December, 2020: Announcing The Game Seven Line-up For Humanity: Gregor Mendel, Terroir, And Many Small Farms Vs. Gene Markers, Poor Soil, and More Farmer Serfdom
Each year at the peak of summer my sons and I find ourselves out in the hemp field, clutching baby toothbrushes and delicately spreading sticky grains of pollen on our plants’ flowers. Sometimes we have to stretch skyward to reach a cola‘s corona (that’s the crown of the peak flower). Often we’re sharing the plants with both honeybees and native bees (both varieties especially love the male flowers, which I mention for those who recognize pollinators’ role in our species survival). It is, for all species, a fragrant job.
Becoming a human pollinator requires no pre-requisite skillset except for an unflagging desire for one’s own family to be healthy and for humanity to survive. That’s not just a personal philosophy; it’s a professional one. It results in the highest quality hemp. And it provides plants and plant-derived products that, if the many small farmers who craft them can effectively educate customers, win hands down in the marketplace. Visualize #DoneWithMcCrap as a movement.
Out in the garden with our brushes, the only large-scale crap we encounter is organic goat poop. Although we’re taking an active role in the field, we’re aware that the plants know what to do without our help. We’re chill with them living as they please, in their evidently thriving neighborhood comprised of the local soil microbes, our regional pollinators and the rest of the multi-species family on the Funky Butte Ranch here in the high desert.
We’re just trying to gently nudge the hemp toward producing, each season, a few more of the characteristics we would like to harvest for our own superfood diet, health-maintenance program, and hempcrete porch repair. Eventually, when policy catches up, we’d love to get them to other farmers who may also enjoy those characteristics in their harvests.
This is breeding, Gregor Mendel style. It (buzzing like a bumblebee with the people you love most) is also a really fun activity on a toasty summer morning. It’s how farming has been done for 8,000 years. It’s why we have carrots, pears and avocados that taste the way they do, and it’s why I recommend all of us get the food we don’t personally raise, not just our hemp, from our region’s organic farmers.
In this frame of mind, with this farming and entrepreneurial philosophy, it was strange to come inside one day over the summer, hop on a call with some university folk interested in these very genetics on which we’ve been “working,” and learn that some academics who are not farmers are, sigh, again attempting to create genetic markers to tell us whether our hemp is, um, hemp.
Let me tell you how interested I am in that process (I won’t call it a development): not at all. Repeat memo to academia and to everyone who hasn’t yet received versions 1 through 42, nor looked out their window lately and noticed climate change and obesity and diabetes epidemics: we’re not doing agriculture like that anymore. Not the top-shelf, regenerative craft hemp farmer/entrepreneurs who comprise the heart of the new industry, anyway.
The reason? This mode of lab dictated genetics would result in inferior hemp and health. What we regenerative farmers aim for, because we are confident it is the best mode for both quality and farming communities (not to mention soil and wider human health) is a broad and diverse array of regional genetics, developed and owned by farmers.
Terroir is the term for this important marketplace variety that we see in other high-value crops like wine and in farm-based delicacies such as top-shelf cheese. If you’re not already on the support-your-region’s-regenerative-hemp-enterprises-even-if-it-means-an-extra-step-beyond-the-supermarket-or-box-store train, I’ve got some good news for your taste buds and your body’s built-in, ready-to-go endocannabinoid system: get ready for vintage, top-shelf hemp. We’re talking entire sections of stores filled with all parts of the plant – even entire stores. It’s already happening. I can get regional hemp at my local food co-op in New Mexico, for instance.
At the supermarket, one might expect every Wheat Thin to look just like every other Wheat Thin. But in our already industry-leading craft hemp market, customers are, as we speak, looking for varietals that will vary from year to year and from region to region. These are the products to bring to a wedding dinner, and to feed your family for maximum bioavailability. And the niche is going to help revive rural communities worldwide.
Whenever I get to this point, I always think of something that South Carolina farmer Nat Bradford, scion to one of the oldest watermelon growing families in the United States, told me (he also grows okra and hemp): “When my great-great-grandparents were breeding their favorite varieties a hundred and fifty years ago, they didn’t select based on sweetness spectrometer analysis or focus groups. They sliced up melons and choose the ones that tasted best to them.”
