax-base-strengthening new industry, already growing by the double digits and creating hundreds of lucrative jobs, might actually be assisted by our federal government—at least not until we’re the ones buying policy. We just thought we were demonstrating that our rule-following asses were worth leaving alone. The hemp farmers with whom I hang are serious about making every effort to comply with both state and federal law.

Bob Hoban, managing partner at the Hoban Group, the nation’s largest cannabis-focused law firm, notes that “when it comes to the cannabis plant, the facts seem not to matter.” He and other hemp-industry legal strategists are considering a lawsuit surrounding the classification. “This action is not only wrong; it has strong potential to negatively impact hemp farmers and processors who are trying to make a legal living in the real world,” Hoban says.

Speaking for all three families in our Vermont group, called the Family Green, I can tell you there’s a lot riding on this. Like, you know, much of our collective savings.

Indeed, the news was jolting. Fear was not an emotion I expected to feel as a hemp farmer. My youngest son spent his sixth birthday helping with the planting in Vermont. It was a school day, a literal field trip.

Prior to December 14, most hemp farmers I knew in the US felt that the legislative battles were over. Heck, in a 2013 New York Times article, a DEA spokesman stated, “Hemp farmers are not on our radar.”

“Farmers want it,” was how Representative James Comer (R-KY) put it when we spoke at a congressional hemp summit last February.

“It’s insane that I can buy hemp seed in Costco, but farmers can’t commercially grow it here,” Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) said at the same event.

Up in Vermont, we fully believe that federal law allows our cultivation and marketing of hemp, as long as it’s part of the research associated with a state agricultural-hemp program or university. Ours is. So we feel—or should feel—safe.

Within 48 hours of the DEA’s rule-change listing, Eric Steenstra, executive director of the DC-based Hemp Industries Association, sent off a note to HIA’s 500 members stating that the rule “did not change the status of CBD” and that the organization “is ready to take action to defend should DEA take any action to block the production, processing or sale of hemp.”

My colleague Rick Trojan, a fellow who read my book Hemp Bound in 2014 and, two years later, planted 2,500 acres with his Colorado Cultivars operation—only some of which was destroyed by freak hail—said: “We’re watching the new administration policy, but we are not changing our game plan one bit from the one we had the day before the DEA’s rule change.”

Know who else isn’t? Wal-Mart, evidently, where as of this writing you can buy all kinds of healthy CBD products.

Shivering back in in the Green Mountain State, we’re not deterred either. This is a moral issue for the Family Green. One of my farming partners, Robin Alberti, finances her share of our endeavor by waitressing, and she says she explicitly turned to hemp “so my kids will have a way to stay in this beautiful area.”

So we’re processing in a maple-syrup shack and passionately trying to produce healthy products, starting with a hemp lotion and then, next year, adding hemp-seed superfoods.

But the moral imperative isn’t the only reason I’m personally working so hard on this Vermont project, and on all my hemp endeavors around the world. We must succeed because the old agricultural economy is collapsing. Our third Vermont farming family, the Williamsons, make almost no money on their existing hay business. “It’s hardly worth it to plant,” John Williamson told me.

In hemp, close to a thousand Americans to date see an opportunity for farmers worldwide to enjoy economic prosperity in the digital age. Bowman envisions this opportunity coming in the form of an updated Homesteading Act, providing incentives for cultivators, processors and marketers of regenerative crops like hemp.

One way this might work would be through baseline soil testing: rebates, credits or subsidies for every inch of healthy polyculture soil created. However it evolves, sooner or later the official US policy toward hemp on every level will be: “How can we thank you for putting farmers back to work and healing the soil in the process?”

Meanwhile, let’s look at the merits of these administrative shenanigans. Even if you’re one of those folks who’s still afraid of THC, on the same day that the DEA announced the rule change, a National Institutes of Health–funded survey reported that cannabis-use rates among young people declined for the third consecutive year, which the survey’s director called “encouraging and important.”

Which is great. And our hard-working DEA field agents needn’t be bored: Pharmaceutical-drug abuse and heroin epidemics are rampant. Nearly 34,000 people died from prescription opiates in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That’s almost four people per hour—one since you’ve started reading this dispatch.

Hemp’s bipartisan friends in Congress are already thinking beyond the current research provisions. Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY) asked me in the first minute of our first meeting, “Do we need to raise the federal definition of hemp to 1 percent THC?” (Yes, as a start. Tasmania and Thailand have already done this, and it’s important because the arbitrary 0.3 percent THC level for hemp caused 28 percent of Colorado farmers to test “hot” in 2016. This included, within the margin of error of some machinery, good friends of mine on the Western Slope—a couple with two kids—who had just invested in a combine for a crop they wound up not being able to harvest. This cannot be tolerated.)

The author with Rep. Massie and a US-grown, petroleum-free, 3D-printed hemp plastic goat.
The author with Rep. Massie and a US-grown, petroleum-free, 3D-printed hemp plastic goat.

“Hemp is no longer controversial,” said Steenstra of the plant’s support in Congress.

