Opening the field

In addition to legalizing recreational marijuana, Proposition 64 would allow hemp cultivation

ChicoBag founder Andy Keller displays a Produce Stand bag, made from blending cotton and hemp fibers, in his company’s Chico headquarters.

ChicoBag founder Andy Keller displays a Produce Stand bag, made from blending cotton and hemp fibers, in his company’s Chico headquarters.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

To keep current on new businesses and innovative products geared toward eco-conscious customers like his, Andy Keller makes a point to attend Natural Product Expo trade shows.

Keller—founder of ChicoBag, the local company that pioneered compact reusable shopping totes—has observed a trend: trendiness. Particularly on the food side, one item a year seems to become chic.

“A few years ago it was the acai berry; everyone was on the acai berry kick,” he said. “Then it was the chia seed; everything’s got chia seed in it.”

Hemp is on the cusp of that cachet. Oils, salves and textiles have existed for years—ChicoBag, in fact, incorporates industrial hemp into the natural-fiber blend for its Produce Stand bag—but Keller has seen offerings expand. In fact, Gridley’s Mary’s Gone Crackers offers a Chia & Hemp variety in its Super Seed line.

“As it becomes legalized in different states,” he said, “the interest in it as a health product or a food product will increase, and the demand will increase.”

Come November, California could jump on the legalization bandwagon, joining 16 states that allow cultivation of industrial hemp for commercial purposes. This would happen with the passage of Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which includes hemp provisions as part of the overall regulation of cannabis.

Hemp differs from marijuana most notably for its low concentration of the psychoactive compound THC. Under Prop. 64, industrial hemp must contain no more than 0.3 percent THC; by comparison, marijuana’s THC content is 1 percent to 5 percent in average plants and around 20 percent in some specially cultivated hybrids.

California already has a hemp-cultivation law on the books, but that part of the Food and Agriculture Code will not become active unless the federal government removes hemp from the drug schedule where it sits with marijuana. Prop. 64—currently polling at 60 percent voter support—would bypass that law and process.

Michael Bowman, board chair of the National Hemp Association, sees this initiative as a positive development. A Colorado farmer-turned-advocate who lives part-time in California, he worked with his industry group to get hemp included in the 2014 Farm Bill. (Section 7606 permits hemp cultivation for research.)

“Industrial hemp is an agricultural commodity—it is a crop that should be treated as such,” Bowman said by phone from Pasadena. “If I have corn, I can make cattle feed or high fructose corn syrup or bourbon. If I have wheat, I can make bread or beer. It’s the same thing with an industrial hemp plant: I can make fiber for textiles, CBD oil [i.e., cannabidiol, for nonpsychoactive remedies], protein cake for human consumption that we would use as a supplement.

“Those plants, growing next to each other, not a single one of them poses a single health threat to anyone.”

Hemp is a green crop, beyond its associated color and money potential.

“The California implications are significant,” said Bowman, who mentioned he’s currently working with a hemp researcher at Cal Poly Pomona, Tony De Veyra.

Hemp grows in a variety of soils, Bowman explained, and even can help reduce the salinity level in high-salt soil prevalent in the Imperial Valley. It requires less water than many other crops, such as cotton—and compared to cotton, he said, “it can grow four times more fiber per acre, with valuable coproducts.” Hemp also requires fewer herbicides and pesticides.

“Lastly,” Bowman continued, “as we look through the climate goals that the state of California has, industrial hemp absorbs four times more CO2 per acre than a standing forest or any crop we could grow.”

Colleen Cecil, executive director of the Butte County Farm Bureau, has not heard any talk among her members about hemp-growing should Prop. 64 pass.

She anticipates issues. If cultivating both hemp and marijuana becomes legal per Prop. 64, neighboring growers risk cross-pollination. That proximity concern, Bowman said, delayed implementing Oregon’s law.

Within the confines of their farms, Cecil said hemp represents an “unknown” to local farmers.

“We already have some challenges—there’s a particular chemical input that you’d use on rice that would completely kill a walnut orchard,” she explained. “There’s scientific application information that’s truly lacking about how industrial hemp would grow in our environment, with those crops that we already do grow.”

Hemp poses distinct manufacturing challenges, at least for textile-makers. Getting the plant defoliated, then its fibers soft and pliable, requires enzymes, water, machinery and sometimes chemicals.

“It’s not necessarily like this environmental wonder on the production side,” Keller said. “On the growing side, it has a good story; on the production side, it’s not as good of a story.”

Still, he said, because of its image, hemp promises “a big opportunity that will go for years in the future, which could drive industry in the North State.”