Your hemp, in other words, couldn’t be grown anywhere else. A Vermont hemp harvest will taste different from a New Mexican or Ghanaian hemp product. You wouldn’t want a uniform taste in every variety of Sonoma wine. In American Hemp Farmer, Chad Rosen of Victory Hemp Foods told me that one of his challenges and pleasures as a superfood purveyor is that there isn’t yet any firm hemp taste profile. My take is, what an opportunity! What an advantage for independent purveyors! Vive la difference is one of the rallying cries for digital age farmer success — in any crop.
As every farmer should, I believe that my own seeds rock – they serve up a distinct and magnificent nutty taste explosion that conjures 1970s Hawaiian V-8 commercials. I love our harvest’s nutritive profile as well – the seed meal had north of thirty percent protein when we tested it. Just as beautiful to me is this reality: one state over, one county over, even one valley over, a farming family’s taste and nutritive profiles, building on their own soil neighborhood’s microbial brew, will have its own set of characteristics.
This is, of course, not a breaking news bulletin for farmers. It would be a winemaker’s most unimaginable nightmare, for instance, to have anyone, inside or outside of a lab, tell her what grape genetics are best for her soil. The best vintners (and okra farmers and hemp farmers) work on this, year in and year out, in their specific microclimate and soil, for decades. It is their primary work project. It is their IP, their children’s health care plan. Mine, too.
The takeaway here is that the previous century of agriculture has been an aberration that has impoverished farmers, soil and human health. We early modern regenerative hemp farmers are prepared to reverse this, with pleasure. With tiny pollinating brushes, alongside the bees. Which is to say, we will develop our own genetics, unhindered, thank you very much.
Sorry to cut the herbicides, the shipped-in nutrients, and the academics out of the process, but that last crew has options: you can bring top-shelf farmer/breeders on as your bosses, or you’re free to research mass junk genetics of the kind that left us with tasteless, modern GMO wheat, pesticide-soaked corn syrup, and the resulting gut problems and obesity crises. That choice, though, we regenerative farmers humbly assert, lands firmly on the wrong side of history.
See, we farmers own our top-shelf seeds, and while most folks in general, including most academics, are honest, respectful folks, we’re wise to any attempts to co-op our genetics in the name of tenured “research.” This time the farmers are in charge. Academia and Wall Street, if and when involved in the regenerative agriculture renaissance, work for us. Make no mistake, thousands of farmers like myself aim to get the best genetics out widely and, to put it simply, feed the world. But many of us are doing it on our terms, with a sort of open source mentality. You can replant our seeds for your products (you bought them, they’re yours), but if you market the genetics, you pay a royalty.
As we have discussed in the past here in the Fine in the Field column, a farmer might get this initial reaction upon proposing a change in a professional relationship structure, farm economics or regulatory protocol: “But that’s not how the agriculture system has been done lately.” To this, the farmer might reply, “How’s that been working out for the planet’s farmers and soil?”
Remember, we have a Farm Aid, not a Hedge Fund Aid or a Tenured Departmental Head Aid. As Bill Althouse, cofounder of the Fat Pig Society organic hemp cooperative in Fort Collins, Colorado is always reminding me (and not for the first time in this column), “Today’s farmers get about three cents of every retail dollar from their crops. Our goal is a hundred cents, less expenses.”
The rub, although I can’t believe I even have to state something this obvious, is, hemp farmers are the folks who, um, know hemp. As Michael Pollan put it in Botany of Desire and as I also seem to cite fairly often, “America’s cannabis/hemp farmers are the best gardeners of my generation.”
We encourage, for instance, the minute differences in terpenes, cannabinoids and flavonoids that your microbiome will provide in Iowa versus mine in New Mexico. In fact, our regenerative craft cannabis/hemp business plans explicitly call for these variations.
Make no mistake, a craft market is the future of cannabis/hemp. If we’re wise, regional, regenerative thinking is the future of the worldwide economy; hemp is just showing the way. Thanks for assisting us with this, but staying the heck out of what we grow. Unless, of course, you would like to join the large and increasing hemp team and become a regenerative farmer yourself. In that case, welcome aboard.
This latest attempt to bring hemp gene into the lab follows another cockamamie (and thankfully short-lived) one a decade ago where “researchers” thought they might inject a neon-y yellow gene marker into a hemp plant to show that it really was hemp – as opposed, one supposes, to turnips. Yum: fluorescent hemp. That one was quickly called off, thankfully. And the latest efforts should be ignored as well. Among the many additional reasons for this is that we farmers are rapidly changing the ludicrous and recent definition of what hemp is. We don’t need chemists or technicians to help us define hemp. We need them to buy our hemp harvests and tell their friends.
