Another Digital Age Human Joins the Eight Millennia-Old Harvest Dance
My family is just in from harvesting a good portion of our winter superfood diet, care of a half dozen plant species. Think about this: in a time of supply chain reexamination and in a world where more than a billion folks just like you and me wonder if they’ll eat today (or find clean water), I get to sprinkle freshly harvested hemp seeds atop my son’s birthday ice cream. One sees why harvest festivals arose.
And when I say “just in from harvesting,” I mean just in: my fingers are still sticky with hemp trichomes and redolent of basil here in New Mexico. Nutrient-dense hemp seeds, leafy kale, and lycopene-packed tomatoes are filling a basket, along with near-future burritos from the regional bean varietal — one enjoyed by folks in my valley for 1,500 years.
To me, what’s incredible is that this has become incredible. A family working on its own survival shouldn’t be a click-grabbing column headline. It should be like waking up — something everyone does every day.
For most of our existence as a species, this is how it worked for all humans: harvest, and you eat. Neglect to harvest, and you don’t see spring. Pretty simple. And humanity survived. You and I are proof.
Then they thought up feudal dukedoms and, as we know, supermarkets weren’t far behind. The latter of which was a magnificent development when one promotes “convenience” up life’s priority list. I ain’t got nothin’ against convenience (although quick poll: is anyone’s leisure time increasing?), but growing up in the suburbs when Madonna was like a virgin, something told me it wasn’t wise to rely solely on this fluorescent warehouse full of baseballs posing as tomatoes, a tower of breakfast grains boxed in tiger-themed designs that were soaked in equal parts sugar and pesticides, and a wax museum of shipped-in apples.
I was already grown when the dyed farm salmon began showing up at prices cheaper than the fuel that shipped them half a world from Chile. Hmm. And GMO food-simulation products, those short-lived johnny-come-latelies, didn’t start until 1996. We can say, “appreciate the effort to increase yields. but it didn’t work, and killed soil and farm economies in the process, so no thanks.” I feel empowered to say just that when my family’s bean genetics pre-date glyphosate and atrazine by a millennium and a half. Our hemp genetics probably go back further than that.
Here I’d like to acknowledge and honor that many of us in this busy life might say, “that all sounds lovely and doable on a ranch in the middle of nowhere. But between commute and daycare pickup I just don’t have time for that kind of life essentials focus.” That line of thinking works as long as the supermarket supply chain holds up, and as long as you don’t care too much about nutrient density and taste.
Recent events (you know, a planetary pandemic), not to mention worldwide health trends, might make it seem wise to think about making time for a touch of life essentials focus. Toilet paper, let alone baseball tomatoes and the rest of the stuff in supermarkets, after all, haven’t yet proven their long-term durability.
Take baby steps, is my suggestion, if you want to re-start living like a member of the animal kingdom on planet Earth. Start with a small garden in the yard or on the roof. Then add a few chickens. Before long you might be Goat Whispering with the best of ‘em. And loving it. Being outside and tending to life is usually my second favorite part of the day. It’s not procrastinating when you’re adding goat poop to your family’s hemp field.
I ate my last baseball tomato a couple of decades before starting a family. I met my sweetheart at the local food co-op. Our kids were born within view of this season’s polyculture garden. So you can perhaps understand why we Fines are issuing forth with the same primeval prayers of gratitude that have echoed across harvested fields for eight millennia. Our congregational organ here in the high desert is a symphony of bees. And we also very consciously thank the soil microbes. Without them, there are not only no plants, there is no accompanying carbon sequestration. We’re up for another 8,000 years of this kind of bliss. Because the big secret of neo-rugged individualism is how fun it is. When a hummingbird’s wings provide your alarm clock, probably keep doing what you’re doing.
That’s a personal and mental health takeaway. One enterprise-related takeaway here is, if you think the hemp renaissance is about planting this crop in the same soil-leaching monoculture mode that’s nearly wiped out humanity over the past century, think again. At all levels of the industry, we have no choice but to do it regeneratively, right from launch. And that means lots of independent farmers, broad genetic diversity (AKA seeds owned by farmers) and baseline organic and fair trade principles. If we’re wise, every label is compostable, describing in non-toxic ink exactly where the hemp was cultivated, how is was grown, and, ideally, the farmer stake in the enterprise.
Accordingly, it’s occurred to many of us making a go at it as independent farmers, that the biggest speed bump in this rather joyous lifestyle is not climate but policy. It’s especially funny to my offspring that non-farming strangers would have the gumption to try to dictate what kind of superfood my family and yours can grow. Our obvious response is, “No, thanks. We’ll tell you what we want to grow and how we’re going to grow it.”
If I sound emphatic, it’s because from a remote ranch perspective, it’s glaringly obvious that the food regulatory system is broken. As if the world’s struggling soil, reduced yields and depressed farming economies aren’t enough, the diabetes and obesity epidemics provide further proof. Meanwhile, my neighbor Ashley, the raw dairy farmer, was expected to build a special bathroom for the inspector of her six cows. That should combat obesity and help farm economies. We independent regenerative hemp farmers are out to modify the paradigm to meet our top-shelf craft market niche’s modes of cultivation, production and distribution. C’mon on board. The strategy is to add a new and supportive category to food regulation: regenerative, craft, living foods.
