Welcome Doug Fine (DougFine.com) (Twitter) and Host Philip Munger (ProgressiveAlaska) (Twitter)

Hemp Bound: Dispatches From The Front Lines Of The Next Agricultural Evolution

Three of Doug Fine’s four books address aspects of agriculture. Farewell My Subaru introduces us to his Funky Butte Ranch in rural New Mexico, where he begins to learn to ranch and farm, to power his life with renewable energy, waste oil and homegrown food. Too High to Fail followed the odyssey of a cannabis plant to be used for a medical marijuana patient, from cloning to ingestion.

Hemp Bound introduces us to the renewed interest in industrial hemp agriculture, at the moment of its rebirth. In the author’s note at the beginning of the book, Fine celebrates recent passage of hemp-friendly legislation:

Hemp cultivation is about to become legal (and shortly thereafter, big) again in the United States. It started to happen while I was about halfway done with this book.

I’m just not used to winning big, important societal battles outright. It’s an astonishing no-brainer. And it directly affects my life.

The author looks at the many uses of this robust and important plant as a product for fabric, cordage, silage, edible seed and oil, fuel and even building material. Hemp was an important agricultural product in the American colonies and the USA before being banned in the 1930s, as the war on alcohol infrastructure morphed into the war on drugs bureaucracy that we remain shackled by. Briefly, during World War II, hemp agriculture was legalized and subsidized to further the American war efforts. Here is a WWII propaganda film on hemp cultivation:

http://youtu.be/Ngc0_mQ5tjE

Doug Fine’s enthusiasm about his books’ subject matter has always been contagious to me. He really believes in the importance of this agricultural commodity:

Turns out your Deadhead roommate was right. Sort of. It isn’t so much that hemp, useful as we’re about to see it is, will automatically save humanity. It’s that the worldwide industrial cannabis industry can play a major role in our species’ long-shot sustainable resource search and climate stabilization project. For that to happen, the plant must be exploited domestically in ways upon which the marketplace smiles. No pressure: We fail? We just go extinct. The Earth’ll be fine.

Hemp hands us a ninth-inning comeback opportunity. At the same time that it stimulates community-based economic growth on the producer side (and not a little bit, if a farm community is serious about implementing some of the ideas we’re about to discuss), large scale re-adaptation of one of humanity’s longest-utilized plants will provide sustainable energy, regionally produced food, and digital age industrial materials on the consumer end.

My favorite chapter of the book is titled “Grow Your Next House (or Factory or High-Rise or Office or School)”. Fine examines hemp as a building material. He visits North Dakota and Manitoba, two adjoining entities, comparing the vitality of the Canadian hemp industry to the frustration American farmers fell just miles to the south. “Hempcrete” is the name of the basic hemp-based plastic building material.

Hempcrete is inexpensive compared to concrete. It is a far better insulator. And – astoundingly – it eats carbon right out of the atmosphere. You read that right:

Okay, that emboldened me to ask about these carbon-negative claims. “The house eats carbon?” I asked. “Just cleans the atmosphere when you’re sitting in the living room doing a jigsaw puzzle with the fam?”

“It does,” Flavall said in a tone I’d describe as calm confidence. “First off, it’s 80 percent more energy-efficient than a regular build- ing—it costs twenty-five cents a square foot per month to heat and cool—which is a testament to the quality of hemp as a thermodynamic insulator. But in addition, the lime feeds on carbon dioxide as it [the lime] hardens over the course of years. It wants to go back to rock so it absorbs carbon from the air while making the house stronger. That house is going to last hundreds of years.”

“What about the houseplants?”

“Excuse me?”

“Don’t the houseplants need carbon dioxide?” I asked. “Does the lime steal it from them? People want to have houseplants.”

“The houseplants are fine,” Flavall assured me. “They just provide another carbon sink.”

Fine goes on to look at building projects and manufacturers in New Zealand and the UK. I’m not sure what the best use of hemp will be, once the barriers to research, development and true marketing in the USA finally come tumbling down over the next couple of years, but hempcrete and other building material possibilities strike me as an incredibly wide open field. Doug Fine:

Construction, in other words, is going to be the first domestic hemp fiber breakout market. Steve Levine, CFO of the Hemp Industries Association trade group and a fellow who’s been selling hemp products in the United States since 1997, said he has little doubt that hempcrete will be the first dual-cropping sector to explode.

“If I were a venture capitalist with ten million in play, I’d invest in building materials,” he said. “Once there are processing plants Stateside, once Kentucky and Southern California are growing industrial cannabis, the battle is mostly won and we’ll see exponential growth.”

Other important sections of the book are on Canadian research into hemp as a replacement in vehicles for petroleum-based plastics, hemp-based biofuels, hemp as a replacement for coal, hemp research subsidization by foreign governments, and the vast differences between other countries’ governments support of hemp as opposed to our incredibly stupid regulation of it (at least up until very recently). He looks into Big Ag’s interest in hemp, already doing research before the Feds started to change course earlier this year.

As in his other books, Doug Fine has a gift for showing the individuality and personality of those he encounters or interviews. His portrait of David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s (whose peppermint soap has been on our bathtub shelf since the 1960s!) is worth the price of the book:

The thirty-eight-year-old Bronner, when I emailed him a few follow-up questions to a recent phone call, was in Washington State fighting GMOs. He’s also led a legal charge against greenwashing body care companies that dangerously call their products “natural.” Not only that, Bronner is an American agricultural patriot. Eager to reduce the twenty tons of Canadian hemp seed oil the company imports annually, Bronner told me in February 2013 that the company is “financing a project to collect and develop cultivars for American latitudes and soil.” Six months later, as we’ll see in a little while, I visited that project.

If all that weren’t enough, the reason Bronner added hemp to the family recipe in 1999 was pure performance: “It makes a better emol- lient,” he told me. “Less skin-drying.” At the same time the hemp went in, caramel coloring, in Bronner’s view the sole unnecessary ingredient in the soap, went out. This was, in the end, an artisan soap maker improving the generations-old family product. As a before-and-after patron who washes my kids in the stuff, I can attest that the hemp version is demonstrably superior. You no longer need to dilute it before using it on children’s skin. The point is, Bronner didn’t add hemp as a political gesture. He added it as a customer service move.

Please join me in welcoming author Doug Fine back to the Firedoglake Book Salon.

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]

Philip Munger

Philip Munger

musician, composer, educator, environmental and community planning activist