The win-win, if you haven’t heard, is saving humanity: cultivating regenerative hemp outdoors, under the sun and in native soil is one of the best single actions anyone can take to sequester carbon and mitigate climate change. A growing body of research suggests that each cubic inch of topsoil we restore of the world’s farmland sequesters up to three billion tons of carbon annually.
With that as a motivation you can perhaps see why thousands of farmers like me who are aboard the regenerative hemp train are not going to bow down for a second to placate folks looking backwards. If last century’s agricultural regulatory modes worked, if folks worldwide were getting healthier and carbon emissions were being reduced by, say 90%, then maybe we’d talk about continuing this model. You know, the one that treats farming families, when they are considered at all, like third class serfs, buried in a constant debt cycle.
As things stand, folks aren’t getting healthier and carbon emissions aren’t being rapidly reduced (though they were down 7 percent in the lockdown year of 2020), so our advice is to follow us regenerative farmers as we take charge once again. Or else retire and make room for practices that are going to allow for humanity’s successful emergence from its petrochemical phase.
In many ways we’re talking about an updated return to the successful period before “better living through chemistry.” It’s how the whole planet operated without supermarkets and stock exchanges. And a refocused economic leadership modus operandi can only do a better job than McAg has done. It’s Game Seven for us all. Bottom of the ninth.
This column is a bulletin for everyone steering into the hemp wormhole: as long as you’re aware that your business decisions might play a role in whether your grandchildren have a place to live, we’re on the same team. In particular, I hope folks who lean to the “entrepreneur” side of the farmer/entrepreneurial model remember that we’re all soil farmers now. And, since it was the disconnect between my reality in the field and a project in a lab that spurred this column, a special part of the dispatch goes to our friends and colleagues who have decided to make what you might call an old-school career in academia: if you’re in this category and are wondering, “OK, where exactly are we residing if we’re no longer living in the ‘better living through chemistry era’?,” here’s the update: we’re living in the “survival through soil building” era.
Too many of us who are caretaking soil have caught on to those minority of academics who are really in the funding and prestige game. We don’t care about departmental grant writing opportunities unless the end game is forward-looking and farmer-led. In other words, please don’t merely ask for our knowledge and seeds (AKA our IP), if the end game is intended to benefit primarily you or your institution. As the owners of our side and expertise, we farmers profit from the success of our work. An academic already gets a salary. And job security. Whether or not it hails on the crop.
The reason this discussion carries some urgency is that we’re talking about the whole grandkids-having-a-habitable-planet thing. Yours and mine. Just that. By way of proposing an alternative to the old way of doing farm research, in my earlier book Hemp Bound, I suggested a Digital Age Homesteading Act:
If I held the USDA purse strings (or its equivalent in any nation), I would direct tons of energy, human power, and funding toward a Digital Age Homesteading Act that incentivizes a surge in independent hemp production and other soil-building crops that provide healthy food. The idea fits seamlessly with all this talk of a Green New Deal. It also rebuilds rural communities while all the climate mitigating is under way.
I wasn’t going to write a column that touched on this latest gene marker stuff, which despite the modern-sounding test-tubing of a plant, is the ultimate in antiquated thinking: I mean, its messaging is basically, “Hey, let’s develop just a few varieties of official hemp, since monoculture has worked so well with corn and soy and human health.”
For one thing, no need to draw attention to this kind of nonsense. But my goal isn’t to censor it. My aim is to inspire us to ignore this kind of thinking so its ilk stops getting funding and goes away, like fluorescent hemp; like all bad ideas.
See, my main interest is enriching the regenerative farmers whose work is going to play a key role in extending the duration of our residence on Earth. To that end, I’m highlighting a situation to avoid: non-farmers trying to dictate to farmer/entrepreneurs what and how to grow.
Again reiterating that many academics I’ve met or worked with in the half-decade I’ve been cultivating hemp are honest, diligent and already open to the regenerative farming renaissance (indeed some, such as Charlotte Rosendahl of Sterling College in her work with soil microbes and in her support of farmers, are at the vanguard), too many of my fellow farmers have confirmed three glaring and troubling realities in the status quo of farm and food research:
1) Many researchers never give a thought to either the health of farming communities or to the health of soil. In the ground, studies are often influenced by funders, focused solely on yield (regardless of the inputs involved) or even seemingly geared toward pre-conceived click grabbing.
