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.
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.
By now, we’ve likely all heard of the purported thousands of uses that exist for hemp.
But as the industry matures, that potential for hemp starts to draw more questions—namely, how and when can we get there?
Despite numerous hemp-based items popping up seemingly every day, the industry still needs significant development, especially in the hemp fiber sector, to produce those products on a large scale.
In Kansas, the owners of South Bend Industrial Hemp (SBIH) are pushing for that industry development.
Fourth-generation farmers at SBIH and brothers Aaron and Richard Baldwin, along with Aaron’s wife, Melissa Nelson-Baldwin, decided to add on to their growing operations by opening the first hemp decortication facility in the state this June.
“The more people we talked to, we [knew there were] growers that want to grow and manufacturers that want to put in hemp lines, but there was nothing to connect those two pieces. So, we started crunching the numbers and [decided to] pursue our own processing facility,” Melissa Nelson-Baldwin explains.
On the growing side, the SBIH team uses traditional agriculture equipment to cultivate dual-purpose hemp, reaping both fiber and grain from the same plant. (Read the cover story for more on South Bend Industrial Hemp.)
It’s a practice that has immense potential for producers looking to advance the industry while still earning a decent profit. In this month’s “From the Field,” columnist Marguerite Bolt delves into what farmers need to know before pursuing a dual-crop production system, including challenges and economic considerations.
The hemp stalk and its fiber aren’t the only parts of the plant with the possibility to disrupt other industries, either. While hemp grain has been the subject for the bulk of the research regarding hemp’s place in the animal feed market, researchers at Oregon State University have begun exploring that potential for other parts of the plant: spent hemp biomass. In this month’s “Research Roundup,” Assistant Editor Andriana Ruscitto talks with the researchers about their studies on feeding several animals extracted hemp biomass, which includes both the stalk and the leaves.
With just two years since hemp’s legalization on a national level, it’s encouraging to see interest rising in the uses of hemp beyond cannabinoids. We’re hoping to build off that momentum at this year’s debut Hemp Grower Conference, Nov. 8-10 at Rosen Centre Hotel in Orlando, Fla., where we’ll feature education sessions on fiber and grain crop establishment, the latest research in those sectors, and more. Check out the full conference agenda at hempgrowerconference.com.
The industry still has a long way to go, but recent advancements in the space make me confident we’ll get there.
Email Editor Theresa Bennett at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How the Environment Dictates Growing Conditions
Hemp farmers have carved out their own niches in various regions of the state.
From fertile river valleys to desert plateaus, Koontz estimates the Centennial State has about five primary hemp-growing regions, including four primarily outdoor-growing regions where farmers have one crop cycle per year. These include:
- The Western Slope west of the Continental Divide, stretching down to the Four Corners area where the state connects with Utah, Arizona and New Mexico;
- The Arkansas Valley, where the Arkansas River runs between Pueblo and Lamar;
- The San Luis Valley, a region in south-central Colorado where the Rio Grande River runs;
- The South Platte River valley, extending from Denver northwest toward Sterling; and
- The Front Range, the populous middle of the state east of the Continental Divide including Denver, Fort Collins, Boulder and Colorado Springs, and featuring indoor and greenhouse production.
But it’s no secret that Colorado’s weather can be extreme. Drought, early snows and freezes, and massive hail can all damage or ruin hemp plantings, which Fontaine-Billings says is why she partners with growers throughout the state.
Koontz says other Colorado hemp growers protect themselves by being versatile in where they grow. The state’s legendary hail, which has been recorded as the size of golf balls, baseballs and even softballs, has ruined corn and wheat crops in the state, he says.
Because the weather is often dry—if not under outright drought conditions, as about four-fifths of the state currently is—producers of other, more water-demanding crops such as soybeans, corn and other grains have moved to hemp.
Irrigation practices such as center pivot systems contribute to the high acreage in the state. “When you go to pivots and you’re growing at 120, 160 acres a circle, we’ve got farms that are 900 acres or bigger producing hemp,” Koontz says.
Colorado’s low humidity is also a boon come post-harvest, Fontaine-Billings says. “You can leave it outside for the four to five days that’s needed [after harvest],” Fontaine-Billings says. “You can then turn it and leave it outside for another four to five days, and then boom, you can bale it up [without] having to deal with drying systems and extra costs at harvest.”
And winter weather can be a plus because growers rely on mountain snowpack and reservoirs for irrigation water, Koontz says, though he explains that hemp uses less water than some other crops and that growers in various regions of Colorado possess the water rights to successfully grow it.
Numerous western states rely on the Colorado River, but climate change has increased water scarcity in the region, according to researchers from Colorado State University and the University of California-Los Angeles. “We need to have really strong winters for agricultural purposes with the water because the Colorado River provides for multiple states, not just Colorado,” Fontaine-Billings says.
