Annals of Agriculture
Hemp Returns to Humanity
A Grant County writer's journey from Canada to Hawaii to Belgium,
chronicling the rediscovery of hemp
by Doug Fine
Editor's note: The reviewers are glowing about Hemp Bound, the new book from southern New Mexico's own Doug Fine, with none other than Willie Nelson declaring the follow-up to Fine's Too High to Fail ("Going to Pot," August 2012) "a blueprint for the future of America." Joel Salatin calls Hemp Bound "one of the most fun books you'll ever read about the future of farming." With each book, Fine solidifies his position as one of the Land of Enchantment's favorite writers. It was while milking the goats at the Funky Butte Ranch made famous in his Farewell, My Subaru ("Green Acres," March 2008) that Fine learned that even the US Congress seems to be on the bus with Hemp Bound, which is available everywhere this month. Here Fine gives Desert Exposure readers the inside story on his new book.
I'm writing these words 10 minutes after President Obama has legalized hemp. (If you're not yet among the throngs pausing for collective pinching of self and recitation of "God Bless America," you will be pretty soon.) He did this by signing the 2014 Farm Bill, which included a tucked-in bipartisan amendment that allows university research of the crop.
Doug Fine with first legal American hemp farmer
this century, Ryan Loflin of Colorado.
I'm happy for real-world reasons that go far beyond the fact that the president of the United States, together with the Congress, is now, albeit inadvertently, part of the marketing team for my new book. They in fact made the dream expressed in its first paragraph one big step closer to reality.
It goes, "my plan the day hemp becomes legal is to begin cultivating 10 acres of the plant so that my Sweetheart no longer has to import from China the material she already uses to make the shirts I wear in media interviews to discuss the fairly massive economic value of hemp. In a cynical age, we can use one less irony."
Imagine the government doing something that affects your life at all, let alone positively. It's not an exaggeration to say that in humanity's 8,000-year relationship with the hemp plant, this past year has been the most impactful one since the first Paleolithic hunter with blistered feet noticed that hemp's fibers made a stronger sandal than the leading brand.
The American re-embracing of its once most lucrative and important crop was indeed a move for the good of American farming, industry and tax base. This I found when I saw the Canadian farmer and processor profit margin on its hemp harvest. It's 10 times that of wheat. We'll have federal Hemp Appreciation long weekends in February or October some day. But when you take the long-term view, today qualifies as a mark-the-calendar day in human history, not just American history.
It is also long overdue. Just for the record, here's the timeline: Hemp legal, 12,000 years; hemp illegal, 77 years. Just last week, as I write this, a Stanford-led team discovered well-preserved hemp clothes at a 9,000-year-old village site in Turkey. A nice ensemble, in fact, ranging from infant size to big-and-tall.
In the big scheme of things, it was a short, head-scratching separation between humans and their longest-utilized plant. But hemp's reemergence comes at a time when we (I mean as a species) have some catching up to do.
My day job of the past several years (investigating the role of the cannabis plant in humanity's economic and climate mitigation arsenal) has, due to irrefutable evidence, convinced me that it's essential to bring one of our most useful plants back into the economy. I don't think of hemp as having been "legalized" so much as "returning to its normal status."
Doug Fine’s goat Taylor Swift wondering when she can have some omega-balanced hemp seed feed.
And yet two years ago a hemp legalization bill would have been (actually was) laughed out of Congress. In Hemp Bound's fourth sentence, I call the plant's abrupt jolt back into society's toolbox an "astonishing no-brainer." I mean, what crop is a Cheech joke one year and a major agricultural industry sector the next? Hemp agronomy is being taught today at Oregon State. In Hemp Bound I set out to explain why the plant has returned in such a big way and why it matters.
The short answer, according to one of the hemp researchers I interviewed for the book, is that we can't afford not to re-learn the ways to maximize this plant's harvest, and quickly. Here's one real-world example that, for an environmental journalist who has become convinced that petroleum is on its way out, was perhaps the most mind-blowing of the dozens of in-the-market hemp apps I've encountered in my research.
On a bright, subzero morning in Manitoba last year, I found myself sliding into a Canadian research facility and being shown a tractor body made entirely from hemp — hemp that was grown and cultivated just a few miles away. This is about as closed a loop as it gets: powered by hemp, built from hemp (including the sealant that holds the pleasantly contemporary curved hood design together), and doing the work to harvest the hemp and start the cycle all over again. I rapped my knuckles on said hood. I kicked it. Solid.
"Why hemp?" I asked research team leader Simon Potter of Manitoba's Composites Innovation Centre. In Canada, hemp is a billion-dollar industry and is seeing growth of 20% per year.
"Because it's stronger, cheaper and much less energy-demanding than petroleum-based plastics," he said. "These are the industrial components of the future. We have no choice. Petroleum is done."
But a digital-age machine made out of a plant? "We're past the experimental and into implementation with this," Potter said. "You'll be able to buy this product." I suggested a model name of The Hemp Reaper, or my own online handle, OrganicCowboy.
This, and a lot of other very cool stuff, is what I researched for Hemp Bound. At times in encountering hemp popping out like a jack-in-the-box in surprising industries during my four-continent exploration, I felt like James Bond (hemp insulation, hemp body armor) and at times like the first human figuring out clothes (that hemp wardrobe I now wear to most of my interviews and a good deal of my goat milking — it outperforms wool, cotton and even linen as road warrior and as rancher material).
In short, after several years of in-the-field and in-the-lab research (and even though I realize that in declaring this I open myself to Pollyanna or even Chong jokes), I discovered that your roommate with the lava lamp was right about hemp. The thing about non-fiction is that I can only report what I found in the real world.
Hemp, or industrial cannabis, is going to be bigger than psychoactive cannabis (already one of the planet's top-earning crops), both to the worldwide economy and for the advancement of humanity. It can replace at once plastics and fossil fuels, while putting small farmers worldwide back in business on a profitable and soil-enhancing bridge crop and its locally produced applications. Thus Hemp Bound is in many ways a follow-up to my earlier account of my efforts at petroleum-free living and ineffective goat-outsmarting, Farewell, My Subaru.
Hemp's number-one existing application in the New World today (the one enriching Canadians) is its seed oil, which is a genuine omega-balanced superfood. (I visited university nutrition studies on eggs of hemp-fed chickens to seek out and then eat the facts.)
In investigations that didn't feel very much like work, from Hawaii to Belgium, I saw that hemp's stronger-than-steel fibers are already in BMW and Mercedes door panels, I visited Colorado's first legal farmers and fields, and I even got to ride in a hemp-powered limo. You can see short films about all of these on my website.
Hemp Bound also proposes a new, community-based sustainable energy grid paradigm based on carbon-friendly farm-waste combustion. That, to me, is the most important piece of the puzzle. Ya know, just a harvest that can allow us to wean from petroleum. It's already happening in parts of Europe with other crops.
You'll notice I use the verb "can" in the previous sentence. It's a different word than "will." Will it happen? In Hemp Bound I suggest that it kind of must. Here's how I put it in the book's introduction:
"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. No pressure: We fail? We just go extinct. The Earth'll be fine."
Follow Doug Fine on Twitter @Organiccowboy, check out his short films, "Dispatches from the Funky Butte Ranch," and live events schedule at dougfine.com, and pre-order Hemp Bound from any online or atomic bookstore.