2) Sometimes the folks “supervising” the research, in powerful, very well-paid positions at their institutions, know jack-diddly about hemp, or regenerative farming at all. Or, dang, on occasion, even how a plant’s biology works.
This might be what surprises me most in some of my interactions with academia in recent years. If you find yourself mid-career in that kind of situation, why not go into another field, so to speak? One fairly prominent researcher told me his graduate students apply glyphosate in between research trials to “clear the deck.” Carcinogens, my friend, are not a control group. Back to undergraduate school for you (if not kindergarten). Let’s not mince words: living soil means humanity continues. We don’t have time for anything else.
And then, finally, there is this:
3) The financial exploitation of farmer knowledge and IP. To a guy whose slogan is, “this time the farmers are in charge” (including when it comes to genetics), it is anathema when ivory tower dwellers, already paid and tenured, want a cut of the action. I was recently told that if I were to give fifty percent of the rights to a cultivar I’m developing to a university, the affiliation might be used in exchange for a route to a certification stamp. Man, even the mafia at its height didn’t demand that kind of cut. And I was actually told to be happy: normally this institution demands all of the farmer’s IP. It’s evidently just the standard way they do business.
Sorry, guys, we’re doing it differently this time. We tried farmer debt serfdom for a century. It didn’t work. It broke rural communities worldwide and poisoned the world.
The lesson from the above three realities, my fellow hemp farmers, is, don’t be flattered that a tenured academic at a well-known college wants to collaborate with you. He should be flattered that a humanity-extender like yourself has time to speak with him. As should any investor, no matter how well-heeled. And I’d suggest not providing seeds unless you sign paperwork that you provide, and not any institutional paperwork with the tiniest red flag in it.
I learned from my own mentors (and now co-breeders) at Winterfox Farms in Oregon what a good materials transfer agreement (MTA) looks like. It’s likely a good move to get on that as well. Even then, I’ve sometimes found I’ve have to watch the researchers using my genetics closely, be persistent to get agreed-upon updates, and issue reminders that our written agreement prevented their replicating my IP without a further agreement.
United, of course, we farmer/entrepreneurs have power. If we use it to change how genetic certification is done, fine. I’m all for grown-up upgrading from broken systems. To name just one key point, growing food is a human right. It can’t be patented. The long nightmare of cannabis prohibition is over. Its three-generation duration is to our advantage: We can shape this industry any way we like.
If you are a researcher (or entrepreneur) interested in the myriad benefits of cannabis/hemp, you don’t have to be born with the knowledge. A good start, if you want to work with an experienced regenerative hemp farmer, is simply to do a rare thing: be humble about it. Enter into relationships where farmers are the managing partners.
Another good step for interested academicians or enterprises is to document your goals. The following holds true whether for-profit, not-for-profit, cooperative, B-corp. or research-based: if a project aims to provide, for instance, soil knowledge, or protein-rich seeds, to large numbers of independent farmers with an open source outlook, that’s promising.
I mention protein for a reason: If you’re doing hemp research, I hope many folks will steer it toward superfood characteristics and fiber properties, and not just cannabinoids (which of course are also wonderful and important). Food and fiber crops derive from dioecious (male and female) hemp, which will soon, let us pray, be grown outdoors in the millions of acres.
And a third key item that I believe is very wise for anyone considering any form of cannabis/hemp research to post with a hemp-paper stickie on their monitor: YOU CAN STOP WORRYING ABOUT THC. The war on cannabis is over. Cannabis won. When it comes to THC definitions, please operate with this awareness: cannabis/hemp will soon be returning to its eight millennia-old definition: namely, it is only the farmer’s business what is in her crop, unless a harvested female flower will be going to market at or above a locally determined THC threshold.
Federal THC definitions of “cannabis” versus “hemp” are going away. This, of course, further makes this gene marker balderdash irrelevant. We want to see what comes up out the ground local, in our unique soil, as we breed like Augustinian monks (that was Mendel’s day job). Reality, for those thinking about the coming cannabis/hemp markets, means focusing on field performance (not just yield but nutrient density) in sync with concurrent soil building.
