What A Farmer Thinks About When The Hemp is Growing a Few Inches Per Day
I love this part of the hemp season. Though I realize as they emerge that I could write these same eight words as the lead to this column every month. Which is kind of the point: hemp farming is the most fun you can have outside the bedroom. Maybe it’s because my fingers are still terpene-fragrant as I type, but it seems to me that if being out in the field inhaling flowers and dodging butterflies isn’t a hemp farmer’s idea of a fun way to start the morning, she might want to choose another line of work.
But how do you not especially love August in a hemp field? The plants are in flower, yet still growing just short of visibly. Every morning I stumble through the dewy native undergrowth that surrounds my garden and wish good morning to completely transformed plants. It’s a daily shock that so much growth can happen in one day. And some people say plants don’t move. They don’t just move. They completely rearrange themselves as I could swear the basil was over here yesterday, relative to the tomatoes, the beans and the hemp.
If you grow dioecious hemp (male and female), as I do and as all farmers have for 8,000 years until a decade ago, the seeds are fattening with Omegas, which means harvest is in sight. This is when a young farmer’s fancy turns lightly to thoughts of THC testing.
Heading inside from the morning’s tax-deductible bliss session, I reacted to the testing results email in my inbox with something of the energy of a high schooler opening his college application reply. The problem with email is you can’t tell from the thickness of the envelope if it’s good news.
Phew. It was: our superfood crop tested at .18%. Here on the Ranch, we grow for seed, fiber, flower and the benefits of the roots. We grow in native soil. Outside. We grow for two main reasons: 1) To thrive on nutrient-dense food and 2) To help build soil and mitigate climate change.
Closing the testing company email (I wish the subject line had read, “Hooray! You passed!”) I could not remember the last time I felt so relieved. The reason I rarely feel relieved is that I rarely feel threatened. As we discussed in last month’s Fine In the Field Column, this cultivar, in various stages of its development, has tested from .1% to .54%, passing more than 85% of the time. I’m leaving out one .8-ish test because of extreme conditions in Arkansas in 2019 (also I provided the seed but didn’t grow that crop). But even if you figured that one in and tripled its THC level to 2.5% THC, that is an extremely low amount of THC, about which no farmer should have to worry for a second.
This discussion is not hypothetical, my friends. It doesn’t get any realer than this even as I felt the worry seep off me. I received a note from a farmer in Pennsylvania devastated and broke from a .4% test. He’d put everything into converting his farm to hemp. This nonsense has to stop, now.
Plant cannabinoid levels vary over the course of a day, as any hemp farmer can tell you. Testing equipment type and calibration can cause variations, as do the parts of the plant used in samples. The same researchers who proposed the arbitrary and outdated level of .3% THC under which we live for a short time longer suggested testing leaves. So why do so many early state hemp programs pluck cola flowers, where cannabinoid levels are highest? Testing, while it still occurs at all, should be as farmer friendly as possible. We want farmers to pass their THC tests.
But none of that really matters, in the long term. Having to test for THC at all is an unnecessary threat to the farmers who are trying to mitigate climate change and provide a recovery roadmap from the obesity and diabetes era. No farmer should have to worry about THC testing, ever. And they soon won’t have to. There is a policy route to this important goal. It is called “THC Irrelevance Until Retail” and it’s vital for both the future of the cannabis/hemp industry and for humanity.
What it means is, the farmer never has to deal with a THC test, unless she is part of the entity bringing forth female flower (where cannabinoids reside) to the public at the retail level. Only when flower is packaged and preparing to go to the consumer will THC even be discussed. Then, if states regulators choose (not federal regulators) they can set a THC level above which a cannabis product of any kind might be regulated for either adult social distribution or for medicinal use.
On the policy level, this means that there will no longer be a federal definition of “hemp” versus “cannabis” at all. Cannabis is cannabis, regardless of THC level. Cannabis will once again, as it has for eight millennia, be considered the one agricultural plant that it is. The feds are out of the cannabis game altogether. States will regulate cannabis either as they regulate tomatoes (let’s say for cannabis at less than 3% THC), and something like how they regulate alcohol (if a cannabis flower is intended to reach the public at above that 3% threshold). I should note that one of my key mentors, Edgar Winters, who has been cultivated hemp since 1957 in Alabama (for cotton baling twine), keeps telling me in his patient southern pacing, “Dang it, tell ‘em it should be 4%, at least, before it’s regulated even at the retail level. It’s 25% in dispensaries. There’s nothing to worry about.”
