This is a plea for my friends and neighbors who are small-scale farmers —
the people who I feel are doing the most important job on the planet. Please don’t fall for the hemp game! You’ll lose. Here’s why.
I fell in love with small-scale agriculture eleven years ago as a result of my involvement with the marijuana industry in Oregon and California. “The industry” was how many of us farming and food students out West made our real (albeit, seasonal) money and lived our lives as fluidly as we did. There were generations that this was true for; mine was probably the last.
I want to preface the body of this work by saying that I know that hemp (grown for cannabidiol or CBD flower in this context, a non-intoxicating substance that is known for its medicinal properties) and marijuana (grown for tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the compound that causes intoxication in medical and recreational cannabis) are two different crops entirely, with different legal statuses and histories that vary across state lines. This fact does not, however, alter much of the parallels I will be drawing between the two industries, for the purpose of this article.
I’d also like to point out that there are a multitude of social justice issues related to the hemp and marijuana industry; while this is something I won’t touch on here, it is very important when regarding the industries as a whole.
I describe my relationship with “the industry” as one of love and hate. On one hand, it introduced me to the idea that I enjoy the fruitful nature of working with my hands, which led me away from academia and intro agriculture. I know all parts of the marijuana industry’s farming process very well, and revere the plant for its medicinal potential, entertainment, and straight-up beauty. On the other hand, this industry is a horribly extractive, profit-driven, overblown, and, in many other ways, exploitative enterprise. When I decided it was no longer for me, I left thinking, “If we only put as many resources into growing good food as we do into growing good weed, the world might be a little bit better.”
From growing up in Colorado to eventually moving out west for my college years, it seemed legalization followed me wherever I went. I left the West Coast after six years of farming education to work in small-scale agricultural support here in Western North Carolina. And–surprise!–hemp legalization in NC followed, shortly thereafter. Hemp is all the buzz now in my grower circles, especially after the 2018 Farm Bill legalization and NC’s launch into hemp research.
My job these days is to educate folks on what they want to learn about growing, and right now that’s hemp. I don’t teach, myself; I hire the best teachers for the given subject. I prioritize highlighting “expert” experiences of those who have learned from doing which are usually experienced farmers.The problem is, the experts in hemp that I have access to are either: (1)
the folks at NC Extension, whose job is to do agricultural research for the state of North Carolina, or (2) farmers who have been growing the plant for three seasons or fewer.
Arguably, no one out here in North Carolina is yet a “hemp expert.” There’s a load of excitement and people doing good work to learn about the plant and posing themselves as “the first [insert descriptor here] hemp farm[er] in the state!” But there’s not a whole lot of experience navigating such a rapidly changing political, environmental, and legal landscape with such a “loaded” crop.
So, for research on this piece, I called a bunch of former growing associates from out west to ask for updates as to the economic, legal, physical, and social landscape since I last experienced it in 2013. My suspicions were confirmed with a few brief conversations. “You wouldn’t even recognize it,” a former boss, B, says of a rural small-scale agricultural area where I had spent 6 months living and working in Southern Oregon. “So much plastic, I mean every INCH of farmland is covered in plastic. And people have to keep expanding their grows to keep up financially,” she explains. “There’s so much more land in cultivation than there ever was six years ago. And it’s a complete monocrop.”
The false economic bubble cannabis growers out west have been living in seems to be rapidly slipping into flaccidity; the price of a pound has gone down by over 50% in the last two years, leading the growers to financial reprioritization, at best, and business collapse or bankruptcy, at worst. Previously well-paid employees have been replaced by machines. Inflated land prices have gentrified formerly affordable rural areas. Every few months, growers need to throw thousands of dollars at problems imposed by new legal regulations. People are scrambling to get out of their land and debt as fast as possible. “The industry” is dying a slow and painful death, taking with it a lot of well-meaning growers who are burned out and bitter.
About flower sold for CBD, B says: “There’s not enough demand to keep up with the supply and people are starting to see it as warehouses get overloaded. Most people are still sitting on product from last year and we’re about to go into harvest season.” I’ve wondered about this, myself, going into the mostly empty CBD storefronts in Asheville.
When asked about it, a lonely shopkeeper said to me, gesturing to the empty room, “Oh, this? We’re really ultimately just waiting for recreational [maijuana] to become legal. You know, building up our branding and getting our foot in the door. We don’t get enough [CBD] purchases to float this project financially, but that will change [with legalization].”
This has also been confirmed by a local NC grower. “Loads of folks are still sitting on product from last year without any way of getting rid of it,” he explains. With the strict state regulations on final product quality, most buyers are still buying exclusively from the West Coast. Regardless of where the bud is coming from and why, it’s a flooded market.
These are a few of the reasons small farmers will lose at the hemp game, if they play it. In summary, however, the two most critical ones for all small growers considering getting into growing hemp as a cash crop are:
- 1) Capitalism & Big Ag: The legislation will always move in the direction of favoring corporate farming operations, and permitting for small growers will eventually either be unnecessary or cost prohibitive to obtain, because of commodification.
- 2) A rapidly changing political, economic, and legal climate: If you roll with the legislation changes, chances are you won’t be a small farmer for very long, either due to the pressure to increase production or going out of business because of the financial stress of keeping in compliance.
“I believe there will still be a niche in boutique strains,” says another friend, N, who has spent the last 15 years growing in the industry and now grows grapes at a vineyard. “I’d tell your folks to get really good at growing one strain, or breed their own for a specific compound — focus on organics, build yourself a niche market, and sell it small-scale. But don’t only grow hemp. Food is much more important, and more sustainable financially.”
It’s our small farms that made me fall in love with this area, as we have the largest per capita concentration of small diversified farms in the entire country here in our Western North Carolina counties. This is a love note to them. I’m not saying don’t grow hemp. I’m saying, take it slow and be careful! Don’t put your eggs in one basket (which comes naturally to the diversified farmer, anyway). Don’t expect it to be a cash crop for very long (in fact, it’s already a flooded market). We all know seeking silver bullets is rarely, if ever, fruitful. I’m sharing this opinion because it seems like no one, even the “hemp experts,” are openly talking about this, and we need to be.
Finally, for those of you who are not farming yet but thinking about beginning to farm hemp: Please help our small farmers and spare yourselves the hard lessons learned by “the industry” in the west. Don’t repeat their mistakes! Don’t add to the damage caused by a flooded market! Instead, support the WNC local food economy by supporting those who will be running farming businesses here long after the “buzz” is over.
“Tell your farmers to keep growing food,” says B. “Ultimately, it’s going to be worth more, anyway.”
Sera Deva has a B.S. in Microbiology & Agroecology from The Evergreen State College. She works with Organic Growers School as the Farmer Programs Coordinator and Conference Curriculum Coordinator, serves on the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) Board of Directors, and is the Administrative Director for The Firefly Gathering. When she’s not geeking out over genetics, systems theory or soil hydrology, she spends her time growing and eating food in the South Toe Valley in Burnsville, NC.