Hemp farmer Doug Fine standing in the midst of his latest crop.
Hemp was legalized in the United States again with the passage of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, which was enacted to help farmers reclaim a plant grown here since colonial days and once a staple American crop. Two years later, there’s still confusion over the future of hemp in this country.
Doug Fine is a hemp advocate of the first order. A journalist, author, farmer and goat herder, Fine lives for hemp. “I love my work and that I’m able to do it,” he said recently from his farm in northern New Mexico. “When I’m out there in the fields before breakfast, it sets my mood for the whole day. Part of it is that l love the work, and part of it is the actual field work of developing a product. I’m surrounded by seeds and notes.”
Fine has a new book out, “American Hemp Farmer: Adventures and Misadventures in the Cannabis Trade,” which is pretty much as the title advertises. It trails his journey through the hemp industry, from author to advocate to farmer, from seed to sale, offering suggestions and thoughts on everything from farming practices to government policy. Its publication follows one of Fine’s earlier books, “Hemp Bound: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Next Agricultural Revolution,” which helped change my way of thinking about hemp.
Fine is still bullish on hemp’s limitless potential and the progress that has been made. “Hey, last year we planted half a million acres in the United States,” he says. “Not that long ago we were at zero.” But he also thinks a couple of things need to happen for the momentum to continue.
The first is most critical: Change the standard for the definition of hemp. Today that number—0.3 percent delta-9 THC (three tenths of one percent) on a dry-weight basis—comes from a 1976 study of cannabis taxonomy and was never intended to be used as a legal distinction. Remember, we’re talking about extraordinarily low amounts of THC—most recreational and medical cannabis in Colorado shops begins at 15 percent and goes up from there—and the simple fact that a plant species shouldn’t be defined on a chemical that can fluctuate based on its growing environment and genetics.
Fine and many others in the industry are pushing the Department of Agriculture to change that number from 0.3 to 1.0. “Right now, it’s a big ask, a huge ask,” he says, but one that could be easily changed. “The immediate goal is a 1.0 THC definition,” he says. “That eliminates 90 percent of these early ‘hot’ tests. Hemp wants THC. Farmers should not be worrying about THC.”
Another ask, this one much more difficult, is to put hemp under the control of farmers, not corporations. “The more generic diversity the better,” Fine says. “The key, for me, is that farmers be allowed to develop and own their choice of genetics— a huge variety is better. Monoculture and the limiting of seed supply is a large factor in today’s agricultural crisis. And we can overcome it with seed diversity and a farmer-controlled industry.“
The ultimate goal, he says, is to drop the THC restrictions on a federal level so there is no difference between cannabis and hemp. “Then states can decide at what THC level a final product going to the public might be regulated for adult use,” Fine explains. “The farmer faces no burden at all.”
Another important consideration is that farmers, not middlemen, need to be in control of production, marketing and distribution. Wendell Berry, the farmer/philosopher, warned Fine about what he calls the wholesale trap. “If everybody grows it [to sell to middlemen and wholesalers], it will eventually drive the price down, and you’ll be in the same fix as the soybean people,” Berry said. “So, you need to be thinking about production control.”
Finally, there has to be a larger market for hemp products that goes beyond the current fad for THC products. Only 1 percent of people know of hemp’s many other uses, Fine says. “People have to be using it, whether it’s seeds or lubricants. Farmers and entrepreneurs need to get more people using hemp as part of our diet and in everything.”
“American Hemp Farmer: Adventures and Misadventures in the Cannabis Trade” is available at bookstores and online.