Asaud Frazier enrolled in Tuskegee University with plans to study medicine, but by the time graduation rolled around in 2016, he’d already switched gears. Instead of becoming a physician, Frazier decided to farm hemp.
“I was always interested in cannabis because it had so many different uses,” he said. “It’s a cash crop, so there’s no sense in growing anything else. Cannabis is about to totally take over an array of industries.”
Frazier doesn’t come from an agricultural background, but while he was growing up in Ohio, he watched his father become a master gardener. He also made frequent trips to visit relatives in Alabama, where his family owns a five acres farm. Today, he’s growing hemp on that land as part of a two-year pilot program for small farmers in the state.
“I love getting an opportunity to grow such a beneficial plant,” Frazier said.
A graduate of a historically Black college known for empowering African-American farmers, Frazier said he’s received the training necessary to thrive in agriculture. He has two degrees from Tuskegee—a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and a master’s degree in plant and soil sciences that he completed last spring. Having created a farm LLC in 2018, the 26-year-old joins a growing number of young farmers across the country who are investing in hemp.
According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, released in April, found a small but significant rise in the number of farmers younger than age 35. And the 2018 federal farm bill’s reversal of a decades-old hemp ban has led agricultural experts to predict that the percentage of young farmers will keep rising.
That’s largely because the market for the hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD), used to treat conditions such as chronic pain, anxiety, and insomnia, is predicted to reach $23.7 billion by 2023, up from approximately $5 billion this year. The immense interest in CBD oil has seen the estimated quantity of hemp planted in the U.S. more than triple—from 78,000 acres in 2018 to 285,000 acres this year.
While veteran farmers are among those planting hemp, so are young farmers, both from agricultural backgrounds and none whatsoever, hoping to capitalize off the “green rush.” But the newcomers face obstacles in their bid to strike it rich, including trouble securing bank loans, processing bottlenecks, fierce competition, and inexperience cultivating cannabis.
“It’s harder to grow than most people think,” said Shawn Lucas, an assistant professor of organic agriculture and industrial hemp specialist at Kentucky State University. “You have to understand the life cycle of the crop, understand your soil, and how to feed the crop. If you’re going without [an understanding of] basic biology and good quality soil, you’ll be in trouble.”
Lucas and his KSU colleagues have recently seen so many newcomers pursue hemp farming, they now jokingly refer to it as the “gateway crop.” Since the average age of the U.S. farmer is 59.4 years old, KSU has worked to get young people interested in farming, but high land prices and a lack of expertise pose barriers, said Lucas.
Alongside that growth of and interest in CBD are concerns about encouraging sustainable practices among hemp farmers and CBD producers. Since the Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t approved pesticides for hemp use, the plant is, at least in theory, typically grown without synthetic chemicals. The watchdog group Center for Food Safety (CFS) has raised concerns about the byproducts of the growing hemp market, and recently evaluated 40 companies that make CBD tinctures, capsules, and lotions, giving almost half a failing grade on its “Hemp CBD Scorecard.”
Findings like these point to the larger issue of whether the rush to enter the market will also spur growth in sustainable production. The public benefit company First Crop, which promotes regenerative hemp farming, launched this year to give cannabis farmers support and services. Michael Bowman, the company’s cofounder, said that hemp has gained such popularity in recent years that farmers in all parts of the country—from the Pacific Northwest to the Deep South—are gravitating toward the plant.
“I could probably point you to someone in every state, to a small group of farmers, who want to grow it,” Bowman said. “We’re seeing red states politically that are grabbing this and embracing hemp at a pace equal to blue states, regardless of ideologies and politics, which is nice.” According to the advocacy group Vote Hemp, 13 new states—including Illinois, Massachusetts, Alabama, Oklahoma, and California—legalized hemp growing in 2019, while 21 new states—including New York, Indiana, Colorado, Washington, and the Carolinas—did so in 2018. Every state has enacted pro-hemp legislation but four: Idaho, South Dakota, Mississippi, and New Hampshire.
The author of a 2014 Farm Bill provision that allowed for hemp cultivation in states that legalized the crop’s production, Bowman is particularly excited about the young people pursuing farming careers. The percentage of young farmers may be rising, but as a group, farmers have aged over the past three decades. A 2011 study found that they’re six times as likely to be over age 65 than under age 35. Hemp is changing this trend, Bowman said.
“We are watching these young farmers, beginning farmers, stemming the tide,” he said. “After watching the drain of our young people leaving agriculture, this is the first sign we’ve had in quite some time—hemp is bringing people back to farming.”
