The first sprouts — keikis, as folks call babies of all species in Hawaii — have joined the multi-species clan here the Funky Butte Ranch. Accordingly, I have heaved that sigh that all farmers have when they’ve taken the second key step toward superfood security for their families (the first is soil building, which by the way also is the best way to mitigate climate change). Before supermarkets, this was a common sigh. People held festivals and burst forth with prayers of gratitude.
My permit arrived nice and early this year here in the desert Southwest, as the moon was waxing right as the regenerative hemp industry is re-born. We’re very close to the finish line, when it comes to cannabis/hemp policy: Hemp is on its way to being treated as a crop as it has been for last 8,000 years. We have a few important steps to go. As we discussed in last month’s Fine In the Field column, step one is changing the federal definition of hemp to one percent THC from its absurd and arbitrary .3% definition that is causing almost 40% of farmer tests to go “hot.” Switzerland, Tasmania and Thailand are already at one percent, and the National Farmer’s Union is advocating for three percent. So one percent is an easy, sensible ask. It’s also imperative: instead of 40% of tests going hot, we’ll likely be below 5%.
Even as things stand today, being official feels so good. Just adds to the patriotism of this food security moment. But today I am in the field, where policy nuances seem so distant. If you’ve read some of my earlier work, like Farewell, My Subaru, you know that, totemically speaking, I used to be more of an animal guy. I’ve been the goat whisperer in my family, who provides the soothing cadence when Natalie Merchant or Bjork’s being feisty on the milk stand (all our goats are named for singers we like even if their voices might have something of a caprine cadence).
But plant intelligence now amazes me every day. Plants are a lot like us, trying to raise their families, drink good water and even dance a bit. And like us, a lot has to go right for a plant to want to produce offspring and come back again. Which is why I feel so especially psyched upon seeing the hemp sprouts come up on the Funky Butte Ranch this year. First off, because my family’s superfood diet looks on its way to being dialed in for another year, heaven willing. But also because these plants are my friends, my kin, part of the extended family that also includes the beneficial local microbes that feed the hemp we eat and encourage its roots to sequester carbon. Which is to say, these plants are saving our lives.
We had to do enough for them (or maybe better to say with them) last season, their genes stored in the seed we harvested last season, for them to continue life another anew this spring. It’s a solid feeling to know that in a mason jar in my cool storage room overwinter lives the coming year’s protein. And that’s before you get into the sanity-maintenance benefits of being outside in a polyculture field, communicating with all kinds of plants and critters, and most of all, breathing, breathing, and then breathing some more, from the cooling oxygen in which the crop is bathing you. The whole thing scored by a hummingbird, woodpecker and cactus symphony.
And let’s not forget the insects: bees, of course, are the new Save the Whales, it’s a good sign when a droning native bee bass-line captures your attention. Then there’s the land-based critters. I took a one-hour time-lapse of a keiki this week, and there were hundreds of insects scooting through the soil in the two-foot-square shot. They ranged in size from giant stink beetle to tiny leaf-hoppers. I’m a fan of diverse life forms in the field.
Moving one magnitude smaller, I’ve become such a fan of mycelium. It’s a ton of fun to gather beneficial fungus and brew it into compost tea for your soil – something I discuss in American Hemp Farmer, and in the new course I’ll be giving with the Acres USA folks this year. The best part of mycelium gathering is that, still in their native habitat, they find their home in your field, these tiny fungal colonies, creating white, beneficial webs in your soil: it’s a pleasure to see.
Here we begin to experience the benefits of conscious soil building. In a phrase, a better crop results. Since I see the hemp that emerges into my family’s diet from regenerative farming, now I’m learning the questions to ask the cultivators and marketers of any product I put into my body. Which reminds me, our kale and arugula have sprouted as well. Looks to be a good tomato year, too.
Since I live and cultivate in a high desert, a word on water and hemp. I just had the pleasurable experience of sinking my fingers two knuckles deep in the Ranch soil three days after planting and two days after watering. Yep – not just still damp but moist. In searing 90 degree conditions. This is another payoff of soil building. Reason #42 I love organic alfalfa and goat poop compost: there is a moisture-retaining layer that originated not fifty yards from the field. The resulting conditions are just right for a native soil nursery: these are the conditions I’d want if I was germinating.
Indeed I learned a lesson about hemp’s lack of post germination thirst last year – perhaps understandably in a parched ecosystem a few years out from a 130,000-acre wildfire. Put simply, like the doting parent that I am, I over-watered. This year, despite midday heat that has my golden retriever dashing from shady spot to shady spot, I’ve been disciplined: I’m drip irrigating for one hour, every other day, and the early sprouts seem to love it. The watering regimen is different for germination and later in the summer during the plant’s flower and seed maturation phase, but we’re blessed here with monsoon rains at that time of year, when I can nearly dry crop.
I still think about and dote on the crop nearly every waking moment like any new parent. I just checked the keikis, issued a brief reminder to the local rabbits to treat the hemp as a sometimes food, and now am back at the ranch house, drinking my morning hemp shake. Next, I’ve got to tackle a bit of that other side of hemp farmer/entrepreneur equation: thinking about the product.
For me, the actual product is easy: I make what I most want to enjoy myself. It’s thinking about packaging (expensive if you want to be regenerative which I do) and marketing (math!) that, I admit, can be a notch less fun for me. Luckily, my new partners are women who have been trusted regional providers for seven years – so our conversations are about keeping packaging, production, and even, we aspire, delivery in regenerative modes as we slowly scale up to what seems a sustainable level over the course of several years. It seems to us that even a company’s growth arc is a decision which has an impact on the future of humanity.
And that’s why if we’re wise, we independent, regenerative hemp farmer/entrepreneurs will make a concerted effort to communicate to customers that, just as fresh-squeezed OJ beats concentrate, a hemp field lovingly cultivated by the farmer/owners of the product they’re buying will likely prove the finest hemp product. This time, my friends, the farmers are in charge. And this is a good thing.
About Doug Fine
Doug Fine is a comedic investigative journalist, bestselling author, and a 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, and has taught several hemp classes. 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.