A plant with purpose
A hemp stem showing fibers.

A plant with purpose

All the attention is focused on marijuana policy reform, but its cousin, hemp, shines with promise for applications in sustainable building and numerous other beneficial applications

PUTNEY — Much media ado about marijuana reminds me of media coverage of Donald Trump's opponents: Hemp is a more worthy candidate for our attention, but it gets very little.

Marijuana is obviously very important to many, many people (beer is as well). But it needs to be said that marijuana hasn't as much to offer Vermont as hemp.

For clarity's sake, although the term “hemp” refers to all of cannabis, including marijuana, in recent years it has become common practice to term “cannabis” hemp that contains more than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical compound responsible for marijuana's psychoactive effects.

Hemp grows very tall, and if grown for fiber varieties, it can reach 12 to 15 feet high. It's the second-fastest-growing plant on Earth, and it offers the strongest natural fiber.

The fiber varieties look a great deal like bamboo. In a properly tilled and fertilized field, these Cannabis sativa varieties yield 200 to 275 plants per square yard.

To our north, Canadians are growing hemp varieties primarily for seed. In terms of processing, hemp seed is the easiest way to access value from hemp. Hemp grown for seed stands anywhere from 8 to 10 feet in height and requires less poundage per acre to cultivate (20 pounds for seed hemp, 30 pounds for fiber varieties).

Hemp enjoys a well-tilled and fertilized bed, and it wants 12 to 14 weeks to mature. It will not ask for any pesticides, and its ability to grow fast and block sunlight cleans out the (other) weeds and increases your yield in subsequent plantings - whatever crop that might be. In one season, hemp will secure four times what the carbon-monoxide trees can in 20 years.

So, just as a toy poodle is a sort of condensed dog, marijuana has been bred for its concentration of THC. Hemp with only 0.3 percent THC and a higher percentage of non-psychoactive cannabadiols (CBDs) would be the dogs of a labrador size in this analogy.

Marijuana has a smaller bushy type of structure, anywhere from 2.5 feet to maybe 5 or 6 feet tall. To avoid reduction of the coveted THC levels that build up in female bud, it must be segregated from male plants and clear of any male pollinators.

Historically, law enforcement has made the argument that hemp should be prohibited because it looks like marijuana and people would be able to hide their marijuana in among a field of hemp. But any marijuana hidden in a field of hemp will soon become hemp itself because of its proximity to male hemp plants. So that argument is a totally based on a false premise.

Medicinally, hemp offers healing properties because of its CBDs, which work without giving the user the corresponding high that marijuana does from its THC.

Marijuana growers now breed THC strains for higher and higher levels of CBDs, which support a wide variety of positive health outcomes that include reduction of soft-tissue-cancer reduction, reduction of arthritis, and reduction of anxiety and (most notably) seizures.

CBD is the most predominate cannabanoid of 113 of these chemical compounds available in hemp. Everyone has an endocannabanoid system - in essence, the wireless system of our bodies sending signals from one place to another - in their body which copes with transportation of information from nerve ending to nerve ending.

Cannabis provides plant-based cannabinoids to bolster our own cannabinoid production. It's important to note that a well-balanced omega-3 and -6 environment is needed for CBDs to effect their best healing.

With so much attention on fish oil as our source for these fatty acids, those concerned with heavy metals or radiation in fish oils have a hemp oil solution which offers a perfect balance of omegas 3 and 6 for humans.

Hemp seed is an excellent addition to livestock feed, increasing the protein content of milk. More and more baby boomers are seeking the healing available through hemp CBDs without the high of marijuana, but right now the price of CBDs is high because of demand and limited supply. In a few short years, an effective daily amount of CBDs (25–50 mgs a day ) might become more reasonable than current price of $130 to $200.

Let's turn to how hemp shines for practicality.

• China corners the market for hemp textiles. Since cotton uses 25 percent of the world's pesticides and hemp needs none, it is a truly important resource for our textile needs.

• Hemp is the strongest natural fiber on Earth; its uses for fabric, textiles, and fiberglass or metal replacement are endless.

• Demand for hemp fiber here and abroad is growing exponentially. China imports hemp fiber from France and other European countries, and they are excited to see our U.S. market gearing up to become another source.

Here in the USA, Colorado and Kentucky are the states diving most enthusiastically into hemp production. I hear Ford motor company is seeking all the fiber that Americans can grow to put in Ford cars because its lightweight strength is particularly useful for electric vehicles.