First and foremost, we’re out to create alternatives to counterproductive food “safety” laws written by supermarket lawyers. As for how this already-leading regenerative craft industry sector will look when codified, I’ve been suggesting a few starting points, but I’m not the arbiter, I’m just one farmer interested in seeing the best ideas emerge and become standard: 1) Create a new tier of food officialdom, the regenerative craft niche, which is regulated more along the lines of farmer’s markets, what today are called “cottage industry” laws. Thus, we professionalize small-batch, nutrient-dense, living foods. And 2) Entities that are part of this category will produce 15 tons or less of final product annually, will be regionally-owned by producers, will have a 500 miles distribution radius and will cultivate organically.
However it winds up looking, one thing I feel safe predicting is that the regenerative craft sector will produce the highest quality hemp. I feel safe because it already does. The fundamental issue that mandates this new category was one I described in my recent book American Hemp Farmer, in a chapter called “The Friendly Fungus and the Hairnet”: We all want the products we buy, especially food-grade products and products that touch our skin, to be safe. It’s the homogenization of any variance, the “death to all microbes, good and bad” direction of globalized food law for which we provide a countercurrent. We don’t provide sterile products. We provide living products.
With a brand new hemp industry, we have the opportunity and obligation to codify our living foods. The food regulatory framework is designed for large, globalized operators, in cost and paperwork. One might accede to these kinds of rules if people were actually getting healthier as a result of them.
My friend Roger Gussiaas of Healthy Oilseeds in North Dakota is a perfect example of someone doing food-grade hemp production by the book under today’s rules. That’s because at his volume levels (much higher than 15 tons per year), he’s got his eye on proposed global food protocols. To say microbe testing eats up a lot of his time is an understatement.
“It’s never-ending,” he told me as we toured his vast oil-pressing facilities in hairnets and smocks in 2018. Some of his grain storage bags were two stories high. “We spent two thousand hours and twenty thousand dollars last year going through…the Global Food Safety Initiative. We did it because we feel a retailer is going to ask for these certifications. I’m lucky that my wife and my sister are very good at keeping track of it all. It’s more than one full-time job.”
Nationwide, and collectively if we’re wise, our strategy is to expand the cottage food concept to a wider professional industry category. This category will reflect the key role small-batch, top-shelf branding already plays and (let us hope) will continue to play right from the launch of the modern hemp industry. How should our regs read? Herein resides the crossroads (I won’t say collision course) of what I think of as the Friendly Fungus with what we might call the Hairnet Era.
I like living foods. Every day, I eat as many living foods as I can. From sauerkraut and elderberry syrup to our hemp and local apples. Furthermore, for most of human history, the kind of production mode I enjoy with hemp was the norm. There was no Chilean farm salmon. There was no supermarket.
The microorganisms in our soil provide our top shelf hemp’s distinct taste profile, its terroir. This is what I’m growing and shopping for whenever possible, in all my food: the most long-standing production modes. If they didn’t work, I wouldn’t be writing these words and you wouldn’t be reading them.
When it comes to hemp, we’re not necessarily referring to any one microbe. We’re talking more about a philosophy of raw or at least minimally processed food. In the end, there are microbes and there are microbes. As Michael Pollan puts it. “Some of my best friends are germs.” When we speak of beneficial microbes, we mean beneficial not just for the soil but also for the garden that is our gut. This is why I never look for “anti-microbial” products. I look for microbial balance. In many cases, you want the good ones. Waging a war on all microbes is the thinking that causes superbugs. By crafting and eating living food, we’re trying to nurture the ones that play nicely with us.
Obviously, there are dangerous microbes that we don’t want in our food. A Dutch colleague of mine, Sander Sandee, developed an indoor food production protocol as part of his graduate work. Sander is a fellow who can make sure every manner of abbreviation appears after your product’s name. His shop talk includes QMS (quality management systems), MMRs (master manufacturing records), ISO (International Organization for Standardization) Quality Standards, and GMP (good manufacturing practices). He singled out HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points) as a guideline that he thinks is important for every “grow.” That’s a noun that indoor cultivators substitute for “farm.”
Others in the industry recommend a Preventive Control Qualified Individual (PCQI) certification. This is evidently required by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), a 2011 federal law in the United States, drafted by large grocery trade groups, that expands FDA powers in controlling how food is grown and prepared. Parts of FSMA put forth exactly the kind of requirements from which we craft producers should be at least partly exempted. Or else we independent regenerative farmers might have to float our own counter bill, let’s call it the Food Safety Antiquating Act.
Our policy work will argue that a production facility should be “bad” microbe-free, of course. But kill all microbes in order to be allowed to provide our products to customers? Not so much. Uniformity and clean grow environments are Sander’s big talking points. This is the side of food-grade production that sees edible products as the end result of a “process” that needs “control.”
