I do not consider myself as having full-on hemp fever, rather, a feverish hemp curiosity in my fervor for all bast fibers. This curiosity has as much to do with the current state of domestic hemp farming as it does with the fiber itself. While legalization is still nascent and intensely regulated, there is a strangely permeable membrane between the highly radical and the deeply conservative. In this liminal state, you can have one toe in the illicit workings of Cannabis Sativa’s most recent history and the other toe in the legitimate future of a multi-billion dollar industry. Old-school activists rub elbows with venture capitalists, legislators pose for photo ops in front of ten-foot tall hemp crops that the DEA threatened to prevent and state agriculture departments find clever ways to test the market and grow the green. All of this is happening quickly, right now, in nine states across the country spurred by the passing of the 2014 Farm Bill which included section 7606, The Legitimacy of Industrial Hemp Research. All of this is wildly colorful and complex as it edges just beyond the brink, poised but still precarious.
Industrial hemp is legally defined as Cannabis Sativa L. with less than 0.3% delta tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration on a dry weight basis. Dr. George Weiblen, Professor of Science at the University of Minnesota, has spent the last twelve years researching why hemp and marijuana are genetically different in an attempt to scientifically distinguish the two varieties of Cannabis Sativa. His findings were published in July 2015 and he shared them with us on the first morning of the Hemp Industries Association (HIA) conference in Lexington, Kentucky. Put simply, marijuana lacks an enzyme that produces CBD, Cannabidiol, one of 85 psycho cannabinoids found naturally in Cannabis Sativa with much promise for medical application including the treatment of epilepsy. This renders marijuana as THC dominant, a genetic evolution born from breeding for high psychoactive effect. Hemp's genetic code is the inverse, containing high levels of CBD and very low levels of THC with virtually no psychoactive potential. Yin and yang, if you will.
On our first morning of the conference, small bowls of hemp granola and hemp hearts stood in for the typical cereals of a breakfast buffet. At lunch, packets of hemp seeds were stacked on each plate for sprinkling on our salads, overcooked chicken and slices of cheesecake. No surprise, then, that dinner offered more of the same but with an elevated choice of either plain or toasted seeds. Hemp fever runs rampant amongst this constituency and each stakeholder has strong opinions about market potential and market usage. Food and CBD oil are the dominant industry hopefuls with fiber trailing slightly behind, mostly in the form of composites for building materials. Applications for this plant seem endless as we heard cutting edge research from physicians, engineers and architects.
Talk of organic farming practices and the long-term vision for the role of the family farm was mostly absent from the conference stage and though I understand the context of scale for this particular audience, I still want better for this virtuous plant. It is one thing to look back on the development of monolithic monoculture and genetic modification of a crop like cotton, corn or soy and wish it weren't so. It is another thing, a maddening thing, to be working just ahead of that moment, to recognize what is fairly inevitable and still want far, far better for that plant. Leo Marx, author and well-known Professor of American Studies at MIT eloquently notes, "The sudden appearance of the machine in the garden is an arresting, endlessly evocative image. It causes the instantaneous clash of opposed states of mind; a strong urge to believe in the rural myth along with an awareness of industrialization as counterforce to the myth." If my time in Kentucky illuminated anything, it was a clear vision of the machine in the garden.
On the last afternoon of our time together, we gathered under an ominous sky and joined the insistent rain on three different research fields, one managed by the University of Kentucky (UK) and two farmed by private farmers through MOU's (Memorandum of Understanding) issued by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. The MOU is a clever tool that allows the state Ag Department to include 'private operators' in their research efforts while it is still federally illegal for you and me to take up the pursuit of our own volition.
Currently, heres how this works: Farmers apply to their state Ag Department and once approved, are aided in the procurement of certified seed and monitored throughout the growing season. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has oversight on both seed importation and THC testing in the field. Seeds must be locked in a secure 'vault' before planting and after harvest. DEA monitors are typically present at both. Additionally, the DEA has been known to monitor legal hemp fields with low-flying helicopters day after day after day. All financial burden resides with the private farmer who will likely experience early losses as they work to appropriate cultivars from places like Manitoba and Finland to their own particular land. As THC levels of particular seeds are not guaranteed, there is the additional risk of testing too high in the field, in which case the DEA will bulldoze the crop. Sound fun? And yet I met numerous farmers eager to be involved, each fueled by a cocktail of financial promise, love for the plant and sticking it to the man.
I came closest to catching hemp fever as I stepped onto the field of UK's first research plot, inhaled the pungent perfume that can only be Cannabis Sativa and heard David Williams of UK's Industrial Hemp Research Program talk about the trials of various cultivars. Each has a curious story and this year's surprise superstar was a heritage varietal from Poland that Williams had underestimated and was now swooning. The plants were sticky as we bent their spindly stalks to get a better look at the seeds. For some of us, this was the first time we'd walked a hemp field. For many of us it was the first time walking a legal hemp field in the United States. Hemp's ban has been active since the 1950's and there is something irresistably mystical about reawakening an entire crop after such a substantial nap. My favorite stories were of land-race varieties, rural legend of feral hemp populations along abandoned railroads and forgotten ditches. These are the cultivars with the most regional promise, as their resilience testifies, and research programs are actively seeking their existence to gather seed for trial.
I return to Kentucky at the beginning of November to spend time on the farm of Mike Lewis, an organic farmer who was the first to legally plant hemp in 2014 and the only small-scale organic producer to take the stage at HIA. I met Mike through Rebecca Burgess of Fibershed, whose work over the last eighteen months has helped establish infrastructure for cottage-scale hemp industry in Kentucky and Colorado. We have plans to harvest the last of this year's crop, continue field retting and tinker with some fiber for a project we hope to launch next Summer.
Much of what I learned at HIA was unexpected, sublimely so with its seduction of data points, graphs and dissection of legal language. I am ever game for a topical nerd-out and the HIA gave plenty of opportunity. This broader context, this panorama, is critical to how my studio work begins. I don't yet know what this looks like on my loom but I can imagine it will be an arrestingly feral cloth with a thunderous tone you might expect from a plant reemerging after fifty years in exile.
A list of relevant sources, objects and inspiration:
These shirts. I am often asked for recommendations on basic garments like knit t-shirts and denim. I've worn these for several years and include them in my running apparel line-up. The hemp/ organic cotton blend is an ideal weight and drapes like linen. Added bonus- the founder of the company, Rob Jungmann, is a seriously nice guy.
Reading this article. A beautiful profile of a country vet with insight into agricultural stewardship.
Rereading this seminal work. Couldn't travel to Kentucky without revisiting Wendell Berry.
This organization will answer any question you can throw at them about the legalization of domestic industrial hemp. Whip-smart folks.
Forever listening to this podcast. Inspired by the ways that each of these journalists approach their work in the field. I find solace in the pace of their work- slow- and the compromises they are willing to make in order to do good work- big.