Think it’s a pipe dream? Think again. It’s already evolving in policy. Vermont is leading the way in preparing for this inevitable future. Because make no mistake, this is the way it is going to be. Growing what we want to grow and owning our genetics is a flat-out human right. It is how the Ingalls survived on the Prairie. It is why humanity has lasted as long as it has.
How do we get there (or I should say “back” there – no one tested Kentucky hemp for THC in the Hemp For Victory era)? As we’ve been discussing here in the Fine in the Field space, the first and immediate step is changing the federal definition of hemp to 1% THC by dry weight, as tested in leaves. If you haven’t yet signed the Vote Hemp petition and called your Senators and congress people to add your voice to the rising chorus on the 1% fix, please do.
Once we’re at 1% (catching up to places like Switzerland, Thailand and Ecuador), we can begin the effort to implement “THC Irrelevance Until Retail” rule nationwide. The war on cannabis is over, people, and Cannabis won. This is a good thing. The winners make the rules. The win-win is that a thriving cannabis/hemp industry, where farmers grow for quality and never worry about hampering their crop due to last century’s insane obsession with one chemical compound in their plants, means customers get top-shelf cannabis/hemp.
If we’re wise, our goal is a diverse, regional hemp industry. The food market and really most of the consumer landscape is homogenous enough as it is. Diverse craft hemp markets with regional foci are best for both product quality and public health and safety. Thus, the last people we should be burdening with THC worry are farmers.
Once we realize this goal of “THC Irrelevance Until Retail”, how does the cannabis/hemp landscape look? Well, a farmer might grow a .1% THC flower crop for smokable CBC, or she might grow a fiber crop for supercapacitors, building feedstock or paper whose flowers, if sold, might test at 14%. But that farmer might choose not to sell those flowers to consumers as she’s focusing on her fiber product line, and doesn’t want to go through a THC regulatory process in her state. So she might wholesale them to someone else who will have the burden of testing THC levels before providing the final product to the public. THC will be no one’s business until psychoactive flower goes to customers at the retail level. And again, the farmer never has to think about it.
Meanwhile, the ripening seeds filling the cola flowers and lateral branches here on the Funky Butte Ranch hemp bode well for winter protein for my family. As you can imagine, I’m giving thanks. As are the birds, the rabbits and the bees. But there’s plenty for everybody. As monsoon rains mean I don’t have to water the garden today (heaven’s like, “I got this,”), I have a moment to reflect on the enormous good fortune I feel to be involved in hemp’s resurgence at its rebirth.
When it comes to the entrepreneurial side of my hemp work, the principal reason I’m endeavoring to produce anything beyond my own family’s superfood, cannabinoid and hempcrete requirements (in other words, the reason I make a small-batch product) is to try to provide a model for the kind of product I’d like to see when I shop. Namely, regenerative start to finish, including packaging.
As I type here on the ranch, another harvest full moon is rising, and I realize I spend a lot of time listening to what my plants have to say. Why wouldn’t I? They give so much, ask so little. As if providing my family’s superfood weren’t enough, their roots also sequester carbon and feed me oxygen. Each afternoon, it’s at least five degrees cooler in the garden than anywhere else here in the high desert. I listen to them because a lot is riding on the Funky Butte Ranch’s plant (and able microbes) doing their job, so we can do ours, all species having maximum fun along the way, of course.
We’re a half million acres into the young hemp industry. Personally, I think a reasonable, medium-term goal is 234 million acres – the amount of hemp that will equal today’s combined acreage of corn, wheat, soy, and cotton. Then we, as a nation and as a planet can truly know that superfood security is a seed away. We have one important historical development in our favor, one that may well make the difference: the long nightmare of cannabis prohibition is over. Its 80-year duration is to our advantage: We can shape this industry any way we like. And this time, the farmers are in charge.
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.