Drugs

Meet the Small Country Betting Big on the Future of Hemp

Slovenia might choose cannabis crops over GMO monoculture, heading up a global renaissance.

Hemp harvest festival in Slovenia
Photo Credit: Doug Fine

More even than the arrival of the local polka band dressed in medieval peasant garb, it was the emergence of the scythes—blades attached to eight-foot wooden poles in the Slovenian village of Trimlini, that told me I was in the middle of a tradition longstanding enough to predate recorded history: a Balkan hemp harvest celebration. 

Though the official modern hemp industry is only 10 years old in Slovenia, everyone in this village seemed to know his or her part in this ritual. Many knew how to efficiently harvest the plant anthropologists call a “camp follower”—seeds we humans carried around with us when we were still nomadic. In fairness, our American hemp prohibition is only just now ending after 77 years.

This harvest experience was something of an extra-credit exercise following day three of the World Hemp Congress, a fast-growing event based for three years running out of a local high school campus. With the day’s lectures and workshops completed, all hundred or so Congress attendees, plus a couple of dozen locals, were suddenly swaying or outright spinning to the European soul music being brought forth by accordion, washboard and kazoo. Even the 12-foot-high hemp plants all around us seemed to be part of the dance. 

I was spun to the periphery of the field-side jam, where I found myself sandwiched between an Italian hemp fiber specialist, a Czech farmer who cultivates 60 acres of hemp flowers for the high-end beauty care market, and a medicinal cannabinoid purveyor from Luxembourg (also a former police commissioner of that country). This last fellow, Nicolas R. Wagener, was munching on a piece of pereci bread (a braided straight pretzel) and sipping a Riesling that was grown, aged and bottled a few villages away.

It was clear that the people who cultivated the 25 acres of hemp encircling the loose mass of dancers understood the harvest festival. This wasn’t a show. It was a (slightly) updated version of a pre-Christian ritual, a once-common feature of the human calendar: giving thanks for the productiveness of the soil. It’s been this way since before the Slavs meandered into this tiny mountainous paradise wedged between Italy, Austria, Croatia and Hungary in the 7th century and decided to look no further. 

Not a single engine was running. That wasn’t the case a week later and 600 miles north, where the massive combines of Holland’s Hemp Flax company simultaneously processed thousands of acres for flowers and fiber. But then there’s no one mode of hemp that fits every region. With its broad palette of fiber, seed and energy applications, hemp provides a wide agronomic tent that works from cottage industry to big ag.

The revived North American hemp industry, led by Canada, will surpass $1 billion in earnings this year, It’s a new industry (this is season 16), with new, huge harvesting equipment, new processors and new entrepreneurs, and it's growing 24% in cultivated acreage annually. The owner of one of Canada’s largest hemp oil processors, Shaun Crew, told me he doesn’t even deal with farmers who cultivate fewer than 1,000 acres. 

As I danced near the field on August 26, the harvest mode was old school—10,000 years old. The noise involved in a modern agricultural harvest—the combines and balers, the decorticators that strip the plant’s fiber from its bark—would not interrupt this scene because every one of the several hundred thousand hemp plants towering over the field were about to be harvested by hand. Representatives of the newest and oldest components of Slovenian rural life were in the same place, and the cannabis plant brought them together.

Hemp vs. Corporate Corn

Between tunes, the hemp field’s actual farmer, Igor Kulcar (also the district school’s tech teacher), offered me one of those terrifying, be-hooked scythes. I don’t speak the local Prekmurski dialect of this eponymous far Eastern Slovene region abutting the Hungarian border, but Kulcar’s face said unmistakably, “So, you’re a hemp journalist. Wanna learn how to be a hemp farmer?”

I did. In fact, it’s why I was here: to document the beginning of a battle for ascension between hemp and creeping corporate corn. Since the latter has high soil demand yet garners the same European Union $950 per acre subsidy here that soil-building hemp does, World Hemp Congress organizers believe Slovenia is waging one of the planet’s frontline battles for the future direction of humanity’s food, industrial and energy supply. 

Both hemp and big corn have powerful advocates in Slovenia. This, of course, is the case in so many places at this moment in history. And it’s an important issue to resolve. Are we going to feed ourselves, our power plants and our economies care of a plant that allows long-term repetition, or the one the board of Monsanto, or one of its successors, prefers us to choose?

Since this tension exists in my own New Mexico backyard as well, I told Kulcar I was ready for my freshman class in reaping fiber hemp. In North America, the Canadians have been harvesting almost exclusively for seed oil and the protein-rich “hemp hearts” that remain after oil pressing. Meanwhile, we Americans—once the world leader in hemp production—are now back at the drawing board when it comes to hemp.

