Hemp Bound: A playbook for the next US agricultural revolution

George Washington grew hemp
CC BY 3.0 VH Hammer

For the past 70+ years, misguided drug policies in the United States have essentially demonized an incredibly useful and versatile plant, and one that is grown around the world for a wide range of products, including food, fiber, fuel, and building materials. That plant, which is all too often mistaken for its psychoactive relative, marijuana, is the humble hemp plant, and it has the potential to be the core of the next agricultural revolution in the US.

But is hemp all its cracked up to be?

Many years ago, my wife worked in a store that sold hemp clothing, bags, jewelry, and other accessories, so I spent a fair amount of time getting to know the products they stocked, and even purchased a few. While there were some decent hemp clothes on the racks that didn't scream "I'm a hippie," most of them still had that heavy canvas feel to them, while at the same time carrying a price tag that seemed way too high for a so-called sustainable fiber. And the hemp products ended up being the ones that gathered dust on the shelves, while the hottest selling items in the store were "smoking accessories" and special teas and drinks meant to help people pass drug tests - not exactly a viable model for building a successful hemp business around.

Although from my own research, hemp seemed to have the potential to support more sustainable agriculture ventures, but I wasn't the only one that took the line "Hemp will save the world" with a grain of salt and more than a fair bit of skepticism. And one big reason behind that hemp pessimism (hempessimism?) was the undisputed fact that the plant was definitely illegal to cultivate in the US for any reason, regardless of its lack of psychoactive components. However, that is rapidly changing, and thanks to some intrepid hempreneurs, we may be seeing a resurgence in the cultivation and processing of this historic plant.

The latest book from Doug Fine, journalist, author, and self-described solar-powered goat herder, takes readers along on his journey to find out if hemp is indeed a miracle plant that could save family farmers and local economies, instead of vaporware or a green swan song from aging hippies justifying their love for cannabis. I got to read a review copy of Hemp Bound: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Next Agricultural Revolution, and found that yes, indeed, hemp can save the world, or at least portions of it, if only we can get beyond the misguided regulations that keep it illegal and undesirable.

"Turns out your Deadhead roommate was right. Sort of. It isn't so much that hemp, useful as we're about to see it is, will automatically save humanity. It's that the worldwide industrial cannabis industry can play a major role in our species' long-shot sustainable resource search and climate stabilization project. For that to happen, the plant must be exploited domestically in ways upon which the marketplace smiles" - Doug Fine, intro to Hemp Bound

In Hemp Bound, Fine talks to a number of people that are actively working to research, test, lobby for, and even grow industrial hemp, ranging from Canadian hemp farmers, hemp materials researchers, biomass energy executives, hempcrete builders, politicians and lobbyists. And while you might initially think that all of these pro-hemp advocates are über-liberal treehugging pot lovers, it turns out that a fair number of them are decidedly not, and are in fact rather conservative and probably not considered under the grouping of 'the usual suspects.'

Industrial hemp has a lot going for it, both for the grower and the consumer, because not only does growing hemp use much less water than similar crops, and doesn't need herbicides, pesticides, or heavy fertilizer applications, but the entire plant can be used to benefit a variety of industries. Hemp seeds can be an important food and oil crop, the plant yields a great eco-friendly textile fiber, the inner fibers (hurds or shives) can be used for construction materials such as hempcrete (as well as used in automobiles), and can even be a feedstock for biomass gasification that could form the basis of sustainable community energy production. And as a big bonus, growing hemp can also be used as a rotation crop to help revive and restore depleted soils, which is a pressing issue in much of America's farmland.

In an interaction with Fine on Twitter, he refers to Hemp Bound as "a playbook" for the coming industrial hemp revolution, and while I could see the huge potential for large-scale hemp cultivation, I was curious how it could play out for the average person, and what we can do to move the hemp economy forward, so I sent him a few questions about those aspects.

Q: When you say (in an author Q&A) "what I'd like to see is local entrepreneurs betting on their communities by building the regional hemp food processing and energy producing models", it sounds like the best actions for moving the hemp economy forward are on the larger scale, but what can the smallholder, market gardener, and home gardener do?

Fine: Hemp is viable from the industrial scale to the home garden. On my own 41-acre goat ranch in New Mexico, just a few acres of hemp will provide the seed oil I already (expensively) put in my morning shake, and the protein cake to feed my mischievous goats, as well as potentially some of the fiber that my girlfriend uses to make our clothes. Medium-scale, for commercial producers, a community processor fed by local farmers each cultivating 10-500 acres each will provide enough hemp oil and fiber that I’d be an eager locavore customer. And, of course, in the heartland, as long as we institute the same GMO ban that Canada has for hemp, millions of acres will only be good for soil, economy and climate.

Q: Assuming the DEA doesn't come running to your garden plot, is it feasible to grow hemp in the garden for a rotation crop and seed crop for food?

Fine: Absolutely. A friend in Canada feeds her pigs nothing but the seed cake that’s left after oil processing plus home compost. I can’t wait to do the same with my goats. Also the DEA isn’t going to raid for hemp anymore. U.S. Senators have been working with our law enforcement professionals to educate them about changes in the law, and the success Canada has had.

Q: How can the average citizen that supports growing the hemp economy work toward a change in policy? Are there specific legislators that we can contact, or advocacy groups that we should be working with?

Fine: Right now the best things to do are, 1) Call your U.S. Senators to make sure they are supporting S. 359, which removes hemp from the Controlled Substances Act (duh) and allows commercial cultivation (which Colorado is doing), 2) Make sure your state passes hemp cultivation legislation, and 3) Buy lots of organic hemp oil and fiber products, and prepare to support a hemp-based publishing industry in future so coming editions of Hemp Bound are literally hemp bound. And a special #4 for investors: support community-based hemp processors that allow the “tri-cropping” technique described in Hemp Bound: oil, fiber and energy independence, in one facility!

If you'd like to learn more about Fine's take on industrial hemp, there's another Q&A with him over at Grist, or you can read more about it at Chelsea Green, and the book is also available on Amazon as well.

Hemp Bound: A playbook for the next US agricultural revolution
Doug Fine, author and solar-powered goat herder, takes us behind the scenes of what could be America's next billion dollar industry: the hemp economy.

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