🌿 Hemp: The new “gateway” crop for regenerative agriculture?

Policy: Extractive farming methods are charting the US on course to deplete all of its fertile topsoils within the next 60 years. Meanwhile, rural communities are pressing the government to help growers restore US agriculture with more profitable, sustainable plants. After years of deliberation, lawmakers recently reversed a decades-old hemp ban in the 2018 Farm Bill - a suite of food and agriculture policies renewed every five years. Since this landmark decision, the non-psychoactive variant of cannabis has quietly become the fastest agricultural sector ever to generate a billion dollars of annual revenue in the US. By 2019, hemp was already planted across 285,000 acres nationwide. As thousands of idealistic farmers seek to capitalize on the “green rush,” we must not fail to recognize that hemp is one of humanity’s oldest plant allies.

With over 50,000 applications, it may not come as a surprise to hear that farmers have been cultivating hemp for thousands of years. Archaeologists have traced hemp products back to 8,000 BCE in Asian regions that are now modern-day China and Taiwan. Clothing brands like Patagonia, Prana, Levi’s, and Outerknown have led the consumer awareness effort by incorporating and showcasing sustainable hemp across their product lines. But textiles are just one of the known uses for the plant. Hemp seeds and oil are incorporated in food and medicine while its sturdy fibers are put to use in biofuels, bioplastics, building materials, paper products, and more.

As the hemp industry develops, environmentalists are also viewing the plant as a versatile tool with the potential to bolster the regenerative agriculture movement. For starters, hemp is naturally resistant to pests and predators, which obviates the need for pesticides. In addition to reducing growers dependence on chemical inputs (which reduces overhead costs), hemp can provide environmental benefits by:

  • Improving soil health: The resilient plant can be cultivated in almost every environment, from New York to California. Regardless of the climate, hemp generates high-yields with a short, 120-day harvest cycle, making it ideal for crop rotations. As a cover crop, hemp restores degraded soil by blocking out the room for weeds - reducing the need for synthetic herbicides - and adding diversity to crop rotations. Researchers have found that the agronomic impacts of including hemp in a crop rotation compound over time. And when harvested, hemp leaves behind plenty of biomass, which can be upcycled into added-value products or returned to the soil, feeding essential nutrients back into the ground. 

  • Supporting bioremediation: Bioremediation essentially means using living things to heal and cleanse soil after years of toxin build-up from industrial agriculture practices. Despite it being an annual crop, which needs to be replanted every season, hemp acts more like a perennial crop. Because of its deep and extensive root structure, hemp guards against weeds and serves as a natural soil preparation for rotations. Yet unlike perennials, hemp acts as a natural vacuum cleaner - accumulating heavy metals and other toxins from the soil before it enters surrounding groundwater. 

  • Increasing carbon sequestration: Hemp not only grows faster than trees, but it can also sequester large quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) back into the ground. Burning fossil fuels generates a majority of CO2 emissions. Thus, hemp is a zero-carbon energy source with applications in biofuel. Scientists estimate that for every ton of hemp cultivated, 1.63 tons of CO2 is removed from the atmosphere.

While the new plant has been praised as a “super crop” without sin, a hemp-based economy does not automatically make for a greener future. As the industry matures, it is up to farmers to ensure that hemp is grown in a way that heals the land, dissimilar from a conventional commodity crop, which erodes soil and externalizes pollution. New organizations - including First Crop, Fibershed, and Third Wave Farms - have emerged to ease the transition towards a model of regenerative hemp production. If done responsibly, industrial hemp has the power to lower the ecological impacts of food, fuel, and fiber production, empower small-scale farmers and create jobs in a variety of industries.

Watch: The Patagonia film, Misunderstood, is the complicated history of hemp in the United States. Hemp became a controlled substance in the 1970s, where it remained a Schedule 1 drug for nearly five decades. But for the first time since 1937, the 2018 Farm Bill legalized the cultivation of industrial hemp in the US. This documentary goes one step further by removing the stigma from hemp production and describing the material's promising future. The director, Campbell Brewer, succeeds at demonstrating the pivotal role that it can play in advancing sustainable agriculture and supporting rural communities.

Shop: Hudson Hemp is located on a 2,700-acre organic-regenerative farm in Hudson NY. Their regenerative farming techniques replenish ecosystems by mimicking natural systems and enriching biodiversity through smart water and nutrient cycles. Hudson Hemp’s no-till, cover-cropping, grazing, and companion plant systems promote a closed-loop system that reduces waste and reduces their dependency on outside inputs. In doing so, Hudson Hemp proves that land can be valued as an ecological resource while producing viable agricultural yields. And for a limited time only, our readers can use the code “REGENERATION” for 15% off their next online order.

The Regeneration is brought to you by PastureMap | Soilworks | Wholesome Meats.