Filed Under Jobs & Money

Here’s a riddle for you: you can eat it, you can wear it, but it’s illegal to grow it in the United States. What is it?

Hemp.

And yet, the Federation of American Scientists, in a report to Congress last year, estimated the U.S. demand for hemp to be about $580 million annually. The United States is a leading consumer of hemp and the only industrialized country that still bans growing it.

Activist Mike Lewis is working to reverse that. His work is featured in a new short film called Harvesting Liberty that’s backed by high-end outdoor apparel company Patagonia, and which sees its release just as a legalization proposal — the “Industrial Hemp Farming Act” — awaits action in Congress. As the founder of the Growing Warriors, a non-profit that teaches veterans how to farm, Wilson has been granted federal permission to grow hemp (he found a loophole; an amendment to the Farm Bill) but he won’t stop there.

Harvesting Liberty shows the benefits that hemp farming holds for food, fuel, fiber, and families in a struggling community in rural Kentucky. Lewis and his team have made strides in the short time they’ve been fighting for the legalization of hemp farming, including the symbolic gesture of flying an American flag made from hemp at the U.S. Capitol last year. On July 4, a petition will be delivered to Congress to legalize the cultivation of hemp in the United States.

Inverse spoke with Lewis about his investment in the hemp industry, the crucial difference between hemp and marijuana, his conflicted feelings about military, and the importance of small-scale farming in America’s historical fabric.

You started Growing Warriors before the hemp became part of it, right?

Yes. I was interested in the security of it. Why are our soldiers not self-sufficient? Why are they asking for a handout? That was what spawned it.

How did you start learning about hemp and its potential?

Well I didn’t at first. At first I got involved with lobbying, for Senate Bill 50 just to support Kentucky agriculture commissioner James Comer. That was kind of it until I met Rebecca Burgess from Fibershed. I started seeing some of the artisanal stuff and I started reading about textile production, just piecing together that you can’t have food security without land security. So if we don’t take care of the land that feeds us, it doesn’t matter what we’re doing.

When you have all this diversity, not just in the plant, the amount of things you can use this for and make from it is kind of dumbfounding. I saw it as a path to cleaning up our land. Maybe changing a little bit of peoples’ minds about how we consume things and we consume cheap shit all the time!

Were people skeptical because they were associating it with weed?

It still happens a lot. We’re surrounded by a couple churches that still think we’re up to something else. It’s part of the misinformation that comes from the other side, trying to hold us back

How much of your mission is reversing the misconception?

I think right now that’s my whole mission. That’s the mission of House Bill 525. At least some people will say, ‘wait a minute!’ For the longest time the state police and the DEA still say we’re going to hide our marijuana crops in [our hemp crops]. I can’t believe these guys are in charge of government agencies and they don’t understand basic biology!

Could you tell me more about the science behind that?

When they’re growing for THC they’re growing females. They want flowers. They don’t want seeds in there because two things are going to happen. One, our plants are going to pollinate that and it’s going to be full of seeds and it’s going to diminish the desire of the crop. Then you also have plants that are cross-pollinating with the THC plants and our plants have no THC so they actually lower the THC of plants around it.

So hemp actually counteracts marijuana growth?

Yeah. If you get hemp in your THC you’ve got a big problem! You can go from 24 percent THC, full-female clone plant, to being within a quarter mile of me that’s going to turn into 10 percent ditch weed.

And it’s also a more environmentally sound crop because it doesn’t require irrigation or use pesticides, correct?

Yes and no. The way we grow it sustainably and organically we’re not using pesticides and irrigation, but if you threw this into a corn belt rotation of soy you’re going to have to do something. It is a lot more environmentally friendly, it grows a lot faster, you get a larger yield per acre. Four acres of hemp creates an equivalent of an acre of forest and grows in 100 days versus 100 years. There is a tremendous amount of potential.

“If marijuana ever was legalized, it wouldn’t be me growing it, it would be some dude in a greenhouse.”

Do you see the increasingly relaxed attitudes about marijuana having any effect on your mission?

I’m not a cannabis, THC farmer, but I have a hard time looking at that knowing what I know about food policy and food processing regulations to know that if marijuana ever was legalized nationwide, it wouldn’t be me growing it, it would be some dude in a greenhouse with hydroponic clones. That’s awful for the environment, too. What I’ve also seen it do is create a lot of tax revenue and we’ve got plenty of tax revenue where everybody’s impoverished, it’s not doing something to help anybody get ahead. We have to find creative ways to empower people and give them a hand up and I don’t really see how that’s happening in the THC side of things. Don’t get me wrong, I have some friends making a ton of money off of this. But you know, they’re not hiring a lot of people. You’ve got a thousand square-foot facility with four employees.

Where does the misconception about hemp and marijuana come from?

Propaganda from the ‘40s! It started in the ‘40s and ‘50s with the Hearst family and the Rockefeller family.

Can you estimate how many jobs it could create?

I don’t know how plausible it is, and a lot of times when you look at how they calculate jobs ‘oh we just made five jobs!’ No you just stole five jobs. So I’d like to look at it in the context of my community. This is what I’ll always say. I live in a rural community. There’s a town a mile from my farm, it’s got 226 people. We have an unemployment rate of over 25 percent. I think over half of our population is below the poverty line. Having five acres of industrial hemp on our farm would create four to five jobs in our town this year. So that’s the best answer I can give. We’re talking about 5-7 percent of people.

Could the United States export its hemp?

Absolutely! Europe has its bases covered. Europe has excess seed every year, they don’t have the acreage. So this could be an export crop. American farmers are pretty damn good at what we do. So I think if we get our hands on it and we get the opportunity to get it out there absolutely are we going to be exporting not only our technology but also our raw goods and ultimately our seeds.

Before you deliver the petition this summer, how many signatures are you hoping to get?

As many as I can man, millions. I don’t know how many there are right now. Tomorrow morning we’re driving up to Monticello and we’re going to fly the flag over Monticello with Willie Nelson.

How do you reconcile your pride in America with your frustration that the government still bans a crop with so much potential for veterans?

For me there’s a distinct difference between the land that we farm and live on and the people that I live with and the government that dictates and runs us. I love this country, I love this land, and I’ll do everything I can for it, but I don’t always like what goes on in the government side. Ironically this country was built on hemp, in colonial Jamestown if you didn’t grow hemp you got fined. We’ve just gone too far, we don’t have enough respect for the land and each other and I hope that’s what this movie says.

Are you optimistic at this point? How are you feeling?

I’m always pretty optimistic. Just look at what happened in a year and a half. About this time in the spring of 2014 we were in federal court suing the right to grow this crop and then on veteran’s day in 2015, less than a year and a half later, they opened the doors of the Capitol and let us in so we could fly our hemp flag. It’s happening pretty quickly.

What are your concerns?

My concern is how we push it forward because how we do that dictates how this crop gets treated and if we push it forward as strictly another commodity crop then nothing’s happened. My job is to make sure we’re not focusing on the large-scale commodity side, we’re focusing on the smaller farmers. Now farmers are leasing their lands out to corn and soybean growers.

This is a fight for quality over quantity, then.

Absolutely. If you think about our earliest artifacts that you can find, they’re tools, things we used everyday because when you made things, you made them with care, because you were going to give them to your kids whether it was a shovel or a bowl. Now we make everything to be thrown away and then we scratch our heads like, ‘Oh my god why are the ice caps falling in the water? Where are all the polar bears? Oh we bought a bunch of cheap shit and kept buying it and then throwing it away.’