As I mentioned in a previous Fine in the Field column, this next stage in policy can’t come too soon for a world immersed in multiple health crises: I was told by researchers in one 2019 field study that my cultivar performed the best in their northern state study, but that they couldn’t recommend it because it tested mildly hot (which, by the way, it never has done when I’ve cultivated it). So for now, not just farmers but customers will be offered inferior food because of incredibly minute variations in THC under an insane and arbitrary launch definition. On December 15, just as I was finishing this column, Senator Paul of Kentucky introduced the Hemp Economic Mobilization Plan (HEMP) Act of 2020. Guess what? It raises the definition of hemp to 1%. Early reactions from colleagues of mine with strong congressional relationships have expressed uncertainty as to whether this bill will gain traction, and it has a few clauses in other areas that could be improved, but I mention it here because we’re already seeing 1% THC legislation introduced. It’s going to happen. Let’s make it happen. If you haven’t already, please sign the Vote Hemp 1% THC letter here.
Cannabis is cannabis, whether .7 percent THC or 19 percent THC resides in the female flower at harvest. THC, in fact, is irrelevant in the field, always, and irrelevant off the field until the retail level. Recognizing this somewhat obvious farming reality (in what other crop are farmers asked to hamper their crop’s performance out of fear of one compound within?) is one reason why Chinese fiber has the lead in the early hemp market: the plants are grown for fiber performance, without worrying about hypothetical THC in a flower that’s not going to market.
When farmers are not stressing over THC field tests, they can focus on what matters. And what matters are, 1) How your crop performs in its fiber, seed, and/or flower production, and 2) How much carbon you sequester in your regenerative farming techniques.
Moreover, please, everyone, always remember that her crop’s entire entourage effect, the balance of its cannabinoid/terpene/flavonoid/protein/mineral profile, is the farmer’s IP, the way that the iOS is iPhone’s IP. The last thing she would allow is any lab determining whether that IP meets some kind of far-off hemp definition. We are the in-the-field-researchers conducting R and D with every brush of pollen. To have anyone outside our field try to edit our crop would be like a non-techie regulator in 1977 advising Steve Wozniak what components to put into the first Apple computer. Obviously he’d tell that bureaucrat to stay the heck out of Silicon Valley brainstorming.
Our hemp work is of the same model. In American Hemp Farmer, I wrote, “Change being the only constant, what I like to emphasize is that hemp’s potential is so amazing, with previously unimagined applications appearing annually (witness hemp’s ideal molecular structure at the nano level for digital age applications like next generation supercapacitors), nothing going on inside a plant’s brain will surprise me. I feel safe declaring that a market sector not even in existence today will emerge by 2030. I hope those recyclable, next-generation hempen battery components come into play, a hempseed diet craze emerges, and a bunch of next-wave cannabinoid-terpene combinations bring about the final demise of the cancer cell.”
That means diversity, not monoculture. If we humans are clever, we’ll create conditions that ensure that tens of thousands of hemp varieties comprise a vibrant cannabis/hemp economy, not a few cultivars created by would-be patent holders holding farmers in another century of serfdom. This philosophy that we farmer/entrepreneurs espouse, in practice, is a return to the thinking that built America. Out on the prairie, Pa Ingalls was not indentured to the wheat company from which he bought his seed. Seed saving is part of the traditional farming process.
Sure, if you want to buy your genetics from a seller offering seeds cheaper than an open-source provider does, with the stipulation that you must buy them again next year, fine. As long as there are plenty of other options from which a farmer can choose. We are perfectly happy to see a level playing field when it comes to genetics available for farmers. There are scores of terrific open-source domestic seed varieties available to newcomers to hemp, whether they’re growing for seed, fiber, cannabinoids, soil building, or, as I am, for all of the above. This farmer’s choice model, I’m glad to report, is how genetics rules work in most of the states where I’ve cultivated, including New Mexico and Vermont.
Once the industry has matured a bit, all these varieties can qualify for seed certification in a state or region. Some states are already moving forward on fair certification rules, including Colorado and Oregon, but I favor allowing at least a decade of open source seed development and distribution prior to the certification process in any region, to allow farmers to make progress with the pollen brushes.
I say, “this time the farmers are in charge,” and I don’t necessarily mean exclusively human farmers. The recently-harvested seeds I’ve got stored here on the Ranch do so much to keep those about whom I care most healthy that I feel as though I work for them. As Bob Dylan puts it, “you gotta serve someone.” Whoever is really running the show, it’s happening on the farm. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It’s good to have friends in low places. A thriving field means thriving soil, which means humanity has a shot at making a go of it post-petroleum.
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.