Bolstering Hemp on Native American Lands: Q&A with Marcus Grignon

Bolstering Hemp on Native American Lands: Q&A with Marcus Grignon

Departments - Smart Start: The Interview

Hempstead Project Heart’s Marcus Grignon discusses how the nonprofit organization is researching and advocating for hemp production despite a history of DEA raids on Indigenous land.

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July 8, 2021

Grignon and his associates at Hempstead Project Heart research hemp production and genetics.
Photo courtesy of Hempstead Project Heart

As businesses and researchers explore the manifold uses for hemp and attendant economic opportunities, nonprofit organization Hempstead Project Heart is spreading knowledge about the crop within and outside of Indigenous American country.

Marcus Grignon, executive director of Hempstead Project Heart, became involved with the organization when U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents raided the hemp fields grown by him and other members of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin in 2015. The raid happened despite the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issuing a memo in 2014 from Monty Wilkinson, director of the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, that tribal law experts interpreted as a green light to grow the crop.

It wasn’t the first time federal raids of hemp fields had caused alarm on Native lands: In 2000 and 2001, the DEA raided Alex White Plume’s farm on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota after the Oglala Sioux Tribe passed a 1998 ordinance allowing hemp cultivation.

Grignon has a professional and educational background in tribal law and sustainability. He previously worked as a legislative intern for U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and as a staff assistant at the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).

More recently, working with a broad coalition of different individuals and organizations, Grignon and Hempstead Project Heart have lobbied for tribal sovereignty in Wisconsin and across the U.S. Key partners and supporters in those efforts have included Quinatzin De La Torre, a hemp consultant and former president of Bluebird Botanicals, and former U.S. Rep. Steve Kagen (D-Wisc.)

In this interview with Hemp Grower, Grignon describes how he facilitated the relationship between the Menominee and Hempstead Project Heart, his 2017 move to becoming Hempstead’s executive director after the 2015 death of co-founder John Trudell, and how he and five other team members have been studying and advocating for hemp and its many uses.

Marcus Grignon, Hempstead Project Heart’s executive director
Photo courtesy of Hempstead Project Heart

Patrick Williams (PW): Can you talk about Hempstead Project Heart’s foundation and history?

Marcus Grignon (MG): Hempstead Project Heart was started in 2012. It was co-founded by [poet, musician and activist] John Trudell, and his close friend, [musician] Willie Nelson, co-founded with him. And basically, it was about raising the awareness of the benefits of growing industrial hemp for people and the planet, and using art and music to raise that awareness. So, John had a band called John Trudell and [Bad] Dog, and he would do concerts and would have booths where he’d have folks talking about hemp and educating [people about] hemp. That’s how he got into hemp advocacy and education. He was really inspired by Alex White Plume and his struggle in Pine Ridge. So, John has a close connection to Pine Ridge, and he [is Santee] Dakota himself.

Basically … he’d go around everywhere. He did a lot of work in California, ... and he wanted to get the California State Grange [a farmers’ advocacy organization] to embrace hemp. When I talk to people here and there nowadays, they say [it] was a big thing to get John Trudell to get the California State Grange to recognize hemp and to push for it. I think Hempstead Project Heart played a role in getting hemp ... legalized in California. John helped produce Hemp Aid [a concert fundraiser for California hemp legalization efforts], which was with Kris Kristofferson and numerous other musicians who came together to support hemp. And that’s kind of how Hempstead really began and what it was doing in its beginning stages.

PW: I understand you are a member of the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin. How did the Menominee Nation become involved in hemp?

MG: When it came to the Wilkinson Memo, it basically said any tribe that was working to grow any hemp or cannabis … [was] OK—that [the DOJ is] easing their policy around it. But what was interesting about it is that I don’t know if that was only recognized for certain tribes in states where it became legal … but Menominee jumped on the ball. We [had previously] lost our casino deal—we were trying to build an off-reservation casino in Kenosha, Wisconsin—we partnered with the Hard Rock resort to build it. It would have been a stone’s throw from Chicago, a stone’s throw from Milwaukee. So, it was a nice, centrally located area. And we lost that; [former] Governor Scott Walker didn’t approve of our plan. And we lost the land that we were trying to push for since before I was born, let’s just put it that way.