Young people’s interest in hemp excites Kentucky farmer Mike Lewis. In 2017, he founded Third Wave Farms, which grows, processes, and sells hemp and educates farmers about the crop.
“For the first time in generations, people see opportunity and potential to make a decent living from agriculture,” he said. But Lewis also believes there’s a potential downside to the green rush.
“A lot of the newer farmers lack generational knowledge and experience, and unlike conventional crops, there is not an extensive amount of research and information available to newer farmers,” he said. “There is a lot of trial and error still going on. We see just as much failure as we do success.”
A Controversial Crop
Because hemp, like marijuana, belongs to the cannabis sativa family, legalizing cultivation of the crop has taken years. U.S. lawmakers have often treated hemp and marijuana as the same, despite the fact that hemp contains just a fraction of a percent of THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana. Hemp, on the other hand, contains an abundance of CBD, and fiber from the plant is used for everything from car parts to clothing. Hemp evangelists like to point out that George Washington cultivated the crop on his five farms, using it for rope, apparel, sail canvas, and fishing nets. And Frazier remarked how he was inspired to grow cannabis, in part, by agricultural scientist and inventor George Washington Carver—one of Tuskegee’s most famous faculty members.
A fifth-generation Colorado farmer, Bowman said his octogenarian parents used to disapprove of hemp. But when his mother discovered that CBD oil could ease her joint pain, they became fans of the plant.
“My parents are part of the generation born just prior to the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937,” he said. “This idea of ‘reefer madness’ and all of the hysteria over the plant, all of the trickery to lump industrial hemp in with marijuana got baked into their brains. It’s all they’ve ever known. It’s all the senators of the same generation have ever known.”
Since cannabis has been criminalized well into the 21st Century, Americans born long after the 1930s continue to view hemp negatively. When Dion Oakes, 26, approached his father-in-law Shanan Wright, 54, about farming hemp, the agricultural veteran brushed him off at first.
“Oh, you’re just a pothead,” Oakes recalled his in-law telling him.
Wright didn’t deny this account, admitting that his perspective changed when he learned more about the plant.
“It was just education that changed my mind,” Wright said. “I’ve been a farmer for 30 years growing mostly potatoes. Hemp is just a nice change. It’s something refreshing.”
To date, he and Oakes have cultivated the plant for six years as Wright-Oakes LLC in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. The fact that it doesn’t require a ton of water made hemp very attractive to them.
“We started out indoors with 100 or so plants, just to see what the plant would do here in the Valley,” said Oakes, who began farming on a potato-seed operation after high school. After growing hemp indoors, Oakes and Wright then grew it on 30 acres, and, from there, on 300 acres. The pair went on to double their hemp acreage and are growing the crop on more than 2,500 acres this year. They now collaborate with First Crop to educate first-time hemp farmers.
“The biggest thing that’s driving this is money,” Wright said of the newcomers to the industry. But he added that young farmers and old farmers can learn from each other. Older farmers have years of experience cultivating crops while young people adapt easily as the agriculture industry evolves.
“These younger people are coming back into farming with a whole new vigor,” Wright said. “They understand the new technology way better than some of us older people. Farming is changing rapidly. There are GPS-driven tractors, and all of the equipment is digitally controlled.”
A Crash Course in Hemp
At 48, Becky Longberg hesitates to describe herself as a “young farmer.” Eleven years the junior of the average U.S. farmer, she’s certainly “youngish” for agriculture, an industry she was new to six years ago when she teamed up with her father, Ed Berg, to plant, grow, and harvest hemp through their business Salida Green in Salida, Colorado. They use their CBD extractions to make and sell CBD body products under the name Salida Hemp Company. Although Longberg formerly ran a bail bond business, she recalled always having an interest in growing things.
“Everywhere I’ve ever lived, I’ve always planted a garden,” she said. “I plant trees. I plant veggies. I plant flowers.”
She also once worked for a landscape architect who taught her about water-wise plants. This set the foundation for her to develop an interest in permaculture, which her father shared. So, when he reached out to her about cultivating hemp, Longberg decided to join the operation, despite the fact that neither of them had farming experience. The family faced a steep uphill learning curve—not just in cultivating hemp but in navigating the state’s water laws during a drought and managing their finances amid the cannabis’ industry complicated banking landscape. It can be difficult for hemp farmers to get bank loans or insurance due to hemp’s association with marijuana. Farmers who grow other crops in addition to hemp typically have more options.
