Author, educator, hemp farmer and avid goat enthusiast Doug Fine just might be the face of America’s hemp industry. The New Mexico-based, best-selling author is something of a celebrity for championing the multitude of uses for the plant and pushing farmers of all kinds to adopt regenerative farming practices.
An investigative journalist and long-time correspondent for NPR, Fine has made guest appearances on Conan and The Tonight Show, he gave a TED Talk about goat herding in the digital age and his writing has been published in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, Wired, Esquire and the Los Angeles Times, among other venerable publications. His 2008 book “Farewell, My Subaru” is now in its seventh printing and his most recent book, 2020’s “American Hemp Farmer” is being developed into a TV show with a focus on regenerative farming.
Marijuana Venture caught up with Fine to talk with him about the upcoming docuseries, the current state of hemp and regenerative farming, where the industry is heading and what he’s been up to during the past seven years since the magazine first interviewed him.
Marijuana Venture: What is going on with the TV show?
Doug Fine: First and probably most important — since I deeply believe that “fun” is a food group — I’m having a blast making the American Hemp Farmer docuseries, based on my most recent book of the same name. We’ve finished the pilot episode, which takes the viewer from a climate change-fighting crop amidst a massive wildfire in Oregon, to George Washington’s Mount Vernon, where I hand-harvest in colonial clothing and with very sharp sickles at the first Founding Father hemp harvest in 200 years.
The show is grounded in my own efforts at food security on my remote Funky Butte Ranch in New Mexico. In each episode we visit with regenerative farmers around the world who are simultaneously working to grow valuable hemp/cannabis crops while serving the greater good by sequestering carbon through regenerative techniques.
MV: You have an extensive online course on growing hemp. Who is it targeting and how much farming experience should they have before starting the course? How much of the course applies to cannabis farmers?
DF: The online regenerative hemp course is for anyone interested in a season-long, immersive class in regenerative modes of cultivating cannabis/hemp. It starts with soil building and genetics acquisition and moves through planting tips and common first-season issues. For instance, many first-time hemp grain cultivators aren’t aware that it is essential to be prepared to get the harvest dried to 8% moisture on the day of harvest, lest the crop begin to compost and mold. I have seen that happen because hemp is harvested greener than most grain crops. These are the kinds of lessons imparted in the class, as well as markets (cannabinoid, seed and fiber) and permitting issues.
So this course is really for any farmer, of any crop (not just cannabis/hemp) who wants to learn how to cultivate in the modes that I believe not just result in the highest quality and most bioavailable harvests, but leave the soil ready for next year.
Also the course is offered in two versions: professional and home gardener. The former is a 10-chapter course that includes chapters on regulatory developments and regenerative marketing strategies for all sides of the plant (and I do believe this is relevant for both hemp and cannabis farmers who are interested in regenerative modes).
MV: “Regenerative” covers a lot of ground. How would you define it for the readers?
DF: To me, regenerative just means cultivating in a manner that leaves your soil in even better condition to feed your family (and, for a commercial crop, your customers) the following season. There are millennia-old modes to achieve this that have been perfected all over the planet, and in the end the vitality of your crop comes down to the microbial life in your soil. As I like to say, we’re all soil farmers now. It’s really amazing to me the beautiful plants that emerge when strong genetics are planted in healthy soil. I’m just a helper, a midwife.
MV: We’ve watched the hemp market crash to a certain degree in recent years. Is it too late to make a living as a hemp farmer?
DF: We’re just getting started. Modern commercial hemp is only five seasons old in the U.S., but it’s 10,000 years old for humanity. Farmers generally plant what will earn them a living. In my consulting field projects in the U.S. heartland and on Tribal land, I’m noticing a major mindset shift among “conventional” farmers who notice diminishing yields, health problems, and well, who doesn’t notice when their family and farm are in debt? This results in a willingness to explore “alternative” cash crops.
