Ethics are a big part of what hempsters talk about when they get together.
Ethics of using plastic sheeting in hemp fields. Ethics of GMOs and synthetic chemicals. Ethics in business dealings.
And many of those discussions were front and center in Ashland last September when 300 hemp growers, business people and others attended the third-annual Hemp University at Southern Oregon University’s Stevenson Union.
There’s a lot of work to be done and money to be made in cannabis and hemp, but Misty Burris of the Grange and Oregon Institute for a Better Way emphasized that we mustn’t forget to stand on the foundations of community and cooperative farming on which this state — and country — were built.
The Grange is 150 years old, and as we build this new agricultural empire, we should think of our great-grandchildren 150 years in the future, Burris told a Hemp U audience.
“For instance, instead of thinking about the high cost of labor, think about launching labor and lifting them to viable opportunity, sustainable for the next generation, she said.
“It’s not just seed, soil and produce but solid industrial organization on all levels.”
The hemp industry is unique in that it was illegal for so long — and then people from agriculture and the medical world “came together to share,” setting a platform in place for service, and service never fails.”
As a Granger, Burris is encouraging the industry to institute consumer advocacy, to connect with the community and make sure they’re “opening their ears and are willing to listen, because consumer concerns that are based on incorrect facts are easily remedied by truth and transparency.”
And right now, in the infancy of the hemp industry, says Burris, “the truth is we don’t know what we’re doing yet. Real farmers have the humility to say you can’t totally control nature, and that humility will be refreshing.”
The industry can only go up, she says, and “we’re on an enormous pillar of potential.”
But when it comes to covering the land with acres of plastic, she says, “we’ll be evaluated by our ethics. We have to get it off the land. It’s not going to work. The karma is right in our face.”
Ashland farmer David Pierce was at Hemp U marketing “biodegradable field mulch” made in Quebec using organic thistle.
“The use of plastic in agriculture has the potential to create long-term damaging effects on soil biology as it breaks down into micro-plastics and elemental petroleum residue that can never be recovered out of soil,” Pierce says.
The thistle grows on a big stalk and has lots of cellulose, which is combined with potatoes and vegetable oils — all grown without GMOs. His website, roomtogrowllc.com, shows rolls of it — it comes in black or white — and after six months, it appears to be melting into the soil.
The film increases soil temperature, allows rapid root growth, and biodegrades when soil is above 50 degrees, the website says.
Longtime Ashland farmer and plant researcher Chris Hardy is giving farm tours of his strategy, which he calls “interplanting polyculture.” It eliminates any manmade ground cover and lets nature do the job by mixing vegetables, especially vining crops, with hemp, producing a canopy that grows over surrounding bare soil and keeps it from becoming a monocrop.
He’s using squash, cucumbers, melons, beans, grains, summer greens and other veggies — and researching and breeding plants from Central America, seeing which ones like our climate.
In his 15 years of farming here, Hardy says, he hasn’t found one manmade mulch that biodegrades, adding, “They sit in the soil and don’t break down and are obnoxious to look at, just not appropriate for the Southern Oregon agricultural system, plus they’re made with GMO corn and soybeans.”
Longtime cannabis author and lecturer Paul von Hartman of Ebb & Flow Farm outside Ashland calls plastic mulch “geocidal (Earth-killing), expensive and toxic to the planet, so you’re better off using vegetative mulch and rotating crops to deal with weeds.”
There’s potential to make herbicides from nettle, he adds, and we should be busy looking for alternatives that are healing for the Earth. If we’re not healing the Earth, then nothing we’re doing will make any difference.”
Future of hemp
In this burgeoning age of hemp, is it possible for everyone to get along and be the caring, cooperating community we’ve been for decades, or will it go the way of almost all corporate capitalistic ventures and drown us all in green greed?
After almost a century of prohibition, hemp is legal and there’s loads of lucre. Can we keep our souls?
Hemp and cannabis are changing the world, and Southern Oregon is a great place to grow it — and the region is crammed with capable, can-do cannabis entrepreneurs.
One is Mark Taylor of Jacksonville, a former general contractor and creator of Southern Oregon Hemp Cooperative, whose mission is to “promote farmers in the new hierarchy as we try to make us business people in the retail market.”
Until 2018, hemp was generally thought of as an industrial crop used to make rope, paper, cloth, insulation and seed oil. Then came the discovery that CBD and other cannabinoids in hemp made a lot of aches, pains, allergies, autoimmune disorders, insomnia, on and on, go away. So much for rope and paper.
Taylor’s ideal is that, with all the talk of a health panacea, the farmers of this region “keep on being friendly and helpful to each other, not dog-eat-dog, like in the construction biz.”
Farmers are agreeable and friendly, notes Taylor, so “why not get them into an old-fashioned Grange-like co-op, where they can share the best growing techniques, with an endgame to bring product to market collectively and offset the big corporate influences.”
Instead of each farmer going it alone, he says, there’s a lot to gain by joining together on irrigation, tractors, seed, fertilizer, real estate, insurance, everything.
The alternative, he says, is that big corporate buyers could pick farmers off one at a time and control the price.
In the fertile, cannabis-friendly Rogue Valley, Taylor notes, “there are lots of husband-wife teams over age 60 who are trying to enhance their retirement, and now they see hemp as the pathway. An acre averages 2,000 pounds. A thousand pounds at $250 is $250,000, and if you’re 65 and living on $3,000 a month, that’s attractive.”
He says, “there’s a huge supply, but at this point, we don’t have enough solid, substantial buyers. Buyers are trying to hurt the market. It’s expensive to cultivate — and storage is not cheap either. Buyers are stalling until the price comes down.”
Co-op members can join and block that, he says. In the organization, members cooperate on tractors, seed, fertilizer, real estate, insurance and more, he notes.
Or will it go the other way?
For a peek at how the more corporate types look at Southern Oregon cannabis country, Hemp U heard from “supply chain consultant” Bill Kelly of Cannabusiness Development in Portland. He said this region has a long tradition of “a handshake and let’s go,” but a lot of money, much of it corporate, is coming into the state now, and while they respect the experience of the cannabis culture here, they want “verified viability” with detailed and signed deals of everyone in the supply chain.
“These days, there are 20 fictional deals for every real one,” said Kelly, “and that’s where you see a lot of people saying they have a lot of money, which they do to tease out the information on who is buying, and a lot of people end up disappointed and losing their reputations.”
Kelly says the hemp world is “very wild west” right now, because it’s legal, in high demand and can be marketed all over the world, whereas the THC market is tiny because it’s psychoactive, with limited legality.
“We’re on a learning curve and in transition now,” Kelly says. “A lot of people here have known each other for years and years, and they’ve gone through many stages together and it forms a great basis of knowledge and experience, and the community is real and the trust is real.”
However, says Kelly, this is “the world capital” of hemp and cannabis, and we’ve got the components to capitalize and grow into a major industry, especially in CBD. But to grow … “we need capital, and that means outside capital, men in suits coming in, and what many call ‘working for the man.’”
So, he says, the “former hippie outlaws of Southern Oregon are going to have to turn this into a branding thing, as we bring in capital for people who grow it and have all this experience. … It will shake out in a couple years. It has to.”
Kelly says many noted corporations are watching Oregon hemp closely, and in four years or so someone like Coke will be offering CBD pop, but “not until the industry becomes reliable, consistent and you can get exactly what you order, when you want it.”