“The banks are concerned that if there’s any marijuana in our situation, they could have their charters shut down,” Longberg said. “Banks are being very cautious about working with marijuana and hemp, so this is all coming out of our own pocket.”
In September, the House of Representatives passed the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act to protect banks that do business with cannabis companies. Since marijuana remains illegal on the federal level, financial institutions that serve such companies could face serious penalties. This has resulted in banks largely avoiding doing business with hemp operations, though Lewis said that Third Wave hasn’t run into this problem.
“It also helps that we primarily sell wholesale and have no retail business so don’t really have a need for credit card processing at this time,” he explained.
The federal government deems hemp with more than 0.3 percent THC to be psychoactive, but sometimes the plants have slightly higher THC. This has resulted in hemp farmers having to mow down their crop.
“Some varieties of hemp have been bred to have high CBD oil,” Lucas said. “Usually, these breeds are pushing the 0.3 percent THC threshold.”
Environmental factors may also cause THC to spike, but hemp plants with a bit more of the chemical aren’t equivalent to marijuana, Lucas said. Marijuana plants can contain as much as 20 percent THC.
“As a researcher, I’d love to see the threshold change,” he said. “You have plants being bred in Colorado, Washington, Oregon that may be low in THC, and then people in Kentucky buy these plants, and the plants respond differently. So, suddenly it’s accidental marijuana. No, it’s hemp responding a little differently than where it was bred. There’s a lot of breeding happening in very-controlled indoor environments, and then the plants are released and are exposed to Mother Nature.”
Rather than a banking institution, Longberg and her family are using retirement funds to finance their hemp enterprise, and Frazier said that he’s using the money he earns from agricultural consulting to pay for his. But as new farmers invest their savings into hemp, it is garnering headlines that might make would-be cultivators cautious.
Too Good to Be True?
Just as açai, kale, and quinoa have been hailed as “superfoods,” hemp has been praised as a “supercrop.” It is a “holy plant without sin,” Michael Bowman said. “There’s something in this plant for everyone, no matter if it’s fuel, feed, fiber, building materials, and bio materials as well.”
But putting hemp on a pedestal may have set it up for a backlash. Recent articles have sounded the alarm about overproduction and the confusing government guidelines surrounding the crop. In September, Bloomberg reported that Delta Separations, a manufacturer of CBD extraction machines, estimated that $7.5 billion in hemp may go to waste because there aren’t enough processors for the crop and many farmers have yet to find buyers.
“A lot of people are coming in without having buyers for their product lined up at the end of the season,” Lucas said. “Some people are scrambling to find a buyer, and sometimes the buyer is sending letters to farmers saying, ‘We overestimated what we could buy.’ The processors are breaking contracts with the farmers, and the farmers are left holding the crop. It’s a tricky market.”
Ideally, farmers will have an estimated number of buyers before planting their seed. Lucas said that overproduction is affecting the hemp industry, in part, because people with limited experience are making their way into agriculture. In addition, states may take so long to approve a grower’s application to cultivate hemp that the farmer may be forced to quickly plant the seed without knowing how many buyers they’ll have. Bloomberg cited a Whitney Economics finding from July that stated 65 percent of hemp farmers were unable to obtain a crop buyer.
“It is hard to believe how many people planted this crop without a harvest, post-harvest, or marketing plan,” Lewis said. “It is easy to say it is a processing bottleneck, but the reality is the bottleneck was caused by overproduction and poor early-stage planning. The bottleneck was caused by people speculating planning on the production side as well. After this season, a lot of people may be a bit more wary of jumping in.”
While speculation and hype may serve as a damper on the continued rapid growth of hemp farming, many of the farmers that Civil Eats spoke to see hemp as more than a potential income stream.
“Agriculture has become this commodity,” Longberg said. “It’s become this corporate thing, but it’s not about money. It’s about living well, redefining how we live at every level.” She says she decided to farm primarily to give back to the planet, and she aims to make her cultivation process as organic as possible.
While Frazier hopes to profit from hemp, he said that he takes a spiritual approach to the land he farms in recognition of his ancestors’ sacrifices. He hopes the burgeoning hemp industry makes agriculture more equitable than it has historically been for people of diverse race and class backgrounds.
“I think this industry is unlike any other industry,” he said. “You can be really successful off of simple partnerships just like that. It’s a green rush, and if we get left out this time, it’s our fault. You don’t need a billion dollars to make a lot of money in this industry. You just need to know what you’re doing.”
Top photo: Mike Lewis and Shelby Floyd in a hemp field in Kentucky. (Photo credit: Anna Carson Dewitt Photography, courtesy of Third Wave Farms)