The Hemp Revival: An Ecological Alternative with Many Commercial Uses

The Hemp Revival: An Ecological Alternative with Many Commercial Uses

Linda Delair is a LEED accredited green building consultant and the Northern California Regional Coordinator for the California Hemp Association. Bioneers Restorative Food Systems Director, Arty Mangan, interviewed Linda at the CalCAN Conference at UC Davis. 

ARTY: How is hemp different from or similar to marijuana?

LINDA: The difference federally is the quantity of THC [the principal psychoactive constituent in cannabis] in the plant. If it’s under three tenths of a percent of THC, then it’s hemp. Anything above 1% is considered to be cannabis. I don’t like to use the word marijuana because it’s a made-up name. It was part of the war on hemp, and they really didn’t care very much about cannabis at all. They made the name up, marijuana, calling it reefer madness back in the 1930’s. The hemp plant can grow to 18 feet tall, and it’s specifically grown for the fiber and for the woody core.

ARTY: But they’re both the genus cannabis, isn’t that correct?

LINDA: That’s correct. One would say the genus of hemp is cannabis sativa L. They’re both cannabis sativa.

ARTY: Hemp was instrumental in connecting you with the Native American poet John Trudell.

LINDA: Yes, our beloved John Trudell. In 2012, I was at the Green Festival in San Francisco, and I had just heard the brilliant Winona LaDuke, of the Anishinaabe tribe in Minnesota, speak about having a crop to grow to raise the tribes out of poverty and she mentioned hemp. That’s where I met John Trudell.

He said that he wanted to see the tribes work together with white ranchers and create a hemp industry that would benefit both. John and Willie Nelson had just started a project called Hempstead Project HEART. HEART stands for Hemp Energies Alternative Resource Technology. At that point it was just a concept. My friend Lea Walter and I started working with John to develop the project.

I organized events. I have a green building background, I wasn’t an event organizer, but this was very appealing to me. I knew about Hempcrete, made from hemp and water and lime, which can be used as a green building material.

Before John died, young Menominee tribal member from Wisconsin, Marcus Grignon came to see John, and they discussed having the tribe take over Hempstead Project HEART. After John died in 2015, we met with Marcus and handed the project over to the Menominee tribe, and they’re doing a great job legislatively, etc.  

ARTY:  You mentioned your background in green building and Hempcrete. How can hemp be used in building?

LINDA: Hemp has been around for thousands of years. It has been found in the pyramids. It is a wonderful, lightweight material. Hemp has many uses; hemp as a green building material is just one. When you remove the fiber from the outside of the stalk, there’s a woody inner core, and that is what you use to make Hempcrete. The woody core is ground up into half inch pieces, no larger. You mix that with water and lime – ­lime S or a hydraulic lime or a hydrated lime. The plant, in the growth phase, sequesters carbon, so the hempcrete locks that carbon up in the walls of the building.

It’s basically an insulation material. There’s a niche to be filled with insulation in order to lower energy requirements. The volume of insulation material we use today is going to rise dramatically in commercial and residential buildings. It makes ecological and financial sense to fill this volume with materials that are annually renewable, have a low ecological impact, and ideally are sourced from waste streams or byproducts from other processes. Hempcrete meets all of these important criteria and compares favorably with conventional insulation materials in many ways.

You don’t have to add drywall or insulation. Hempcrete is an insulating wall. It looks similar to concrete, but it’s about an eighth of the weight, and there is no Portland cement used, so there is no off-gassing from the wall at all. When you mix it together and you create this monolithic wall, all you really need to do is put a lime wash on the wall or something of that nature. Hempcrete is flame retardant and it’s mold and insect resistant. You don’t have to worry about termites, you don’t have to worry about mold, but you do have to let the material breathe.

ARTY: What are some other uses for hemp?

LINDA: The fiber from hemp can be used for clothing and plastics. It’s so amazing. The hemp plant has very long roots that break up and remediate the soil. It takes carbon out of the air and sequesters it into the soil.

ARTY: One of the other uses is as a food source. Can you talk about the nutritional value of hemp?

LINDA: Hemp seeds are very high in omega 3 and omega 6. Most hemp seeds on the market today come from Canada where it has been legal to grow for 20 years or so. Companies like Nutiva, a local California company, built their business on hemp seeds and coconut oil. You can sprinkle the hulled seeds on yogurt or in your salads or whatever you want. They are very very healthy for you because of those fatty acids, which the body loves.

As far as eating any other part of the plant, it’s pretty much the seeds that are edible. You can make oil from hemp seed, but you do not want high flame under the oil. Use the oil on salads and that sort of thing, but you don’t want to heat it up.

ARTY: What is the legal status of hemp? I know there’s been a change recently.

LINDA: At the federal level, it had been considered a Schedule 1 narcotic as of 1970 and prior to that the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 made it too expensive to grow. But historically hemp was commonly grown. My goodness, in 1776 The Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper. The word canvas comes from the word cannabis. All the ships, ropes and sails of the world were rigged with hemp from India to Pakistan to South America. The Chumash grew hemp in California for catching otters and for rope for their fishing lines. When the Spanish arrived in California, they wanted to grow hemp for their sails and ships, etc. and they discovered that the Chumash were already growing it.

The 2018 Farm Bill, introduced by Mitch McConnell and signed by President Trump, made it legal to grow hemp in the US. Mitch McConnell’s state of Kentucky lost tobacco subsidies. Historically they were big hemp growers. Hemp is no longer a Schedule 1 narcotic and it is considered a commodity crop.