In addition to a resurgence in interest in hemp grain superfood and hemp fiber-based products (demand is high enough for hemp’s inner core “hurd” for building material and animal bedding that it is still being imported), I believe regenerative modes will win out in the marketplace the same way that craft beer gains 1% of market share from mass market beer each year. Customers already recognize that a regional, organic product grown and owned by local farmers will be superior to a fungible isolate found in a box store.
Plus, the current political winds are blowing in a regenerative direction, meaning there is potential funding available for the high entry cost infrastructure investment necessary in particular for fiber products.
Also, hemp is a proven phyto-remediator, and much of the world’s farmland soil is stressed. I’m very proud to say that a hemp variety I’ve been developing for half a decade has been shown in a first phase study at New Mexico State University to clean up contaminated mining soil. This type of phyto-remediation project looks to be a promising market sector in its own right for farmers/entrepreneurs as humanity embarks both on its soil-building and vital climate change mitigation missions.
MV: Hemp has long been touted as a miracle plant that can solve a lot of problems. Why is it that we only hear about CBD and other cannabinoids? Are the other uses just not viable yet?
DF: U.S. hemp acreage reached half a million acres before the COVID pandemic lockdown, which is not bad being just a couple of seasons after 83 years of prohibition. That said, corn (mostly GMO) is at 89.1 million acres. This past season I brought my bike on the road for field visits to my consulting projects, and pedaled across a large, 125-acre organic hemp field I was cultivating and advising on behalf of a Rosebud Sioux Tribe entity. It took me about 20 minutes. Extrapolating from there, I realized it would take me something like 32 years to bike across all the current corn acreage. So we’ve got our work cut out for us, from a carbon sequestration perspective alone.
But I’m cautiously optimistic. For one thing, with the cratering of the CBD wholesale market two seasons ago, more and more farmers are moving into the 10,000-year-old hemp applications — superfood from the grain and fiber for industrial biomaterials. Both have promise and challenges. For instance, fiber requires a lot of acreage to feed a facility (3,100 acres minimum, as I report in “American Hemp Farmer”). I rarely leave home without my hemp plastic goat, 3D-printed from U.S.-grown hemp and corn.
For farmers like me, we’re going to help society move to a biomaterials-based society and reverse the Pacific Garbage Patch, or die trying. And I’m pleased to say that all of the projects I am currently advising are either organic superfood projects or fiber projects. And in the end, for me, being outside in a hemp/vegetable polyculture field, getting dive-bombed by recovering pollinators, is about the most fun you can have outside the bedroom. Regenerative farming is part of my business life, but it’s also part of my spiritual practice.
MV: Like hemp, regenerative farming is another topic that is surrounded by grandiose claims of possibly saving the planet, but what benefits do we know the farming method can deliver and are there further incentives for businesses that adopt the technique?
DF: In “American Hemp Farmer,” I report that a growing body of research suggests that each cubic inch of topsoil we restore of the world’s farmland sequesters up to 3 billion tons of carbon annually. That’s from a 2014 study reported in Yale Environment 360. And what about the small farmer/gardener? For every acre of hemp planted, 1.6 tons of C02 is captured, according to the National Industrial Hemp Council. If the regenerative farming mode catches on, farmers might even sequester sufficient carbon to buy us humans a crucial century to get our underlying infrastructural cards in order — the goal being to thrive, rather than panic, as we glide into the post-petroleum future.
That said, it is indeed important that there are incentives for enterprises, ideally farmer-owned enterprises, to cultivate, process and do business regeneratively. Although I’m not a huge fan of carbon credits, when garnered by true regenerative farming operations, they can help provide incentives. Perhaps even more impactful can be the collective force of a customer base that insists on shopping for hemp/cannabis cultivated with regenerative techniques by farmer-owned enterprises.
The real price tag for a product is not what it says at the checkout counter. It is the health of all of our great-great grandchildren. So I urge all cannabis/hemp customers to really read their labels: shop at food co-ops, farmer’s markets and community sponsored agriculture for your organic cannabis/hemp.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.