November, 2020: Processing Like a Shaman, Winning in the Marketplace
The first food I popped into my mouth when I woke this morning was hemp, and I ate it in a very analog way; an eight-thousand-year-old way. I simply tossed fresh seeds into my mouth. Delicious, of course. Nutrient-packed, as we know, and not at all processed. But not legal, if, for instance, I wanted to send it to a diabetic friend of mine, who might benefit from the anti-inflammatory properties in the hemp seed’s gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). At the moment, you can’t ship “viable” hemp seeds to someone without a state permit because the recipient might save the world with it.
That kind of regulatory reality, of course, is insane, and this is why, as I hear so many of my colleagues fretting over various federal agencies messing around with unworkable regulations, my advice is, “remember, we are the government. We decide. Our administrators work for us. Because we are trying to heal soil and extend humanity’s tenure of the planet, we’ll help our administrators craft the rules that work for us.”
When I make that statement, I’m time traveling to two places: I’m looking ahead ten years to the effective, very light, farmer-friendly policy that we will ensure is coming our way, and I’m looking back eight thousand years. Ya know, to the good old days.
I will never forget that hemp required no regulation for most of human history. At the time of the American Revolution, for instance, the very idea would be properly regarded as the product of a criminal mind. In fact, I was told so by Mount Vernon Interpretive Program Supervisor Deborah Colburn during a visit to George Washington’s estate (I was there to help harvest the first Mount Vernon hemp field in 200 years; I cut myself with a sickle).
As we re-launch hemp following 80 years of prohibition, I’m glad folks are commenting on, pushing back on and even suing over nonstarter policies set in some cases by agencies that aren’t, by law, even in the hemp game any more. We’ll win on these fronts, like we’re winning on every front. Humanity wants its cannabis back: Mississippi just legalized medical. But readers of these Fine in the Field columns know that I am of the large school of farmers who believe that the most effective concurrent strategy is to leapfrog that nonsense and make laws that read unambiguously in a supportive way – laws that allow us, and humanity’s recovery mission, to launch and thrive.
From a tactical standpoint, this means that our first move, right now, is to change the federal THC definition of hemp first to 1% (as measured by delta-9 THC, which folks in the trenches are aware is the friendlier mode), then 3%, and then in five or so years (or maybe in the next Farm Bill) we once again classify all cannabis as one plant, with no “hemp” delineation at the federal level. That allows two crucial improvements: it allows states to land at their own psychoactive THC level of this one plant (cannabis), and, most importantly, it frees farmers from any testing at all until and unless female flower from their crop is going to the public. So let’s get on that.
Back here on the Ranch, thankfully, we can gobble our fresh seed at will. This happens to be a human right (to grow and sustain one’s family on whatever plants one likes). It’s also way folks have eaten hemp for the past eight millennia. Furthermore, can I just say, “Yum”?
But when I grow a hemp crop for commercial product, if I want to ship its bounty to others, I’m mandated by today’s rules to “process” it. “Processing” is not a word I adore, given its association with slices of prepared cheeselike product. It just doesn’t feel true to the fragrant, “double, double toil and trouble” world in which I live when preparing hemp for storage or product.
At all stages of the hemp season, the question I like to ask is, “How has this always been done?” In other words, how did the shaman process hemp? My own bottled hemp, the hemp I eat, the hemp I rub on the ol’shoulders following another day of high desert ranch life, comes about from a very simple process and care of only two ingredients, usually from the same plant: 1) hemp flower, heated in 2) hemp seed oil (“decarboxylated” is the technical term for this heating of flower in a lipid). I grow mostly dioecious hemp, or male and female crops, on the theory that most everyone’s happier when dating.
Now, hemp of course is a big canvas tent. The folks who taught me the nuances of decarboxylation, Iginia Boccalandro and Bill Althouse of the Fat Pig Society organic hemp cooperative in Fort Collins, Colorado, have themselves moved on to cold ethanol processing of their organic farm-to-product harvest. As Bill told me in the new book American Hemp Farmer, “We had to…for the quantity of product that we produce. The uniformity, in sync with the regularity of the planting cycles, all made (cold ethanol) the best option.”
I’m sticking with decarboxylation in cauldrons for now (and at the moment I’m only working my own family’s superfood diet here in the high desert – my entrepreneurial crop to date has been cultivated organically in Vermont). But to my mind, if your harvest is organic and soil building, your entity is farmer-enriching, and your facility is solar-powered, process by whatever means you like, as long as all the plant’s elements remain: I take nothing out, not terpenes from the flower nor lignin from the seeds. I don’t understand this obsession with “clear” versus “cloudy” products. Man, that goop is good! But then I have the luxury of sticking with the shaman’s mode both in my own diet and in my very small batch product. Experts in hemp food products in particular tell me that remaining chlorophyll and lignin can shorten a product’s shelf life. Fine with me.
