By Doug Fine

Fine In the Field – August 2020

A regular column by author and gonzo hemp farmer Doug Fine

Fine in the Field - a column by author and hemp farmer Doug Fine

August, 2020: The Finish Line is In Sight: Final Steps If Hemp is Going to Save Humanity

I admit it: I find it cool that I can confidently write, “hemp cleans up radioactive soil.” Not, “I heard it does,” or “I wish it did,” or even “someone told me they used it at Chernobyl.” It actually does, according to a study being presented this month. I’m pleased to report that I provided the hemp for the study.

Last week I received word that researcher Hanah Rheay at New Mexico State University (under the guidance of Professors April Ulery and Catherine Brewer), is reporting in her American Society For Horticultural Science conference presentation on August 10 that she is seeing initial success in uranium uptake from contaminated mining soil planted with a hemp variety that I’ve been developing for five seasons. The plants do most of the work, actually. It’s pretty amazing.

The results are preliminary and research continues, but to see hemp confirmed as a phytoremediator of radioactive soil is certainly promising news. As I reported in my book American Hemp Farmer, in a first-phase study at the University of Hawaii, hemp is also removing 80 percent of the herbicide atrazine in soil, 50 days after planting.

More on both of these somewhat earthshaking (maybe the better word is earth-cleaning) studies as research continues. For now, fellow primates, just know that you, cultivating on small or large acreage, can help save humanity. You can grow superfood, rocket components, health maintenance compounds and green home building feedstock while sequestering carbon and removing toxins from soil. That is, if you grow outdoors, organically building native soil. That means not plugging your earth-saving plant into trucked-in soil through plastic sheets. For heaven’s sake, there are dozens of healthy weed matting methods for every ecosystem and climate – ones that humans have been using for millennia. I use seasoned alfalfa hay with goat poop topping. Enough with the petro-plastic already. It’s not needed.

So at this exciting moment, it might seem like this week’s Fine in the Field column’s theme is another example of a plant having the strong potential to play a role in expanding our species’ tenure on this planet – that is, using hemp at scale to clean up the twentieth century’s mistakes and forge forth into what we plant-based-economy advocates call the New Biomaterials Era. But actually this column’s theme is “we must change the federal THC definition of hemp to 1% immediately.” (THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the psychoactive component of the cannabis/hemp plant.) That’s because all the soil cleaning and superfood growing might depend on a policy tweak happening before October 31.

You see, all cannabis/hemp varieties want some THC – the same way that our blood wants hemoglobin. Hemp has evolved with its 110 known cannabinoids, of which THC is one, for a variety of purposes, including predator defense, climatic adaptation, and pollinator attraction. And also, as Michael Pollan asserts in Botany of Desire, to please us apes.

And yet the current definition of hemp at the federal level – the THC definition that allows only some varieties of cannabis (for the moment) to be pulled from the Controlled Substances Act and be regulated as the agricultural products that they are, is unworkably low. As I mentioned in American Hemp Farmer, the .3% THC definition now in place under federal law was described by the Canadian researchers who chose it in a 1976 paper as an “arbitrary” level. The end result in the ground 44 years later is that 30% or more of hemp tests are going mildly hot (meaning beyond .3% THC by dry weight) in the early years of the modern industry. Most hot tests do not exceed 1%. Mine never have.

And here we return to cleaning the world’s immensely stressed soil and saving humanity. My cultivar, when I’ve grown it or provided it over the past two seasons, has passed its THC test 80% of the time. It tested at .1% and .25% here in New Mexico last year, and it tested at .29 in Oregon in 2018. But sometimes it tests a bit higher. And when I say a bit, I mean a very tiny bit. It’s hard to overstate the small levels of THC we’re discussing here – even 3% or 4% THC would not be anything close to dispensary THC levels, yet we’re dickering over percentages less than 1%?

We were at .54% in a North Dakota research plot in 2019. In rejecting the cultivar for farmers because of this absurd .3% ceiling, the researcher who conducted the study wrote me this super flattering note about my cultivar’s kick-butt performance in the field: “It was interesting to note that emergence of (your cultivar) at Langdon and other locations was the highest of all hemp cultivars. Emergence of hemp from the soil is a challenging issue and (your cultivar) seems to have a definite advantage in this area.”

Whoo hoo! Let’s get its superfood, fragrant flower, healing roots and strong fiber in the hands of farmers and grow, say 89 million acres of it (so we equal corn acreage, as a start). Oh, wait, I forgot: we’re subjecting farmers to insanely unworkable conditions. North Dakota’s solution? Offer farmers varieties that didn’t grow as well as mine. Ladies and gentlemen, that is no way to launch an industry.

Bottom line, with identical genetics (literally the same batch of the same seed), my COAs (Certificates of Analysis, which show the results of professional lab tested hemp samples) vary from .1 up to, one time, frighteningly close to .8 percent, though that was a very late planting in stressed soil in Arkansas. This proves that environment is hugely important in cannabinoid production. Duh. You plant a tomato in rich Oregon soil, it is going to have a distinct nutritive profile from the same seeds planted in the Sahara or subarctic.

This is just one example of why we have to change the THC definition of hemp to 1% posthaste: our immediate future as a species is at stake. U.S. farmers know that much of their farmland is sick — they have to dump more than twice as much nitrogen on each year as they did in 1964.¹ Europe has 3 million contaminated sites, the United States has 1,300 Superfund sites, and China estimates that 20 percent of its soil is polluted.²

Now, I’ll grant that planetary human survival is a legit topic. But at the moment I’m thinking more of next month’s mortgage for thousands of farmers who have risked everything to join the hemp renaissance. There were 16,877 permits issued in the U.S. last year, and for many of these farming families, their living depends on their hemp field. We should be making cannabis/hemp cultivation as easy as possible for these humanity-extenders. Worry-free hemp farming it should be, and worry free it will be.