However, all the states have rights, and some states can say no. They don’t care whether it’s legal, they don’t want it grown in their state. South Dakota is not allowing it, but Florida is. Every day there seems to be another state looking at what the other states are doing and how well they will profit from the hemp plant whether it’s for CBD or fiber or whatever it is, and are saying yes to growing it.

 The challenge is that processing plants doesn’t exist for hemp hurds – the small pieces of the woody core of the stalk used for hempcrete, paper, animal bedding, etc. – and hemp fibers. We haven’t had hemp processing infrastructure since 1958, when the last processing plant in the country, in Wisconsin, closed.  But CBD is processed in a laboratory, which is much easier to get established. CBD is the low hanging fruit in terms of getting a product to market. So, that’s an issue when investors are considering which states should they invest in.

ARTY In a place like California or Colorado where cannabis is legal and a farmer wants to grow hemp, do they still need permits?

LINDA: You have to register where you are growing because of the low threshold of THC in a hemp plant. And the farmer has to pay whatever the county fees are.

All food seeds, whether it’s a radish or a potato or anything else,have to be registered so that everybody knows, for example, that’s a Russet potato. That way when you’re planting Russet potato seeds, you’re not going to get a variety that’s not a Russet. If you’re going to grow hemp for CBD or for whatever, that seed also has to be registered. That way you know what you’re getting. There is testing of different parts of the field, and different parts of the plant. If the THC content is too high, that can ruin a thousand acres. That’s a large financial loss.

Hopefully, eventually, that will change, and the THC content in the hemp plant will be raised, because you’re not going to get a mouse high on under 1% THC. I promise you. The THC level for hemp is arbitrary.

Another obstacle exists at the county level in California. Neither the state nor the California Department of Food and Agriculture have come out with regulations for 2019. A lot of farmers are not able to grow the crop because something like 35 counties in California have moratoriums on the growing of hemp since there are no state regulations.

ARTY: Are they treating hemp the same way they’re treating cannabis? Or are they distinguishing between the two when it comes to these regulations and permits?

LINDA: It is distinguished, absolutely. Cannabis farmers pay a lot of money to grow their crops. They pay a lot in state taxes, etc. If there’s a hemp farm nearby that has both male and female plants, pollen from the male plant can cross pollinate the cannabis girls, and the cannabis crop will be ruined. So, it’s completely understandable why cannabis people are very concerned about hemp being grown next to them. But the state hasn’t come out with regulations, not even for how many miles there has to be between a field of hemp and a field of cannabis.

I’m part of the California Hemp Association, we have Memorandums of Understanding, we just signed one with Imperial Valley. With the MOU, we work closely with the farmers and the county on crop insurance and political regulation and we bring the police in to be part of the process.

ARTY: What are some of the other things that the California Hemp Association is focused on?

LINDA: We work with farmers in counties that don’t have moratoriums. We supply PhD scientists who work with the farmers on growing practices, insect problems, etc. because it’s been 81 years since hemp was grown here.

We work with UC Davis on identifying the best cultivar for your area, for the type of soil that you have. Hemp doesn’t like clay. If you have clay soil, you’re going to have to use a lot of amendments to your soil. It likes a nice loamy soil. What plant doesn’t?

We go around to different states and visit farms and learn from them. When Kentucky made hemp legal, they bought their seeds from Italy, because even though Canada is closer, why would you grow a cold-weather plant in Kentucky when Italy could supply you with seeds more appropriate for your climate. The University of Kentucky in Lexington studied the seeds for several years before they finally decided which seeds they wanted to grow for CBD. At first, they wanted to grow hemp for the fiber and the hurd for the automobile industry up and down the East Coast. BMW and Mercedes Benz and other car companies have been using hemp fiber in their dashboards and their car door panels and their car parts. They call it a bio-fiber for the American market, it’s like a plastic.

The fiber on the outside of the plant stalk is what you use for plastics and for clothing. There’s so many things you can use hemp for. Hemp is in Paul Hawken’s book Drawdown. He says that the area where hemp could make a difference is as a substitute for cotton because cotton uses an awful lot of water and the other plant parts of hemp can support the economics of fiber production. Cotton growers in Central California are very interested in growing hemp because of water issues.

ARTY: Hemp is more drought tolerant?

LINDA: Yes. It’s certainly not a cactus, but it’s far more drought tolerant than cotton. Levi’s is now working with the hemp and the cotton plant primarily because of the water that cotton takes to grow. They’re very aware of it. The first jeans that Levi’s made were hemp. It’s just like canvas. Levi’s is now saying by 2022, I think, that they’re going to be able to get the cotton and hemp blend to be fairly soft because it’s a very tough stalk. Ralph Lauren uses a hemp and silk blend. It’s like silk charmeuse. It’s absolutely beautiful. A lot of the fashion companies around the world are looking to use hemp because it’s such a strong fiber and it takes less of the more expensive fibers like silk. Hemp is the most useful plant on the planet.

ARTY: It is versatile.

LINDA: Farmers, especially cotton farmers, want to phyto-remediate their soil, because cotton has very much depleted the soil. Ethanol can be made out of hemp and not corn. These are really coming attractions with the hemp plant. Many states are welcoming the hemp plant. California is too, but we seem to be slow with our regulations. I would say that in 2020, that’s the year that you’ll see hemp really in the ground in California.

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