Author of such books as, “Hempbound,” “Too High to Fail,” Doug Fine offers answers on the future and hurdles of industrial hemp
By Patrick Wagner
As a journalist, Doug Fine has reported from the war-torn countrysides of Rwanda, Laos and Burma for outlets like the Washington Post and U.S. News & World Report. Now, as an established author, Fine lives a quieter life among his goats in New Mexico — at least when he’s not campaigning for legalized hemp across North America.
Fine first planted his roots in hemp back in 2010. Already a noted journalist and author, he specialized in sustainable living with his first two books, “Not Really an Alaskan Mountain Man” and “Farewell My Subaru.”
His first book, “Not Really an Alaskan Mountain Man,” was a critically-acclaimed first-person narrative about moving from the densely-populated East Coast suburb of Long Island, New York to surviving in the rugged, wild frontiers of Alaska. It was a conversation that he continued in his second book, “Farewell My Subaru,” where Fine discusses living without petroleum but maintaining digital-age comforts.
This research path led Fine to his next books, “Too High to Fail,” and “Hempbound,” wherein he discusses his tri-cropping hemp model, which would allow for farming communities to have their own value added economies and products while using the leftover biomass of the plant for energy.
“That took me to an experimental and successful program in Northern California, in Mendocino County, a sheriff-endorsed program, where farmers were growing (cannabis) outdoors in a way that was very ecologically sustainable,” Fine said.
While visiting the experimental farmland, Fine saw that the farmers were using a variation of centralized processing that was more standardized and allowed for better bookkeeping and branding; it was an overall superior model. The farmers pointed out to him that the cellulose stalks of the plant were not being marketed and under the right circumstances they could be used as a source of renewable energy.
“I came to hemp as a way to use the biomass of the cannabis plant for sustainable energy,” Fine said. “Those of us that believe that cannabis’ return is good for the planet, good for humanity, good for society; we also mean that we’re going to do business in a different way, in a way that is not screw-your-neighbor, cutthroat stuff, pure shark tank kind of capitalism but more — when possible — collaborative.”
Marijuana Venture caught up with Fine recently at the Oregon Hemp Convention, where he spoke about bringing industrial hemp back into production in the United States.
Marijuana Venture: Why Oregon? Is it just the legality being changed or is there more to it?
Doug Fine: Well there is more to it because I wouldn’t necessarily say only Oregon for hemp; I have two hemp projects that I am involved in this year, one in Oregon and one in Kentucky. The reason why I am bullish about Oregon hemp is because Oregon as a brand is about sustainability, progressiveness, next-generation capitalism. In other words we can still make a profit but it’s what I call ‘What would Dr. Bronner’s move be?’ In other words, good for the customer, good for the company, good for humanity, good for the planet and that’s what I think Oregon is. So I don’t think that hemp is limited to Oregon. I think there are hemptations everywhere, but Oregon has the hemp laws in place and the culture and political support to be a leader.
MV: You were a speaker at the Oregon Hemp Convention. What were you hoping to achieve?
Fine: I’m an advocate for the return of the cannabis plant to the above-ground society because I believe first and foremost that it’s going to make a better world and a better future for my family and my children, all sides of the coin. When you’re talking about psychoactive cannabis being in the economy, that’s about lowering crime, about better public safety and about a good economy; with hemp it’s about nutritive foods, it’s about healthy farming communities, all the things that we all want for our children. So the reason why? Well I almost look at myself as a conservative and a patriot; I want to do good things for the communities and the American economy, but also for the planet and for the future.
MV: What does Oregon need to do in order to make its venture into hemp production successful?
Fine: There’s a short-term answer and a long term answer. The short-term answer is what we’re speaking about right now in the spring of 2015, a month before planting season. We’re living in this weird intermediate zone where hemp is federally legal only for research connected to the state agricultural program. So that is complicating the seed importation process. It’s complicating the permitting process. It should be just as easy to grow or easier to grow than any other crop — apples, corn, soy, wheat, whatever. Luckily we have S134, a federal bill going through now, sponsored by both Oregon senators and both Kentucky senators. Two Democrats, two Republicans and a whole bunch of other senators and congress people are on board and that would remove cannabis with low THC from the purview of the Justice Department and into the USDA, and that is obviously what is going to happen and what needs to happen and it needs to happen right away. But here we are, right now at this intermediate stage. So the short-term issue, what needs to happen for Oregon farmers to be successful this year, is we need to be able to import seeds and get farmers planting. The longer term, it’s like any developing industry – Apple computers didn’t happen by itself; it’s about providing good quality products, it’s about finding demand and it’s about a dedicated people that have business sense. People who know about an agricultural product were also talking about value added and marketing and all of that good stuff first. So long term we need to find out what the markets are and develop them. We already have an existing market — the Canadians are close to about a billion dollars a year in their seed oil market.
