American Hemp Farmer: Adventures and Misadventures in the Cannabis Trade

review by Jack Kittredge

Doug Fine is a journalist turned hemp farmer, so who better to write a book about it, you would think?

That is what I thought when I picked this up, hoping to get a fairly straight story about farming hemp and the details of that trade. Unfortunately, while there were good tidbits and facts which I could pull out of the narrative, the writer’s style was so chatty that most of what he had to say was irrelevant to anyone looking for hard information. It is full of breezy references to hemp grower collectives around the country and Doug’s musings, cutting back occasionally to his own New Mexico goat farm and the time a bear killed most of his goats.

I’m sure there are folks who will like Fine’s style, but it seems to me he prefers philosophizing about life to focusing on what he knows about raising hemp and how to convey it. So let me impart what I could squeeze out about that topic.

Fine sees hemp as a fast growing agricultural industry whose future no one can properly imagine yet. He is skeptical that any particular cannabinoid, CBD included, will define the market, preferring instead to look to blended cannabinoids and terpenes, or what he calls the entourage effect, and their interplay to more closely show the plant’s potential efficacy.

He is also skeptical that, despite the growth of the industry, jackpot size earnings will accrue to farmers of the plant. He refers often to the gold rush, where the real money was made not by the hardworking miners but by the middlemen selling shovels. The following paragraph early in the book states his views on getting rich quickly:

But even if you’ve come to this book looking for the Powerball numbers required for a CBD jackpot, I hope you’ll approach these pages with an open mind, ultimately absorbing the following message very carefully: Yes, the CBD market is predicted to grow to $1.65 billion by 2022 from $291 million in 2017. But, as with previous gold rushes, independent farmers (the prospectors) won’t be earning most of it, unless we market our own products regionally, rather than wholesale our harvests to glean whatever far-off commodities markets dictate.

This sentiment is expressed many times throughout this book and might be called Doug’s prime message to readers.

One tidbit I appreciated learning was Fine’s yarn about how the 0.3% by dryweight limit on THC in hemp got established. Apparently it was taken from a 1976 paper by two Canadian researchers who “arbitrarily” (to use their own word) adopted it as a way of discriminating between the two classes of plant – hemp (below 0.3% TNC) and marijuana (above). Until that point the two had always been one plant, called cannabis.

According to the 2018 Farm Bill, each state must submit a hemp program plan to the USDA for its approval. Fine writes about working with Vermont policy makers in helping to shape those plans, suggesting allowing seeds from any source, saved or purchased, from in state or not, so long as the federal THC limit is respected. I had hoped, as a former journalist, he would have researched the regs of all the states and published a table listing their key provisions, license approval protocols and fees, and the amount of production approved there for 2019. No such luck, however.

One of the major problems he details is the difficulty facing farmers when their crop tests too “hot” (over 0.3% THC). This can happen to virtually any farmer, Doug writes, as in fact cannabis is not two varieties but one and THC is a natural, healthy component of it. The level of THC varies a lot, as between in the seed and then in the plant, or once it is a plant in the flower and the leaf, or even in the same plant part between morning and evening. Given this variability, the state requirement for testing plant samples for THC and insistence on destruction of any crop coming in above 0.3% is cruel and unusual punishment for farmers. They either must grow inherently weak cannabis or submit to an all or nothing lottery concerning their crop’s survival. There are plenty of ways of diluting excess THC before the product goes to market, he says, like fiddling with nutrients such as nitrogen or harvesting early.

Testing is particularly useless when the product is seed or fiber, he believes, which would not be consumed for mind altering effects. Also, dioecious varieties, where the male and female organs grow on distinct plants, should not be tested. Only sinsemilla crops, where just the female flowers are allowed to blossom and there is thus no male pollen to produce seed, need testing. One final testing concern is that often non-psychoactive THC in its acid state (THCA) is combined in the results with active delta-9-THC when the crop is field-tested. But THC is not psychoactive in the acid form and this should not figure in the result.

Clearly Fine sees hemp seed as a soon-to-blossom industry in itself. Raw CBD seed prices recently hit $3,000 to $6,000 per pound, a tidy sum for a farmer requiring the 3 pounds per acre a CBD crop requires. There are even feminized seeds which cost as much as $7,000 per pound. Obviously seeds costing these amounts and containing high-performance genetics that have been developed over years will not be sold without some sort of control over replanting.

Says one developer he quotes: “It costs me fifty K to develop a new line of genetics. Someone who wants to buy a clone for four bucks and make an infinite supply is basically free-riding off our work and investment.”

But he feels farmers replanting seeds from their crops is an inherent right and needs to be respected. In a few years, he feels, seeds with little proprietary genetics will be available for replanting and others that are highly developed will have one or another kind of royalty attached to reward the geneticist or farmer who developed them.

So how do farmers recoup these big expenses? Doug pencils out a case where you pay $12,000 per acre for seed and / $6,000 per acre for other expenses (State of New Mexico estimate.) The crop flourishes and your yield is 1000 pounds per acre on each of your 20 acres.