The tribe started figuring out what to do with hemp, and they wanted to create some type of regulations and legislation. So, they did that. That’s how we basically laid out the whole plan to exert our sovereign right to grow hemp on our lands. And we informed the DEA, DOJ— we were like, “Hey, we’re going to do this,” sent them our plan and our legislation and everything. And we never really heard a response. So, we were like, “Ok, well, no news is good news. We’ll just keep moving forward.” We planted in summer of 2015, and then we were planning to harvest it in the fall, but it didn’t happen because the feds raided us.

In that timeframe—I’d say like a month before—I actually reached out to John Trudell and Hempstead Project Heart to basically ask for his help because I saw the DEA agents coming through and monitoring everything, I’d see the FBI come through, I’d see different county police come by and take pictures of everything. So, you could feel the presence, [and] that it wasn’t very welcoming. That’s why I reached out to John; I was like, “We need your help.” We were working things out, and then we got raided. And then John said, “I want to help you out any way I can.” That’s how hemp, Menominee and Hempstead kind of all got mixed together, is that fall of 2015 when we were trying to get ready to harvest our crop. [Editor’s note: Tribal members had been growing hemp in partnership with the College of Menominee Nation. After the tribe was raided, initial tests of the plants came up “negative” as marijuana. The next day, federal officials said the plants “...tested positive” as marijuana, and the crop was destroyed, according to Fox 11 News. In 2016, a judge ruled that even if the crop was hemp, it was illegal because hemp cultivation was not yet legal in the state. The tribe began growing again in 2019, and a co-op is presently forming.]

PW: What else can you tell me about Hempstead Project Heart?

MG: Hempstead Project Heart is doing its best to try and help the industry build a foundation. So, we had three years of a boom-and-bust economy when it comes to hemp because CBD [cannabidiol] was reigning supreme. So, now it’s really teaching and educating people about the numerous opportunities that you can utilize hemp [for]. And it’s not just using the flower material, … there’s other opportunities. Hempstead Project Heart’s current work in research and development is really looking at hemp plastics and how do we utilize hemp plastics to create different aspects of renewable energy? Or how do we incorporate it into existing projects? Or how do we build a hemp tractor all made out of hemp, sourced in Indian country? And really looking at the biocomposites. The Bay Mills Community College has a Great Lakes Biocomposite Institute that we’re looking at trying to develop more of a relationship with and figure out how do we solve that? How do we use hemp fiber and create a composite that works really well? I’m still waiting for someone to create hemp body armor. It’s still something I’d like to do. I don’t know if I really have the science background or the mathematical background to do it, but, man, it’s such an awesome idea.

PW: Are you now personally growing hemp commercially, as well as for research?

MG: When I grow, I’m usually [checking] to see how the variety’s going to do, how much biomass or pounds of fiber I can get off of a field. I want to ensure that when we line up and develop these markets, we have specifications down so that if a company is looking for something in particular, we know which variety to grow for them. And that’s really what we’re developing right now. And that’s part of some of the work that we’re doing through the generous support of the Native American Agricultural Fund. So, we had some work in CBD production in 2019. We had some work in fiber and grain in 2020. And now, in 2021, we’re going to look at other different fiber varieties. And we’re going to gather and analyze all this data and then put it all together into this feasibility study along with understanding where the market trends are.

I think the biggest thing that I noticed, being a hemp grower since 2015, [was that] in 2015, we just grew hemp on Menominee, and we didn’t have a guaranteed purchase agreement lined up. We had really nothing lined up at all—we just were going to grow it and see what happened. And I think a lot of people did that in some of these previous growing seasons, like [in] the fall of 2019, as we expected, a lot of people grew CBD, but they didn’t really have an avenue to put it anywhere.