At the moment, and I mean as you read these words, thousands of hemp farmers, myself among them, are sweating: it’s state inspection time of year in the final days of .3%. We’re all on our annual pins and needles as to how our samples are going to come back. For crying out loud, even the time of day when the samples are taken is a factor in THC levels, as it the type of testing equipment used.

Our grandchildren will laugh at our early hemp industry war stories. Dandling on our knees, they’ll ask, “The government spent money to come to our farm and test the crop for cannabinoids? For what possible purpose?”

Real people, like my friends at Salt Creek Hemp in Colorado in 2017, have lost their whole harvest on an arguable .34% test. That year, 30% of samples in Colorado and Kentucky tested hot. Folks, 1% is nothing. It needs to happen, and it needs to happen now. The war on cannabis is over. Cannabis won. Get over THC. If you don’t want to burn ganja, don’t. But in the field, it’s irrelevant.

And here’s why 1% needs to happen yesterday. On October 31 (appropriately enough), unworkable USDA hemp regulations kick in. Among the onerous provisions in these Interim Final Rules (IFR) is one that subjects a hemp farmer to federal narcotics prosecution at the unconscionable level of .5% THC. That means if a farmer grows my cultivar (or one of dozens of varieties like it), if she’s a good farmer, she has a 20% chance of being exposed to legal problems, rather than being profoundly thanked for her environmental work and patriotism. After all, hemp has, since 1994, been declared by executive order to be one of the nation’s “essential agricultural products” that should be stocked for defense preparedness purposes.³ She might be endeavoring to grow a healthy salad topping, a regenerative truck part or rocket component, a cannabinoid wellness tincture, or, as in the phytoremediation project for which I’ve been providing the genetics, trying to clean up toxins like uranium.

At this point, you might be saying, “How dare they put up any roadblocks to this plant?” But I’d like to be fair and say that when I speak to USDA folks who are involved in rulemaking, they’d like to see hemp succeed. To some degree, their hands are tied by the .3% definition, which is in federal law and so needs to be updated by congress. But the menacing IFR is really our catalyst to change that law. In congressional testimony, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has adopted an apologetic tone for undue influence from enforcement agencies when crafting the initial IFR. Such agencies — such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)  — were explicitly removed from hemp policy when hemp was legalized in the 2018 farm bill. Plus, the hardworking folks at DEA have opioid, meth and prescription drug crises to tackle. Hemp – and soon all cannabis – is out of federal law enforcement purview.

But there it is: the USDA’s IFR under current federal law pretty much shuts down the industry. It’s a non-starter. Easy fix, though. Before that IFR kicks in on October 31, Congress must act and change the definition of hemp to 1%. Then those IFR provisions are leapfrogged and our state hemp administrators are freed from burdening farmers with ridiculous tests. And then, in turn, we can launch this industry, rebuild rural America and mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon with regenerative farming practices. The win-win for customers resides in the superior, healthy products.

By the way, both major national farmer groups support raising the THC definition of hemp: the Farm Bureau and the National Farmer’s Union (in fact the NFU wants 3%). And the 1% move is an international phenomenon. Last week Ecuador joined the growing worldwide 1% team, alongside countries like Switzerland and Thailand, and multiple states in Australia.

What can you do? If you’re in the industry or love those who are, don’t merely sign the petition that the folks at Vote Hemp have set up. Please also call your Senators and congressperson and say, “No joke: my grandkids’ future depends on a 1% THC definition of hemp now. Add it to the forthcoming relief bill. It must happen by October 31.”

As for the IFR, you voice matters here, too, and USDA administrators recognize that there are serious problems with the document – the criminal risk at .5% is just one issue among many. And the good folks at the USDA have already delayed implementation of some onerous testing provisions that would have forced farmers to only use DEA-approved labs for cannabinoid sampling. But there is only so much that can be fixed in those regulations by October 31. You can comment and specify that all the enforcement wording must be removed, leaving any “enforcement” provisions to states. But the simple legislative tweak to a 1% definition must happen regardless, so please get on the horn with your federal representatives.

Back home in the Funky Butte Ranch at this time of year, the hemp is growing visibly every day. In the daily inspection of the crop that also serves as my morning stretch and trichome inhalation session (sometimes I’ll even honk my saxophone at the plants), I’m astounded each day in August by a sort of “my little babies are all grown up!” realization. The males and females are courting. And next week I’ll send off my official state samples, one of the final years a farmer will ever have to worry about .3% THC in his or her hemp crop. Wish me luck. Wish us all luck. There’s a lot of soil to clean up.

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, will be offering an online regenerative hemp course with Acres USA in the fall. 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.

  1. Jenny Hopkinson, “Can American Soil Be Brought Back to Life?” Politico, September 13, 2017, https://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2017/09/13/soil-health-agriculture-trend-usda-000513.
  2. “Report Sounds Alarm on Soil Pollution,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, May 2, 2018, http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/1126971/icode/.

  3. Renée Johnson, Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, July 24, 2013), https://www.everycrsreport.com/files/20130724_RL32725_b2a91097ba168413aa8806f6bc5215fa20ee97de.pdf.