As a result, it’s a fragrant world in which I’m typing this morning. The hummingbirds woke me as usual – the last of the season are filling up on nectar before migrating (petroleum- and security-free), to Costa Rica. This fragrant world is thanks to the heating hemp: decarboxylation (or “Decarbing,”) is the most ancient way of processing cannabis/hemp. You are, in essence, activating a plant’s cannabinoids through heating. Technically, as the name implies, you’re removing a carbon atom. It’s what happens when you light a spliff or make a CBG cookie.
The reason I start with the “what would the shaman do?” question is that I find that we humans have had things figured out for a long time, in most areas of life. You and I being here attests to that. Thus after harvest, out come the cauldrons (OK, large pasta pots) and so begins another decarbing session. I discuss the nuances of the whole farm-to-table bottling experience in American Hemp Farmer, in the context of recounting a professional run I did in a commercial kitchen with my colleagues in Vermont. But what feels the key takeaway of this morning’s “work” is that I’m a happy man when I am stirring a cauldron, breathing in the essence of cannabinoids for 180 minutes. I think I might have some Druidic lineage.
If you are a regenerative hemp farmer/entrepreneur of any part of the plant, whether your final products include massage oil, toothpaste, socks, rocket parts, superfood, special cannabinoid blends or hempcrete feedstock, I think it’s a wise idea to crow about your enterprise being part of what we might call the solution. Whether it’s petroleum-free harvests, compostable labels on your lovingly processed hemp product, and/or delivery in electric vehicles to a regional network of outlets, if your enterprise is regenerative on- and off- the farm, my prediction is your products will be among the best available in your regional marketplace.
The light, farmer-friendly cannabis/hemp regulation we’re discussing, in the long-run, gives folks who take a “regenerative everything” mindset to the commercial level the opportunity to launch humanity with a promising trajectory into the post-petroleum era. The goal is not just a solar-powered economy worldwide (and by the way the International Energy Agency announced this month that solar power is now the world’s least expensive energy source); it’s a solar-powered world powering compostable cars, space stations, homes and hoverboards with energy stored by hemp batteries. Folks will be outside more, processing that Vitamin D, both because the air will be cleaner and because their hemp (and other superfood) diet staples will help reinforce a health maintenance culture, rather than a health care one.
This is the message that I find emerging at processing time (maybe “emanating” is the verb that best conveys the role that the sense of smell is playing). Enhanced by my family’s sense that we have given ourselves a decent shot at surviving for another year, the memo to my colleagues who market their hemp commercially is this: don’t be cowed by broken cultivation and food regulatory systems. Change ‘em.
Buoyed by having the most bioavailable hemp, the most enriching to the soil, overall the highest quality, most regenerative enterprises possible, you can join the chorus of farmer/entrepreneur voices molding our distinct craft cannabis/hemp sector. Just as craft beer is cleaning up on mass produced beer (gaining one percentage of market share annually, on account of tasting better), I envision our sector (comprised of hundreds of thousands of independent, regionally-distributing farmers of all parts of the hemp/cannabis plant’s architecture) starting out as the industry leader and never relinquishing that lead.
Think living food. Think soil building. Appreciate the plants that are helping keep you alive. And on the business side, I strongly suggest having a multiyear game plan, which is not so easy, one realizes, for farmers with mortgages and other debt. But in a fast evolving landscape in which 99 percent of customers have never bought a hemp product, endurance is almost certainly a component of success. If you do all this, I hope the plant will return to you and yours all you ask and more.
Again influenced by the scents and Omegas coursing through my body, I’d like to end this month’s column by thanking the very plants who are at this moment allowing my body to convert seed to energy, and not just that: good energy. Each morning at this time of year as I watch the courting raven gymnastics while I stretch with the rising sun, it feels like something is missing from the field blow the Ranch house. And each day it occurs to me anew: it is the hemp plants. They are not gone. They are in jars and in my belly, or in the case of the fiber, in stacks in advance of becoming a hempcrete patch for the porch.
It was just a month or two ago that I was jamming with the plants and they were dancing with me. Many were taller than I and most were taller than my sons. I am so acutely appreciative for the nutrition, the education and the downright fun of spending part of every day in a hemp field for half a year. At certain times in the season, when I stretched in the field I felt I could almost see each plant growing.
Having cabinets full of seed and flower, cleaned by my sons and myself in a colander-shaking rhythm that reveals how zydeco music came about, provides an affirming message that life will continue and good health, heaven-willing, can be maintained. Thus I work for plants, fungi and other unnamed kingdoms, invisible to us but some day widely thanked alongside clean air and water.
About Doug Fine
Doug Fine is a comedic investigative journalist, bestselling author, and solar-powered goat herder. His latest book is American Hemp Farmer: Adventures and Misadventures in the Cannabis Trade (Chelsea Green Publishing, April 2020). He has cultivated hemp for food, farm-to-table products and seed-building in four U.S. states; You can register for his online regenerative hemp course with Acres USA here. Willie Nelson calls Doug’s work “a blueprint for the America of the future.” The Washington Post says, “Fine is a storyteller in the mold of Douglas Adams.” A website of Doug’s print, radio and television work, United Nations testimony, and TED Talk is at dougfine.com and his social media handle is @organiccowboy.