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Growing Jobs

Posted on May 4, 2004

Since the Bush administration took office, 2.8 million manufacturing jobs have been lost. Now that a section of the President’s Economic Report has expanded the definition of manufacturing jobs to include those in the fast-food industry, it seems the administration is scrambling hard for numbers, if not crumbs.

But some entrepreneurs like Denis Cicero have a ready solution for today’s jobless recovery: hemp. The owner of the Galaxy Global Eatery in Manhattan, which has served hemp-based foods since 1995, Cicero believes the fibrous plant could provide the very cornerstone of Republican economics — jobs and money.

“This is a burgeoning industry that’s waiting to happen,” says Cicero, whose 2002 book Hemp Cookbook captured the attention of health-minded celebrities. “There are 25,000 known applications for hemp, from paint varnishes, fabric, and cooking oil to thermal bricks and car parts. It’s unbelievable the number of jobs that could be created if it was legalized.”

But growing hemp remains illegal in the United States, where the DEA has taken a hard line on the crop as a result of the war against its psychoactive cousin, marijuana, even though hemp contains only trace amounts of THC. Once cultivated widely, particularly in Kentucky, hemp’s tough fibers were used for products ranging from rope, paper, clothing and canvas — whose name is derived from the Arabic word for hemp — including the canvas that once covered pioneer wagons heading out west. But in 1937, in an effort to crack down on marijuana, the federal government outlawed the plant only to backpedal when the Japanese cut off America’s supply from the Philippines. Roughly 14,000 acres were harvested for rope in 1942, and had the war not ended, the government’s goal the following year was 300,000 acres.

Although farmers cannot cultivate hemp, as viable foodstuff, the plant is beginning to make legal inroads. In March, California’s Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s interpretive rule banning edible hemp seed or oil. Labeled by 18 members of Congress as being “overly restrictive,” the regulation, issued in October 2001 without public notice, stood to bar foods containing trace amounts of THC under the Controlled Substances Act. The court’s order effectively allows the hemp foods industry to continue its commercial success.

For those in the business, the ruling suggests growing recognition of the plant’s vast market potential, which has rocketed in recent years. The Hemp Industry Association, which launched the suit against the DEA, estimates retail sales of hemp products at $200 million annually. According to John Roulac, founder of Nutiva, a Sebastopol, CA-based company that sells organic hemp and flax food bars, hemp is an “economic Jack in the Beanstalk.” “Sales are going so fast the farmers in Canada literally can’t keep up with our production,” says Roulac, whose business doubled this year to $1 million. “We’re actually branching out into coconut oil because strategically, we can’t rely on Canadian infrastructure,” he says.

One reason for hemp’s thriving sales is the content of its seeds, which are high in essential fatty acids — “good fats” the body can’t produce — such as Omega-3, which helps maintain optimal brain function and cardiovascular health. Such substances have been largely depleted by the Western diet and while fish offers a rich source, most contain traces of mercury — dangerous if consumed in large quantities. As an alternative source of Omega-3, hemp has been increasingly used in natural food products such as nutrition bars, nondairy milks, breads, cereals and even beer.

Hemp-free Farms

“It’s insane the way we’ve treated this crop. We’ve basically eliminated it from the landscape of our country,” says Andrew R. Graves, who comes from seven generations of Kentucky hemp farmers. Due to the DEA’s stringent restrictions, Graves, who now works in Georgia as a masonry contractor and has leased his farmland to make ends meet, has never actually grown hemp. But he watched his father harvest it. In 1998, the farmer and his 100-member Kentucky Hemp Grower’s Cooperative Association filed a federal lawsuit to cultivate industrial hemp. The suit was dismissed, crushing Graves’ entrepreneurial spirit. “Kentucky is struggling. In rural areas, we’re trying to develop some kind of new economic generator that will provide jobs and income and create a bigger tax base. Hellfire,” he says, exasperated, “you can buy the finished material here but you can’t grow the crop. It’s nuts.”

In Kentucky, which produced large quantities of government-subsidized hemp during World War II and where wild strands still grow, many farmers see hemp as a hedge against tobacco’s uncertain future. A fast-growing, multifaceted crop that can be raised without pesticides, hemp produces incredibly high yields, sometimes four times as much pulp per acre as wood pulp. It can also be used as a rotational crop and grows on marginal land where food crop production isn’t profitable. The DEA’s rules, however, have discouraged demand, leaving markets largely abroad or north of the border.

For the moment, though, hemp is off-limits to American farmers. Asked to remark on whether the Ninth Circuit Court ruling might pave the way for industrial hemp, the DEA declined comment. However, Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, an action group aimed at educating potential voters about industrial hemp and related issues, says the court’s ruling has raised hope. “We definitely feel very positive,” he says. And now that hemp’s legal status as a foodstuff is clear, Steenstra feels market demand will naturally drive a move towards industrial hemp. “American farmers deserve the same right to participate as those in Canada and the European Union,” he says.

Crop of the Future

“The government has been totally myopic,” says David Bronner, President of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, which includes hemp oil in its list of ingredients. Bronner, whose company pockets nearly $20 million in annual retail sales, feels the drug war hysteria has fueled excessive restrictions. Such limits, if applied to poppy seed bagels, for example — which have triggered false positives in drug tests for heroin — would make it illegal to sell them. “Hemp has never been psychoactive and pretty much every industrialized nation in the world cultivates and processes the crop. It’s not an issue.”

Indeed, industrial hemp is legally grown in over 30 countries worldwide and is recognized as a highly valuable agricultural commodity, netting nearly $1 billion. Germany’s DaimlerChrysler Corporation has equipped its Mercedes-Benz C-Class vehicles with natural fiber-reinforced materials — a blend of polypropylene, hemp and kenaf — and natural fibers are beginning to replace fiberglass as a cost-effective, high-performing material in the car industry. “In terms of market potential, let’s put it this way,” says Geofrey Kime, president of Hemp Tech, North America’s sole hemp refining facility based in Ontario, Canada. “In any given year there are 15 million cars produced in North America. That would take about 300 million pounds of (natural) fiber. That’s substantial.”

Yet, the value to the American market, for the moment, remains at zero. “How can Europe and Canada be doing something that’s not allowed in the land of the free and the home of the brave?” asks Joe Hickey, a hemp activist who has campaigned alongside Woody Harrelson and maintains the celebrity’s website. “If it wasn’t economically viable, people wouldn’t be growing it.”

Nutiva’s Roulac also feels America is overlooking a huge global investment. Detailing his future vision to build a processing plant in California, Roulac says he could create 40-50 new jobs — if hemp was legalized. “Do I need to keep writing million dollar checks to Canadian farmers, or can we do this is California and create jobs?” he asks. Cicero of Galaxy Global Eatery feels the same. “Hemp will produce jobs. No doubt,” he says. “It’s a staple grain, like barley or corn, and it has copious uses. Just about any manufacturing business could benefit.”

Dara Colwell is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn

Copyright © 2004, Dara Colwell. All rights reserved.