* * *

At the April NOCO hemp conference in Colorado, there was a palpable flavor of excitement in the air, for everyone feels the power of enormous growth that is building for hemp in the USA. My partner Tom Simon and I happily reunited with colleagues and made new connections at this latest conference.

Among 95 vendors were two companies using hemp in a 3-D printing process. Other hemp companies included ice cream (Iscream), burgers, chili and hummus, beer, snack companies, numerous medicinal hemp CBD companies, body-care companies, textile companies, hemp seed and farming equipment companies, hemp pet-care-product companies, hemp CBD vape companies, and hemp building companies.

There, we offered demonstration workshops just as we have done locally. We compared techniques and discussed projects. We toured a shiny, stainless-steel portable extractor that inhabited a 20-foot trailer valued at $400,000; a company growing hemp for medicine can arrange for an operator to use this device to extract the CBDs from their crop.

I spoke with people from a singular Colorado company that is putting in 50,000 acres of hemp this year. North Carolina is the setting for an enormous American hemp processing plant, expected to come online this year.

This plant has been built even before North Carolina legalized hemp!

There are four base products in hemp; hurd (the inner woody core of the plant used for construction), seed, fiber and - if you have a really marvelous processing plant -dust, which can be pelletized for heating.

Vermont doesn't have $20 to 30 million for a new hemp processing plant. But Tom has been seeking affordable hemp-processing machines to serve Vermont-scale hemp farming. At this latest conference we made contact with a Colorado company offering a hemp processor for hurd that is affordable ($13,800 to $15,000) and portable.

With such a machine it will take 5 acres of hemp to provide enough hurd to build a 3,000-sq.-ft. house. The binder for building with hemp is a limestone, and with time and appropriate specialists, we might be able to regionally source the specific lime used for construction using this hempcrete.

* * *

Tom and I are passionate about hempcrete construction and its delivery of a building envelope that's more comfortable for air quality while healthier for its occupants (and building crew).

Hempcrete offers large savings in fuel and heating costs and offers still more savings due to its longevity. All the while, this substance sequesters carbon from the atmosphere as it turns to stone.

Not only will structures made with hempcrete stand for centuries (when most of our housing is replaced in 75 to 85 years), it also will never have mold, termites, or rodent infestation and it is virtually fireproof.

Vermont has an optimum construction solution available for the taking in hempcrete. Tom and I see that a hempcrete prototype would speak volumes to prove this concept for local green builders, so we are looking at a hempcrete addition to our existing home, complete with a light commercial kitchen to process hemp foods.

* * *

Our state legislature has, since 2013, given Vermonters the right to grow hemp with a simple $25 dollar registration, but our secretary of agriculture, Chuck Ross, remains unmoved as far as creating hemp seed importation with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

In my most recent conversations with Ross, he indicated that he once again isn't planning to install the legal doorway that the federal government has provided for private farmers to import hemp seed in quantities that translate to acres of hemp fields in Vermont. The University of Vermont has obtained an import license, but UVM cannot share this seed with private farmers.

Meanwhile, across the nation, states are quietly passing hemp legislation. U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has not yet signed on to S.134, the Industrial Hemp Act of 2015-2016, which removes hemp from drug classification. But he certainly should become a cosponsor of that legislation immediately to remove hemp from schedule one classification.

Meanwhile, marijuana enthusiasts are also among hemp's detractors, though I do wish they would embrace hemp for all the reasons touched upon here. Cross pollination from nearby hemp is their issue.

But 1.5 miles between hemp and marijuana in our southern Vermont landscape (or 3 miles in our more open areas) is plenty of room to avoid cross pollination. However, cultivating marijuana for profit is an indoor endeavor under highly controlled settings, allowing for cultivation year-round.

There is more than enough room for marijuana and hemp in the same state, and both serve to improve our economy.

Hemp just serves our practical needs more.

* * *

I am growing hemp from seed that I have saved from last year's crop, and my seed stock increases each year. I have developed a couple of fresh hemp foodie items: hemp pesto and a blended hemp green smoothie. Judging by the heightened attention of mason bees to my hemp crop, it appears that CBD is something they also crave.

Hemp as a food product with its highest vegetable protein and perfectly balanced omega-3s and -6es will be expanding into the Vermont niche food system, sooner or later.

Hempcrete as a construction method will prove itself the new green gold standard. Hemp for fabric (combined with other natural fibers) will once again remind consumers of the joy of having a favorite clothing item that lasts forever.

Our John Deere tractors might one day in the near future be built using a hemp biocomposite.

So while its horticultural cousin is blowing up a storm of media attention, do keep your eye on hemp. It lives to let live, quietly outshining flamboyant marijuana.

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