In the wholesale market your raw biomass is worth perhaps $20 per pound, so you gross $20,000 per acre, clearing $40,000 on all 20 after your expenses of $18,000 per acre. This is four times what you might make on corn or soy or wheat. Which is not bad money, especially given that the $20 price could easily go up to over a hundred.

But if you turn that crop into 10,000 units of a value-added product and market the whole run, which Fine plans on doing, your net could be far larger. Or you could even process the CBD into crude oil. You would have to secure a toll processor, but a pound of flower that tests out at 10% CBD would get you 90 grams of crude at 80% CBD. Priced at $8 per gram, that is $720 per pound of flower. So those 1000 pounds from each acre can gross $720,000.

Of course securing a toll processor had better be done before you have a crop waiting. Otherwise you may be held up to exorbitant rates or terms which only the crush of not wanting your crop to rot would make you accept.

Hemp is planted at different spacings, depending on what your final crop will be. If you are interested in fiber, plant close together and encourage the plant to climb. For cannabinoids, a more distant spacing allows the branches and flowers to get more sun and create a bushier plant with more flowers and oil. A half-inch depth in moist soil is generally good. It can be done by hand, but a seed drill makes it much faster. Unless, of course, the seed drill malfunctions. Which, according to Doug, can be expected repeatedly. In fact he asserts that seed-drill delays make agriculture about as efficient as it was along the Euphrates some 10,000 years ago.

The moment you harvest hemp seed, the clock is running. You need to get it down to 8% moisture from as much at 20% before it rots. This involves commercial equipment like dryers, cleaners, and moisture testers. Unless you are fortunate enough to have on-site equipment, you will need to transport the crop to it. Which can take hours if it is far away and a big crop. Those hours you might not be able to survive if it is a hot, wet day. Once your seed crop is dry, you then need to clean it, again with large equipment. Finally, you can store it as any other dry seed, in mylar or woven plastic bags.

Decarboxylation is a fancy name for removing a carbon atom from a cannabinoid molecule, any one, and transforming it from its acid state into its active state. They are transferred in pretty much the same ratios as they were in the flower, a major benefit if your are convinced, like many, that the best way to experience hemp compounds is as a whole-plant extract. Decarboxylation happens as a result of applying heat and time. If you smoke several raw cannabis flowers, you vaporize and instantly decarboxylate the cannabinoids, thus experiencing their psychoactive state. If you eat them, however, they are still in their acid form and you don’t get much of a hit.

Cold ethanol is one of the ways to extract crude from raw hemp flowers. Processors can be simple tabletop units or much larger and fancier ones. You grind up your flowers, put them in a net bag, and into the glass dome of the processor. The dome contains a condenser which rains very cold ethanol (at -20˚ F) over the flower. The ethanol acts as a solvent, removing the flower’s cannabinoids and terpenes. Once filtered, these are concentrated to about 50 times their level in the flower but in the same ratios. The ethanol filters out and can be reused.

Fine quickly discusses other extraction methods: Water or Ice Extraction, Copper Steam Distillation, and Pressure (Rosin) Extraction, CO2 Extraction, and Immersion in Lipid Extraction. This last is done by getting a lipid (Doug used oil pressed from his hemp seed), immersing hemp flowers in it, and slowly raising the temperature to 220 ˚F and holding it there.

One of the themes Fine touches upon a lot is the value of hemp in sequestering carbon. He claims that the Environmental Protection Association (sic) says that hemp sequesters 14 metric tons of carbon per acre. First off, I think he means Environmental Protection Agency, a part of the US government. Although he footnotes this statement, when I looked it up no study or source was cited and Fine says he got the figure himself by averaging some test plots (unidentified) and adding in some carbon sequestered in another unidentified field, this one no-till. I’m prepared to believe that cannabis is good at carbon sequestration, but I’ll need a better source than he gives. From my study of sequestration (Soil Carbon Restoration: Can Biology Do the Job, NOFA/Mass, 2015) I find a figure of 14 tons per acre for an annual crop highly unlikely.

Doug is a strong proponent of hemp foods, particularly hempseed. He says it has ideal omega 9-6-3 ratios and magnesium levels difficult to find in vegan foods. He also says he talked with a professor at the University of Hawaii who believes that when hemp is part of a diet there are fewer lipids in the cells. Somehow lipids are inhibited, causing the cells to stay smaller and the person thinner. He also touts the importance of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an omega-6 associated with anti-inflammatory properties, and argues that hemp feed for his goats is an ideal food and leads to maximum performance. It could largely replace corn and soy with a protein-rich diet that would be better for the animals and better for the earth, he says.

Doug Fine is a hemp promoter of the first order. He has many thoughtful ideas to consider about how hemp can become a major part of our future, and what ways farmers could profit from raising it. If you like gonzo journalism and want to hear stories about hemp collectives around the country, this will appeal to you. Just don’t take every statement as fact.