Can hemp save the Ogallala aquifer and solve just about every problem?
by Allen Best
Hemp enthusiasts have a tendency to wax happily about hemp being the solution to just about everything. Michael Bowman certainly presents it that way.
“I hate to oversell something, but if you give me a problem, you can probably find a way to solve it with hemp,” he said at a meeting in Golden, Colo., on Oct. 30.
Bowman is a farmer turned activist. He’s in his 50s, with brown hair graying slightly at the temples. He speaks with confidence and skill, and he has had many opportunities to do so in the last decade as a founding board member of 25X’25, a group that advocates a more sustainable path for rural America.
His great-grandfather homesteaded in far eastern Colorado in the late 1880s, in the area west of Holyoke. It’s one of the last settled regions of Colorado. Water was the principle deterrent. Aside from the South Platte and Arkansas Rivers, with their snowmelt, the creeks and rivers here are thin. Not until the development of cheap coal-fired power and introduction of high-capacity vertical pumps were the limitations of this arid climate surmounted.
Since the 1960s and 1970s, drafting of the Ogallala aquifer has allowed farmers around Wray, Burlington and Springfield to expand operations, particularly corn. Federal policies have further assisted in creating an economy of relative affluence. It’s not Aspen or even Denver, but per-capita incomes might surprise you.
This period of affluence cannot continue any more than the boom days of hard-rock mining at Leadville, Ouray and other mountain towns once ended, and for fundamentally the same reason. The inter-related aquifers are declining far more rapidly than they are being replenished. In some places, the water may last for another generation, even two. But pumps for some farms and towns have already started wheezing. For others, it’s just a matter of time.
Bowman argues that hemp can be part of the solution. It requires less than half the amount of water needed to grow corn. Both can be grown with natural average precipitation of 16 to 18 inches, but for corn to prosper, it needs 30 inches.
Hemp can also serve multiple other purposes. It can be used an absorbent in industrial cleanups. It can also be used to make paper. The Constitution and Declaration of Independence were both written on paper made from hemp. Because of its long strands, hemp paper recycles better than paper made from wood. It can be —and is—used in clothing.
Wrong side of the tracks
In a presentation at the Jefferson County chapter of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society, Bowman even pointed to Henry Ford, who created an auto whose body was made from hemp and was powered by ethanol.
Why haven’t you heard about Ford’s ethanol-powered hemp-mobile? Bowman points to a conspiracy of divergent interests that put us on a road of fossil fuels and chemicals. DuPont patented synthetic fibers, and the Rockefeller family was interested in developing oil resources. And persuaded by drug crusader Henry J. Ansligner, Congress in 1937 agreed to lump hemp with marijuana on the wrong side of the tracks. Later, all cannabis—including hemp—was made a Schedule 1 controlled substance, i.e. an illegal drug. By the law, mere growing of hemp could put you in prison.
Bowman stands on firm ground in at least part of this conspiracy theory. If you study the congressional record from the 1930s, you find all manner of specious reasoning to which even the American Medical Association objected. The strategy was to associate marijuana with people on the racial, economic and cultural margins with marijuana—and to do so further by linking marijuana to violent crime and general degeneracy.
Hemp was a casualty of this wrong-headed crusade.
Bowman advances the argument. He defines this path not taken as leading us toward include ever-expanding amounts of chemicals and, of course, reliance on fossil fuels. The wonderful production of farms requires massive tributes of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. In an aside, he pointed to the requirements of Monsanto that further create walls against sustainability.
Other nations, even if they have not legalized cannabis for recreational purposes, have distinguished hemp. Canada, for example, now has 50,000 acres of hemp. Bowman said 66 industrialized nations allow production of hemp
Colorado’s wild horse ride
In adopting Amendment 64, Colorado, voters in 2012 cleared the path not just for sale and consumption of cannabis but also specifically authorized production of industrial hemp. The difference, as defined by the amendment approved by voters in2 012, is that hemp must contain less than 3 percent of the psychoactive agent THC. For recreational marijuana, of course, THC is the point.
“Amendment 644 put us on a very interesting horse ride,” said Bowman.
In the wake of that legalization, Crested Butte resident Ryan Loflin last year planted a hemp crop on his family farm near Springfield, in southeastern Colorado. This was before state regulations had been drawn up, putting him in violation of both state and federal law. He escaped trouble, though.
This year, with the regulations governing hemp production now adopted, farmers planted 1,600 acres of hemp around Colorado. State regulations require sample testing of plots. Just two of the farm plots this year showed illegal amounts of THC.
One of nine members of Colorado’s Industrial Hemp Advisory Committee, Bowman said he believes most of the hemp grown this year was for seeds. By federal law, seeds are illegal and so cannot be shipped through normal commercial channels. So the seeds now being produced will be used for larger acreages in coming years.
Where will all this hemp go? Bowman identified a variety of uses. Hemp seeds can be compressed into protein. Fiber is another possibility. Globally, growing cotton requires 1 percent of land surfaces and consumes 30 to 40 percent of all chemicals while demanding great amounts of water.
But Colorado’s hemp production will remain small, he suggested, until hemp is addressed by Congress. As with recreational marijuana, banks will not touch hemp. Federal crop insurance, which is so important to corn growers, is not offered for hemp production.
What will Congress do?
The White House wants Congress to resolve this instead of acting by executive order. Will Congress carve out a path for legalized hemp? Bowman pointed to strong support that crosses the political aisle. It’s a tent big enough for the likes of Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders, two U.S. senators with very different perspectives in most cases.
Congress did authorize research plots, although Colorado State University is still not moving forward because, according to Bowman, “they don’t think the law went far enough.” Like the bank, universities have fretted about losing eligibility for federal funding.
Bowman travels to Washington D.C. frequently as a representative of 25 by ’25. He sees need for a strong change in federal policy beyond clear legalization of industrial hemp.
“This whole program is designed for us to grow corn,” he told CRES members. He wants to see “a good off ramp” from the corn-growing policies to those that embrace a wider variety of production, including that of hemp.
In Congress, and elsewhere, he thinks that hemp is understood as something distinct from THC-infused cannabis, a more difficult sell. “It’s difficult to separate them when you have Colorado license plates, but I do think we have done a good job,” he said.
Can hemp really be all that important in Colorado, crowing out the unhealthy reliance on thirsty corn crops? The 50,000 acres in Canada would suggest that the market isn’t all that strong, but Bowman said it’s still early for Canada – and definitely so for the Colorado.
But on farms reliant upon Ogallala water, it’s time to begin pushing alternatives. Bowman cited one of his family’s wells. A decade ago it was delivering 2,300 gallons of water a minute. Production has declined to 1,800 gallons. Within the next decade he expected production to further drop to 1,000 gallons.
“The sheer availability of water will drive us (to pursue new crops),” he said.