The strength of the fibers resisting my blade provided field evidence of what I’d been hearing on the processing side of the hemp industry during my five years of research into the plant: Because of the fiber durability humans have been breeding into hemp for 10 millennia, the plant outperforms synthetic fibers in applications ranging from plastics to supercapacitor batteries to building insulation.

Biologist Simon Potter, project innovation manager at a Canadian industrial research facility called the Composites Innovation Center, says of hemp fiber performance versus chemical-and-petro-plastics: “I don’t understand, institutionally, how we forgot about this plant.” 

And that’s just based on performance, including in the entirely hemp fiber tractor body that Potter’s team now has in the field-testing phase. The lower energy needs and fewer toxic inputs are bonuses. “Industry will be returning to these fibers on a large scale,” Potter told me when we toured his facility last year. “We don’t have a choice.”

Thus, the future of industry starts in the soil. It thrilled me to think that some of the bast (long) fibers in the stalks I was now tugging in a tangled, overflowing armful toward a giant pile near a maple tree could go into a Mercedes door panel, a 3D printer, or the soundproof walls of a server factory. I mean, this was just a plant. A giant-stalked weed. When you factor per-acre yield, it’s no pipe dream to say it can—Potter believes it must and will—replace today’s fossil-based economy. 

Natural fibers taking over industrial production while healing soil and providing healthy food and sustainable energy through biomass waste? This reality on the ground, so recently a dream of people in tie-dyes and lava lamps but today endorsed by Kentucky’s most conservative politicians, had my forecast for my children’s planet looking brighter than it had since my ranch’s creek stopped flowing seven years ago due to what my old-timer neighbor called “stranger rain patterns than I’ve ever seen.”

The Slovenians are in the same boat, as we are all are: they aren’t nurturing their hemp history to prove a point, they’re trying to develop an economy. They’re trying to survive.

Planting Seeds

The seeds for the hemp crop I was mangling, Kulcar told me, were of the traditional regional Tiborszállási cultivar. “I got them at a Hungarian market just across the border,” he said. I could almost hear 60,000 American farmers groaning with envy. 

Besides not knowing how to cultivate and harvest hemp, another factor the fledgling U.S. hemp industry is dealing with this season is a worldwide seed shortage. The shortage is exacerbated by a domestic drug enforcement M.O. that has been slow to accept changes in federal law that allow hemp cultivation for research purposes.

While Kulcar and I posed together for a photo, I learned this specific field’s backstory. In my view, it says as much about hemp’s famous soil healing qualities as a dozen confirming university studies: Kulcar said that the land was lying fallow for the season (an important rotational phase oft-neglected in modern monoculture). So, “I just tossed the hemp in because the soil needed some work and I knew the Hemp Congress was coming, so we’d have a plot near the road to harvest.”  

Just 61 days later, the hemp crop, with its foot-long taproots whose very architecture provides erosion control and soil aeration essential to nutrient building, was twice my height and ready to harvest for the seed, the aforementioned long bast fiber, and the short hurd. This last is the key ingredient for the in-vogue, hemp-based building insulation known as hempcrete: mixed with lime or other natural binder, hempcrete outperforms fiberglass insulation.

Beyond Fast-Food Culture

I bought some hemp-and-clay toothpaste from a local entrepreneur named Vinko Škraban, whose company is called Planet Konople (“Konople” is Slovenian for “hemp”). “Hemp is an industry with both a past and a future here,” the 36-year-old told me. “But we’re just getting started as an independent nation with a modern industry. Every year more farmers see the writing on the wall and want to get on board the hemp train.”

That such a view might be allowed to prevail is a loud statement that the hugely impactful GMO monoculture era might prove to be brief. If only U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (who is a friend to hemp), would make such a statement. In the States we still, insanely, have federal tax dollars going to wild hemp field eradication and seed import seizure.

Slovenia’s choice comes at a time of lively debate about future healthy food systems. GMO monoculture near-ubiquity is being widely questioned the world over as a basic model. 

Everyone’s aware of GMOs in Slovenia, because nearly everyone, by default, is connected to the land. Many families make their own wine (more than one matriarch pushed a glass into my hands the moment I stepped onto her porch). Slovenia is ahead of the curve in hemp for a reason besides tradition and field-tested functionality. The place has the frontier population’s fiercely independent spirit: the local Radewski sparkling water company, for instance, recently turned down a buy-out offer from Coca-Cola. 

You see this kind of thing in cultures that for one reason or another got left alone in the 20th century. I noticed a similarly clear statement in Mendocino County, California’s 2004 banning of genetically modified crops (the first county in the U.S. to do so). Ten years later, the entire state of Vermont has followed suit. 

