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Doug Fine: Hemp Will Be the Next Billion-Dollar Cash Crop

It was while studying about the discarded stalks of the cannabis plant that journalist-author-goat farmer Doug Fine realized that industrial cannabis was likely to be a more valuable crop than even psychoactive cannabis. After researching the hemp industry worldwide for two years, he wrote his fourth book, Hemp Bound, which was published one month after the U.S. Congress re-legalized hemp after 77 years. Hemp, Fine says, is a game changing plant that’s going to feed the world and free us from fossil fuels while putting small farmers back to work. The good news, he says, is that the roadblocks to industrial hemp cultivation are collapsing the way Communism did with the Berlin Wall.

Picture drawing of early nineteenth century hemp production from the Netherlands, 1873. Photo credit: Geheugen van Nederland/Koninklijke Bibliotheek via Wikimedia Commons

Earth Island Journal: In Hemp Bound you call hemp’s economic potential bigger than psychoactive (smokable) cannabis, which is already one of the world’s most profitable crops. How big is hemp’s economic potential, and how soon can it take root, now that legalization has arrived federally, in Colorado, and in 10 other states, and appears imminent elsewhere?

Doug Fine: Canada’s hemp economy is already worth a billion dollars annually, and it’s growing 30 percent per year. They can't keep up with demand (especially American demand) in the field or the processors that render the profitable seed oil. Hemp is on. North Dakota, Kentucky, Colorado and California and six other states legalized hemp cultivation in anticipation of this year’s incredibly important legalization of hemp in the federal Farm Bill. The founder of Canada’s biggest hemp oil processor told me during his third expansion in ten years that he will parachute processors into places like Kentucky, North Dakota, Colorado and Hawaii the “moment” hemp is fully legalized domestically, putting thousands of farmers back to work on a crop that earns ten times what wheat does. Hemp will start having a real economic impact this year, thanks to its legalization in the Farm Bill. By the way, hemp’s value was no mystery even during the years of its prohibition: in a 1994 executive order, President Bill Clinton included hemp among “the essential agricultural products that should be stocked for defense preparedness purposes.”

EIJ: Hemp is a highly versatile plant that can be used in a wide variety of applications. What is the most important hemp use that you came across in your two years of across-the-globe hemp research?

DF: The use that addresses the two biggest problems: declining fossil fuel supply and climate change. In Hemp Bound I discuss a community-focused, hemp-based food and energy grid that pieces together the food side of hemp the Canadians have perfected with biomass energy from farm waste—a carbon-friendly technique that is making parts of Europe energy independent. Integrated as a soil-enriching rotation crop, hemp can truly help economically struggling communities while liberating all of us from fossil fuels. And on the food side, I researched university nutrition studies and found that hemp really is amazing super food, high in omegas, proteins and key minerals like selenium. Plus it restores soil health when cultivated as a rotational crop. Forget win-win: hemp is win-win-win-win.

EIJ: What is the most fun use that you encountered?

DF: There are two hemp apps that make me smile any time I think about them and make me want to see, do, and use them again as soon as possible. They are the hemp-powered limo ride I took, and the tractor—and the actual tractor body—I saw made entirely from hemp fiber. Already hemp is in commercial models of BMW and Mercedes.

Doug Fine, the author of the new book
Hemp Bound. Photo credit: Amanda Gorski via Earth Island Journal

EIJ: What are the roadblocks, if any, to the realization of the hemp economy you write about in Hemp Bound? Can people invest in hemp, or any part of the cannabis plant, legally today?

DF: The roadblocks are collapsing the way Communism did with the Berlin Wall. There was very little opposition to hemp’s federal re-legalization this year, with good reason: it’s a vital crop for America to cultivate with great dispatch. China realizes it, as does most of the world. In fact, it’s cultivated in 30 countries. A slight roadblock is that hemp has so far only been legalized for university study in the U.S. This is still a valuable step because during the 77 years that hemp was banned, we lost the best hemp genetics in the world. We need to rediscover which varieties work best in American soil. We also need to pass legislation that permits widespread commercial cultivation of the plant, as they’ve done in Canada. As for investment, what I'd like to see is local entrepreneurs betting on their communities by building the regional hemp food processing and energy producing models I describe in Hemp Bound.

EIJ: You have digerati like Mark Frauenfelder, academics from Rice University, and farmers like Joel Salatin—not to mention the Willie Nelson—praising Hemp Bound. What do you make of the diversity of interest in hemp?

DF: There will come a time when history looks at the 77 years that hemp was illegal in the U.S.—essentially because of a typo—as more ridiculous than legal DDT. We will scratch our heads wondering how, after 12,000 years of widespread human use of this plant, we mistakenly stopped for three quarters of a century.

Today, 80 percent of Americans support hemp, and it has Republicans like Mitch McConnell of Kentucky teaming up with Democrats like Pat Leahy of Vermont. It is an across-the-aisle issue that is bringing Americans closer together in a very patriotic way.

The reason is that legalizing hemp will have a direct impact on America’s struggling heartland farmers. First off, we’re down to one percent of Americans who are farming, and one of the big reasons for that is monoculture has damaged soil and reduced farm profits. Hemp solves this immediately and we will see a major agricultural and entrepreneurial resurgence stateside as we’ve seen happening in recent years in Canada.

EIJ: Why do you say in Hemp Bound that “your roommate with the lava lamp was right about hemp?”

DF: After 22 years in journalism, I'm supposed to be cynical. Yet after studying what’s coming with the hemp economy, I'm suddenly very optimistic about our food, energy and climate future. Because of my experience reporting on hard issues like Rwanda’s war and Burma’s democracy movement, I know when I'm opening myself up to Pollyanna accusations. Really? This one plant is going to revitalize the economy, farming and wean us from fossil fuels? Um, yes. It can, which is different from "it will." I can only report what I saw from several continents' research into the plant on which the Declaration of Independence was written—from a plan to localize energy production from farm waste biomass to an actual tractor made of hemp fiber, it is being done somewhere today. In other words, the lava lamp-sporting roommate’s view on hemp was right: it represents a food, farming and energy revolution.

Hemp for Victory was a 1942 film made by the U.S. government during World War II, explaining the uses of hemp and encouraging farmers to grow the crop.

EIJ: You refer to yourself as a “Neo-Rugged Individualist” and on your Funky Butte Ranch in New Mexico you milk goats, live on solar power, drive on vegetable oil, homeschool your kids and your sweetheart makes many of your clothes, usually out of hemp. How will the legalization of hemp directly affect your life?

DF: The day hemp becomes legal is the day I begin cultivating ten acres of the plant so that my sweetheart no longer has to import from China the material she uses to make the shirts I wear. In a cynical age, we can use one less irony. Also, we as a family already use about $4,000 in hemp products annually, including hemp seed oil in our morning shake and hemp diapers for our kids that hold up best to brutal New Mexico line drying. I want to see those purchases become domestic and local, for price and environmental reasons.

In 1942, the US Department of Agriculture made a wartime propaganda film called Hemp For Victory—hemp for victory, indeed. The promise of this plant and its industrial offshoots are revitalizing my patriotism as well as my optimism about my own kids' future. Both my human and my goat kids, by the way: hemp seed makes superlatively excellent animal feed. In fact, I'm off to milk my goats now.

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