“What does a clean grow environment mean to you?” I once asked him.
“Effectively zero microbes,” he said. “Automated clean rooms with no people inside.”
So for one part of the hemp/cannabis industry, clean means “sterile.” Gone will be farmers touching every plant almost every day, as I do, since I believe the truism that goes, “what plants love best is the farmer’s shadow.”
Guys like Sander are in demand. Anytime there’s a romaine-tainting scare, they get more in demand. Sander provides a company with a paper trail that says folks won’t get salmonella from their clones or isolate. This is the side of the industry that wants to push the plant as a pharmaceutical-grade product. Which is one way to go.
But for the independent farmer-entrepreneur to thrive, it’s equally important that a whole-plant option, with all its nutritive properties still active in it, is also widely available for everyone, anywhere, who wants it. Even when said plant is grown under that messy sun and in soil full of—shudder—fungus and other microbes. Ideally, we’ll have both nutritive supplement and pharmaceutical options in the edible hemp marketplace. You can pick. I’ve heard lawyers refer to these two evolving branches of the hemp industry as two equal “streams.”
In other words, you can today choose to eat a lot of fresh carrots or take beta carotene pills. A level playing field in the hemp marketplace means if you want a cannabinoid product, you can buy a flower tincture provided by regional farmers or you can buy a pill grown in a grow facility . . . somewhere.
Leaping into the phone booth to transform into Mr. Reasonable Middle Ground, all I’m saying here is that we must find a balance that protects hemp product safety without turning every sellable product into the cannabis equivalent of irradiated milk. That’s because when you nuke any living product, an entire market sector and I believe, over-processing can damage some of what is inherently beneficial in the product itself. I’m the kind of guy who wants to see all the plant’s cannabinoids, terpenes, and bioflavonoids, in their intended ratios, end up in the bottle. Living, organic hemp must have an equal if not predominant seat at the table. It’s not just our brand. We regenerative farmer/entrepreneurs believe it’s the most bio-available brand.
The enduring predominance of our craft sector past hemp’s launch phase will likely hinge on two things: (1) our effective organization as farmers to craft and enact the kind of regulations that will allow us to thrive, and (2) enough customers making the decision to support local and regional enterprises.
When both of these happen, we’ve got ourselves an enduring market share. We’ll be equipped to play in the big leagues alongside Big Food. In fact, here’s another prediction: Craft Hemp will run away from any kind of Big Hemp the way Craft Beer is mopping up Miller. We can let the CBD mills that aspire to supply chain drug stores fight over the kind of protocols that will result in ultrapasteurized hemp. If you’re a raw food–leaning family like mine is, you will have commercial access to it even if you can’t personally own goats or grow hemp. Our craft hemp regulations must allow a living-food middle ground. Best practices? Yes. Sterile hemp? Not for the craft stream of the industry.
The goal is mainstream buying habits demanding our products. Just as today every customer understands that a drink might come in regular and diet, so our endgame is a shopping climate wherein every purchase decision is either “regenerative” or “other.”
Also exciting is that this is about more than one crop. If we succeed with craft hemp, the regenerative mode can lead all agricultural production and feed the wider economy in coming decades. When hundreds of millions of people start to shop this way, a thriving network of regional economies can succeed. As we rally customers, we’re going to jujitsu our way into a seat at the table that carves out the industry’s parameters. We will have our own lawyers and safety experts to help us negotiate key points based on craft beer and cottage models but expanded to our 15-ton-or-less industry sector.
How did we get from a celebratory tale of one family’s spiritually exuberant hemp harvest to “let’s write new craft-tier food laws so independent farming communities can thrive”? I think it happened because even with the scent of this year’s harvest still in my nose and the first Omegas coursing through my body, it occurs to folks like me at moments like these that the best policy for our nation and any nation is to start fresh with a food economy owned by farmers who are the beneficiaries of final market prices. Then we end health crises. Then we mitigate climate change by building healthy soil.
In the end, it all comes down to soil. Yes, even the future of those fungible isolate-based stock-traded CBD companies come down to soil. Because of the immense quality difference, yes. But also, because if you want to have thriving great-grandchildren, you are building soil. Consciously. As part of your hemp enterprise.
Will this be one of the few times in human history that farmers have been able to self-corral and agree amongst themselves? Will a critical mass of customers choose terroir, living foods and soil building over sanitized McHemp, over McEverything? I’m going with, “Yes.” Because I don’t like to think of the alternative, for the species.
The good news is that fun is part of the brand. It’s a business strategy. I’ll go further: fun is a food group for me. You know that birthday ice cream on which I sprinkled the hemp seeds? I also, somewhat unsurprisingly, stuck in a trick candle. These are not yet offered with beeswax and a hemp wick, but I’ve got it on my list of products to launch. Happy harvest season, everyone. We’re at half a million domestic hemp acres and counting. Only 233.5 million to go, to catch corn, soy, wheat and cotton. It’s a start.
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, 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.