A 'Ninth Inning Comeback' for Small Family Farmers?

But there’s another side to entering the Digital Age with the blessing of a rural, independent, locavore mindset and economy. Ten years after Slovenia joined the European Union in 2004, the population of two million is facing 13% unemployment, largely because farming hasn’t been making young folks a living, until now.

Not just hemp’s friendly subsidy incentive, but the exponential value added provided by the plant’s finished products—as evidenced by the dozen hemp-related booths already hawking hemp flour, oil (as food and wood sealant) and soaps at that huge AGRA farm fair here —has agronomists in Slovenia singing a strikingly similar tune to the ones I’ve been hearing stateside. The theme is “ninth inning comeback for small farmers.”  

Indeed it’s no accident that this year's AGRA fair for the first time partnered with the overlapping World Hemp Congress that had brought me to the country. At the highest levels, officialdom in Slovenia has begun to embrace the idea that industrial cannabis can finally help the nation emerge from the tornado of inflationary economic uncertainty in which it’s been reeling since joining the EU.

Hemp is still a niche industry here, with Slovenia having to relearn how to market the plant just like the rest of the world is relearning. Its decade-long head start over the U.S., though, is significant: that’s 10 harvests, totaling 1,400 acres this year.

 “Value-added products are where the money’s at,” Planet Konople’s Škraban told me.

He’s almost certainly right. In Manitoba, Canada, I met another hemp businesswoman, 37-year-old Colleen Dyck, a triathlete and mother of five who uses her family’s 60-acre hemp harvest as an ingredient in the Gorp Energy Bars she markets nationwide. 

“You increase your hemp oil’s value a hundred times the moment you stick it in a bottle and call it shampoo,” Canadian oil processor Crew concurred.

On the cultivation side, as well, hemp is changing the playbook for farmers on both shores of the Atlantic. At least once a week I hear from someone in the American heartland, and the message is always the same: “We haven’t farmed our 40/400/4000 acres since the ‘90s because we didn’t want to be part of the chemical corn cycle, but are you serious about the hemp seed oil profits the Canadians are making? Because if so we might just get back at it.”

Hemp is returning family farmers to the land. Hallelujah. And this before the arrival of full federal commercial legalization of hemp cultivation in the U.S., which could come this Congress via a Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)-sponsored piece of legislation: Senate Bill S359, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act. Its passage is vital for allowing the U.S. economy to benefit from hemp’s lightning fast resurgence.

Hemp Diplomacy

Slovenian hempsters have history on their side: the former Yugoslavia was the world’s second largest hemp producer after WWII. However, for Slovenian Agriculture Ministry honchos to claim hemp is a major regional crop in 2014 would be like a U.S. Commerce Secretary declaring the Digital Economy to be the nation’s future industrial backbone on the day Woz’s first Apple appeared at a trade show in 1976: such a statement would be correct, but a bit premature for all but the most prescient politician to declare.

Plus, there’s always an old guard; in this case corn and seed companies married to the GMO cycle. All over the world the hemp narrative is similar: some batch of brave, usually politically well-connected pioneers decide to bring one of our longest-utilized plants back immediately, whether government regulators or the established agricultural mode is ready or not. 

In the tiny, conservative Eastern Colorado town of Springfield last year, 40-year-old father of three Ryan Loflin—benefitting from a decade of legislative work by a small core of hempsters like Lynda Parker, Jason Lauve and Michael Bowman—planted 60 acres of essentially smuggled hemp seed in order to prove that the crop took half the water that the failing local wheat crop demanded. 

Colorado is thus a year ahead in its efforts (which include rebuilding the lost U.S. seed stock) to bring back the American hemp industry. This year, ahead of federal law, commercial hemp farmers in the Rocky Mountain State have 1,600 acres in the ground with state permits. That number is expected to grow significantly with increased seed availability.

Real world markets are paying attention to hemp. That’s thanks to high seed oil prices in Canada, awareness of hemp fiber’s performance in European industry, and the fact that hemp provides a petroleum alternative. Not just at the pump, but for plastics and other Digital Age industrial applications—even at power plants. Hemp Flax, the Dutch Company with the impressive combines and one of Europe’s major fiber processors, has just expanded into Romania, and will be adding seed oil to its markets. 

Cumulatively, the cannabis plant’s return to humanity is the front end of a much-needed sustainable industrial revival that’s just getting started and isn’t going away. 

Doug Fine is the author of Farewell, My Subaru, Too High to Fail, and most recently, Hemp Bound. Books and films: Dougfine.com Twitter: @organiccowboy.