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What Will It Take to Scale Up US Hemp Production?

Federal legislation of hemp may have finally made its long-awaited arrival in the United States, but obstacles still abound before the hippie-approved agricultural crop lives up to its hype.

Blame a little something called states’ rights—the same ones advocated by famed farmer (and president) Thomas Jefferson. Individual states still have decide how they want to regulate hemp, particularly since it looks and smells just like its more controversial cousin, marijuana, which is still illegal under federal law. Because both hemp and marijuana are derivatives of Cannabis sativa, the only way to distinguish the two is to measure their concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive component that gets people high. To qualify as hemp under U.S. government standards, the plant must contain less than 3/10ths of 1 percent of THC.

“It’s still Cannabis, so every state, to be federally compliant, is going to have to enact some type of regulatory framework to regulate [the seeds and the crops] throughout the process,” said Mike Lewis, director of Thirds Wave Farms in Kentucky and one of the first private citizens to legally cultivate hemp, through a 2016 partnership with Patagonia, in decades. “And that can take some time.”

That’s not to say that passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which struck hemp off the federal government’s list of controlled substances, hasn’t opened up avenues previously thought impassable. “Now that the Farm Bill has passed, our bank is talking to us about financing or equipment needs,” Lewis said. “There’s no barrier or fear to do business with us. We’re able to operate like it’s normal business.”

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Trafficking hemp seeds across state lines should technically be easier, too, even though occasional seizures by confused law enforcement may still occur. “The new legislation will really change how we are moving useful genetic material across the country,” said Rebecca Burgess, founder and director of Fibershed, a California-based agricultural nonprofit. “It also allows us to move stock around, which could help build out a whole new set of manufacturing relationships as well.”

But preparing hemp for large-scale production will take some finagling. Growing the crop is one thing, transforming it into textiles is quite another. “We definitely have a lot of infrastructure that needs to be built,” Lewis said. Cheaper labor overseas has turned the American mill into a vanishing species. And what facilities remain lack the proficiency or willingness to work with hemp, which can have an irregular hand and finicky behavior.

“[Hemp] takes some additional management,” said Roian Atwood, director of sustainability at VF Jeanswear, which owns Lee and Wrangler. “It takes some familiarity and ability to really know how to run hemp in equipment and machinery.”

Wrangler is in the midst of conducting product tests using hemp. If its trials are successful, the denim firm’s next step will be finding partners to establish a supply chain. Because 90 percent of its cotton comes from U.S. growers, Wrangler is hoping to use American hemp, though it’s giving itself some latitude. “I think that it will take time,” Atwood said. “It will certainly require a concerted amount of effort. The economics still need to prove themselves out for the farmer and there definitely needs to be some more agro-ecology and plant-breeding work done in order to make [the crop] viable [for fabric production].”

Eric Henry, president of TS Designs, an eco-friendly T-shirt screen-printer from North Carolina that promotes “seed to shirt” manufacturing, agrees. “It does look like, at this point, that the big missing piece to hemp fiber is industrial fiber processing,” he said. “There’s a lot of people experimenting, doing small scale but there’s, to my knowledge, no industrial facilities producing a consistent volume of spinnable hemp fiber.”

Henry and TS Designs recently launched Solid State Clothing, a consumer-facing, transparency-centered line of American-manufactured T-shirts that will include hemp-blended products. While the company plans to import processed hemp fiber from China “just to get things started,” Henry hopes to eventually source domestically grown hemp. “But I think it’s going to be a couple more years before it happens,” he said.

In the meantime, Burgess has been trying to get hemp fiber into local wool mills. A few years ago, Fibershed embarked on the Kentucky Cloth Project, which created an all-American textile using hemp, wool and alpaca, albeit at a boutique scale.

For commercial purposes, Burgess recognizes the needs to create some bigger mills to service farmers in multi-state “bioregions.” Hemp, as she notes, grows prodigiously, taking roughly between 90 to 100 days from seed to harvest. (Cotton, in comparison, requires 150 to 180 days.) “It grows so fast and there’s so much of it, so once we harvest it, we’ll need an appropriately sized mill,” she said. “There could be one in the Pacific Northwest, there could be one in the midwest, there could be two on the East Coast, one on the Northeast, one on the Southeast.”

A nascent American industry is in no danger of facing scarcity. “We have so much material to work with and it takes so little input compared to other crops that we need as many people: manufacturers, end users, everyone at the table,” Burgess said. “So hopefully everyone can in these early days work together because it’s going to take a lot of infrastructure build-out to service that level of biomass.”

If there are any downsides to cultivating hemp, Lewis certainly can’t see them. Hemp requires little water and even fewer pesticides or fertilizers, which means it can thrive just about anywhere and everywhere. Marshaled prudently, the potential for job creation could be phenomenal.

“When was the last time we had the opportunity to grow a new crop that we knew unequivocally would grow in all 50 states?” Lewis said. “Now what we do with it, that’s a whole other story.”