So we know what to do to proceed. We know about nutraceuticals. People today talk to me about CBD, but to me it’s about more than just that one cannabinoid. The market for nutraceuticals is very fast growing and farmers in their early years need to focus on the existing markets but also need to build new ones from fibers and from seeds.
MV: Moving forward as an industry, how much social distance should hemp have from marijuana, if any?
Fine: I believe that cannabis is all one plant. The focus on THC or psychoactivity is a relic of the Drug War and it’s something that we live with today, but it’s something that I don’t really think that we’re going to be talking about in 10 to 20 years. If the cultivar is fantastic for fiber, if it makes durable, waterproof shirts, then who cares what the THC level was in the flower, you’re not harvesting the flower in the shirt. So I don’t necessarily think that there needs to be a distinction at all between the types of plants. That said, just a few years ago, you were taking a risk with your personal liberty if you were advocating for psychoactive cannabis. People thought that you were some sort of illegal drug user or something. The fact that we are far enough along, just a few years later, that we can even have this conversation is a good sign. But there is a certain segment of the population that I often think of the analogy of the Israelites escaping from Egypt and getting to the Promised Land. Is somebody that grew up with a slave mentality ready for the Promised Land? I like to think so, but not everybody is ready, so as long as we have these delineations where a state like Indiana or like Tennessee feels the need to say, ‘No, no, we are only supporting this version of the cannabis plant,’ then fine, if that’s how they need to talk about it. But I don’t think that we’ll need delineations based on THC. We’re going to talk about the markets and value of the different parts of the product.
MV: What’s the environment like in Kentucky?
Fine: It’s incredibly good. The state has a heritage that people remember. People are still living from back when hemp was the biggest industry in Kentucky and Kentucky hemp was the best in the world. Everybody remembers it. So the most conservative Republicans and the most progressive Democrats are on board. It’s like what the Rastafarians call ‘the healing of the nation.’ You can’t find somebody in Kentucky that is not on board with their hemp revolution. That’s why they are a year ahead of many other places. Their government, top to bottom, especially their agriculture commissioner, Jamie Comber, is totally on board and they are making it happen. I’m excited to be involved in a tri-cropping project there this year.
MV: What can we learn from the international hemp producers?
Fine: Europe and China are ahead of the game in fiber and China is ahead of the game in seed and everything related to seed oil. So if we take the knowledge base that the Chinese have with fiber and the knowledge that the Canadians have with seed oil, then we can implement this tri-cropping. We can take American ingenuity and produce for many markets more than any other part of the world is doing now. So we have a lot to learn from the folks that are ahead of us and thank God for the Canadians growing GMO free hemp for 16 seasons now. This is their 17th season. We need to learn from them on the seed oil side and from Europeans and the Chinese on the fiber side, especially for processing. Processing is what they know. Anyone can throw a seed in the ground, it’s about what they know about processing and the real products that are needed in the market.
MV: Since the law limits hemp production to research, how can future hemp farmers go forward while under the research impediment?
Fine: So research cultivation of hemp is the law of the land now federally. So the main thing that we can do is pass full legalization of hemp and get past this research phase. The only thing that is federally legal now is research, but Kentucky interprets research to include marketing and sales research, as will Oregon and many other states that are coming online. Basically it means that you can sell it and pocket the money, but you are researching the markets and developing the markets which is legitimate research, it really is. In other words, we usually think of research as agronomic research: Which cultivars work where? That is important too. What kind of soil quality do you want? That’s important. You can also sell and market it in Kentucky, so in my mind, the research impediment isn’t that big of one. It just makes it harder to get seed, so we need to get beyond research and move to full commercial cultivation.