And so it was with the weary sigh of a Drug War field correspondent who has seen this part of the cycle a few times before that I told my Vermont partners what likely comes next: Probably via rider, Congress will get more explicit in its wording to protect hemp cultivation. This will plug the latest gaps that the DEA—a bureaucratic entity seeking to preserve its budget contrary to the well-being of the people it exists to serve—has attempted to exploit. And all this while we wait for the inevitable full commercial legalization of hemp to put the issue to rest once and for all.

Trojan believes that the opposition’s bureaucratic mindset is both its weapon and its weakness. “They’re shooting themselves in the foot with delay tactics that are contrary to law and public opinion,” he says.

But that’s a tough thing to explain to a Vermont farmer with a mortgage, an ’86 John Deere harvester in the field and a slightly newer pick-up truck on the blink. “Oh, it’s Newtonian, John,” I told my partner, surrounded by a lot of hemp and maple syrup. “The bureaucrats act, our allies react. It helps us in the long run.”

To his credit—given that his farm address is our company HQ—John said that he is “not losing any sleep” over this latest mining of the harbor by the retreating Drug Warriors.

Thomas Jefferson Sleeps Better Now

The Family Green team and I were borderline hypothermic (and also slightly euphoric) as we donned our aprons and set to work making a batch of Hemp in Hemp, our sun-grown, farm-pressed Vermont hemp-seed oil, infused with flowers from the same harvest. Sure smells terpene-licious. Smells like victory.

The Family Green Vermont group got more fiber orders than we could fill in 2016.
The Family Green Vermont group got more fiber orders than we could fill in 2016.

And we in the Family Green are not alone in feeling like a success overall: 9,650 acres of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite crop were cultivated in 2016, up from zero in 2012, according to the HIA.

The value of this domestic crop is difficult to assess, because the market is so new. But the North American industry crossed the half-billion-dollar mark last year, according to the HIA, and the CBD side of the US market alone was worth $115 million, according to the Hemp Business Journal.

This is a tremendous achievement for any new industry. Remember that just three years ago, no hemp was legally cultivated in the United States. In 2016, 5,800 outdoor acres were planted in the Rocky Mountain State alone—more than the previous year’s total acreage nationwide. One of those contributing entities is Boulder, Colorado’s EvoHemp, which sold one million all-organic nutrition bars last year and is sourcing its hemp domestically this year. Kentucky’s industry has grown 7,000 percent since 2014—and it’s slated to triple again in 2017.

And that’s with 99.5 percent of American homes having no hemp products in them as yet, according to a Canadian study. In other words, we’re nowhere near market saturation for any part of the plant—fiber, seed or flower.

Our Family Green project in Vermont—which, incidentally, dry-cropped and thus used no irrigation water—has already produced a couple tons of hemp, created two jobs and sequestered close to seven tons of carbon (depending how one measures it). We officially contributed 23 acres to that national cultivation total (really more like 22.5, after accounting for about six different field robberies).

“Now you know what it takes to be an entrepreneur,” as Thornton Melon would say in Back to School. No point whining.

For all the dramatic twists that 2016 provided, the legal hemp industry—despite all the immersion-therapy techniques employed by the universe’s ninja trainers—is undeniably off to an incredible start. Indeed, if you take one thing from this dispatch, I hope it’s this: American hemp is exceeding the most optimistic predictions of three years ago, largely because all the existing offshore prognosticators (as I predicted they would in Hemp Bound) have underestimated the bottom-line value of the American go-get-’em spirit.

We don’t care that 90 percent of new businesses of any kind fail. We’ve been waiting for this moment for much of our lives. Hemp cultivation is legal again, and we believe that this plant will play an integral role in the survival of our species.

If I were to assess the biggest challenge facing the industry, it would have nothing to do with the Drug War’s final battles. Rather, it would be the challenges of scaling up. First off, there’s the essential issue of a steady supply.

“What hurt hemp in its last resurgence in the 1990s was that when a product got popular, there often wasn’t enough hemp to support the growth,” says Edgar Winters, an Oregon farmer who first cultivated hemp in Alabama in 1957. (His grandfather rightly believed that hemp twine outperformed the new synthetic-hay baling twine that to this day pollutes our range lands.)

Can we meet that demand this time around? Rick Trojan thinks so. Colorado Cultivars is expanding from 2,500 acres to 5,000 in 2017, mirroring the industry growth nationwide. He ain’t blinking.

And we’re not talking about just any old kind of growth. For dozens of early players in the modern hemp industry, regenerative growth that benefits the farmer (for once) is key. The business term for this is “vertical integration”: The producer shares fully in the final product’s value. That’s why Boccalandro’s Fat Pig Society operates as a co-op that spreads its revenue back to the farmers who grew the plants. “We’d rather see 1,000 farmers growing 10 acres than one farmer growing 10,000 acres,” Boccalandro says.

So thanks for helping us build this market. Let’s get hemp’s market penetration up to 7 percent by this time next year, so that the percentage of Americans who are farmers increases from today’s 1 percent to at least the 30 percent that existed at prohibition’s inception, if not the 90 percent in Tom Jefferson’s day. Because with more soil caretakers, we have a shot at mitigating climate change. I call that fighting for my family’s survival. That’s why I grow hemp.

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