So, my goal of this feasibilty study is to give people enough information to make a well-informed decision on how they want to grow hemp and give them information, give them equipment that they need and just have it available. And we’re doing it through a land-grant university. I think that’s the best part of it. The land-grant university is the College of Menominee Nation. I’m actually an alumni. I graduated in 2010 with a double associate degree in tribal law and sustainable development. I see a lot of potential in land-grant universities and having a tribal college leading a little bit of the research. I know there’s tons of universities out there doing hemp research, and a lot ... in Kentucky are way ahead of everybody else. Murray State [University], University of Kentucky—amazing. Great research going on. But I think that there needs to be an Indigenous perspective when we look at academia and academia research [of ] industrial hemp because no one [was] studying it for the past 80 years [until the passage of the Agricultural Act of 2014]. Or… they’re … the University of Mississippi, where they’ve had a DEA permit to grow cannabis for decades. … So, why can’t tribes have their education institutions being leaders and being thinkers? I think that’s what John Trudell really wanted when I met him. He was like, “We don’t need more leaders. We need more thinkers because the thinkers are the ones who create the solutions in our world.”

PW: How are you helping build hemp businesses?

MG: There’s this thing called a Community Development Financial Institution [CDFI], and they’re designated under the U.S. Department of Treasury. Now, they have a carve-out piece for Native Community Development Finance Institutions. So, in another role that I do, I’m a technical assistance specialist for NiiJii Capital Partners [NiiCap].

It’s a Native CDFI on my reservation. And I help people build their businesses [through both NiiCap and Hempstead]. Whatever it is that they’re trying to build, I help them. So, with those tools, there’s been some people who want to get into hemp. And I obviously help them develop their business plans and just really figure out what market they can get into, or how do they develop it? Or how do they access grant funding, or funding for that matter, to help them with product development? There are so many opportunities out there. The USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] [Value Added Producer Grants are] an amazing opportunity where you can apply for funding to help develop your product, and then you can apply for more funding to implement it. So, I think that it’s really just helping people navigate federal government. That’s [something] I learned [working] at the SBA .... I really analyzed the U.S. Small Business Administration, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Commerce, and really understood all the programs that they offer and what different programs people can access, to either utilize for exporting or just developing their business.

PW: How can growers rotate crops in a way that benefits their crops and is also environmentally friendly?

MG: What John Trudell told me when I met with him was [when] I would lead Hempstead in the future … I’d have to basically base it on five points. He called it the “Five Points of Hempstead,” so [that was] his last thing he was leaving the world with. That was looking at the environment, economics, climate change, tribal sovereignty and historical perspectives. Historical perspective is the reason why Wisconsin [made hemp] legal. (Editor’s note: Wisconsin was one of the top hemp producers until hemp’s prohibition in 1937. Read more about the state’s hemp resurgence here.) All the research I did as a senior in college on hemp and the Wisconsin hemp history persuaded many legislators to pass hemp, because they saw the historical piece. So, when we look at that and how much of a success it was, I’m really using a lot of [researchers discovered in the 1940s]. I’m picking up where they left off. A lot of their documents … [provide] detailed information about how to do crop rotations.

[Agronomist] Andrew Wright figured out that in the first year, you do clover, and in the second year, you do corn; in the third year, you do beans.

But ... I found out later in the [USDA’s National Agriculture Library’s files on agronomist and botanist Lyster Dewey] that when you cut the beans, you leave the rootstock in the ground … and then it creates organic matter and it creates a better crop of hemp in that fourth year. Another way you could do it is clover, corn, hemp. That’s what Andrew Wright figured out. Now, here’s the kicker. Is that still applicable today? I have no idea. It’s going to take time to see if it works. How does climate change affect all of this stuff that they were looking at in the ’40s? We don’t know. We have to still continue our research and figure that out. Are there cash crops that we can utilize [for cover crops] that help— that one year, you can make a bunch of money on this cash crop of a cover crop, and then the following year, you can make money on hemp? We’re still trying to figure out the quirks to it and really understand it.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Patrick Williams is the managing editor for Hemp Grower magazine.