While the snowpack offers benefits for irrigation, Koontz says unpredictable winter-like weather events can be problematic. "Certainly, early snows ... [and] freezes at the end of the year can impact what hemp is ultimately harvested because we can get freezes as early as the first week of October," he says.
How the State Works With Growers
Koontz says Colorado state officials plan to more closely support the hemp supply chain through the development of a Hemp Center of Excellence. In the meantime, they have taken other steps to encourage evolution of the state’s hemp industry by working to improve access to goods and services, Koontz adds.
In 2019, for example, CDA partnered with 200 stakeholders and eight agencies on the Colorado Hemp Advancement and Management Plan (CHAMP) initiative. According to CDA's site, "a key objective of the CHAMP initiative will be to define a well-structured and defined supply chain for hemp in order to establish a strong market for the state's farming communities."
Colorado’s Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) and Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT) encourage economic development and manage business licensing and registration for businesses such as banks, credit unions and savings and loan associations. “DORA and OEDIT have been actively engaged with the financial industry to try to create easier ways for people in the cannabis market—for both marijuana and for hemp—to be able to participate,” Koontz says.
The state is also working with producers to increase the availability of decortication equipment, which separates hemp’s bast fiber from its hurd.
Exemplifying hemp’s transition into the mainstream textiles industry, clothing company Patagonia has chosen to grow hemp in the San Luis Valley.
“Patagonia partnered with the state last year to grow several hundred acres of hemp here under the thought of producing domestically produced organic clothing, and they are continuing to increase that project here in Colorado,” Koontz says.
Patagonia uses harvesting and decortication equipment from Formation Ag, a San Luis Valley-based company that Fontaine-Billings also says she works with.
Fontaine-Billings says processing for fiber, grain and hurd should be evenly distributed across the U.S. “It’s not just in regionals; it needs to be based super local, within 300 miles at most per processing facility just to keep down costs and carbon,” she says. “We're trying to do better for the Earth.”
Addressing Colorado regulations, Fontaine-Billings offers some straightforward advice: “Just always make sure you have your licenses and everything registered on time through the state. That’s really all that I could say to other people is make sure that you’re abiding by the rules because there’s no reason to mess up a good thing.”
Patrick Williams is the managing editor for Hemp Grower magazine.
A lot can go wrong when growing plants outdoors. Drought, extreme rainfall, frost, hail, wildfires, tornadoes (you get the point) are outside of our control. Even when weather conditions are ideal for plant growth, they can also be ideal for pests. So many factors can impact the health of a hemp crop, and it can be challenging to determine the root cause of an issue.
When trying to identify a problem with your hemp, it’s helpful to start by thinking of whether the cause could be biotic or abiotic. Because many stressors manifest in similar ways, this can help you narrow down what the issue may be.
Biotic stressors, caused by biological organisms such as insects, weeds, nematodes and pathogens, have identification traits that differentiate them from abiotic stressors. Abiotic stressors are non-living factors, like nutrients, weather conditions, mechanical damage and chemical damage. It is crucial for growers to know the key differences to create effective crop management plans and mitigate the issue.
The Basics of Identifying Biotic and Abiotic Stress in Hemp
Symptoms of biotic stressors can look very similar to abiotic stressors. And even with a single stressor, growers have many things to consider when determining the cause. When multiple stressors occur at once, diagnosis becomes significantly more challenging. It is important to consider both plant-level and field- or regional-level observations.
Growers can use the following tactics to help differentiate biotic and abiotic stressors.
1. Consider the Plant
At the plant level, knowing about the cultivars you’re growing can help uncover the issue. Some cultivars are more susceptible to biotic disease or insect damage. In addition to the cultivar, looking at the age of the plant can also help with diagnosis. For example, plants often drop their lower leaves or start to yellow toward the end of their lifecycles. This is normal but can sometimes look like a nutrient deficiency or water issue. (In the latter cases, leaf yellowing or dropping would occur earlier in the plant's lifecycle.)
2. Search for Signs of the Stressor
Biotic stressors will often show signs of the causal agent. This could mean bacterial ooze (exudate full of bacteria seeping out of the plant tissue) or fungal growth on the plants. Or, in the case of insect or mite pests, sometimes the arthropod will still be on the plant after causing damage. The damage caused by biotic stressors can have an irregular appearance and sometimes affect just one portion of the entire hemp plant. Meanwhile, abiotic stressors tend to have a more uniform effect throughout the whole plant.
3. Look for Patterns in the Field
Biotic stressors tend to appear in patches in the field. These stressors spread from plant to plant, leading to clumped or even random distributions. On the other hand, abiotic stressors cannot spread from plant to plant, so damage from these stressors may look more uniform.
The distribution of the problem is important for both diagnosis and understanding what plants in the field may be afflicted next. Clumped areas of unhealthy plants may signal a biotic disease. Meanwhile, patterns may show parts of the field that correspond with low-lying areas or areas with lower fertility. Taking the whole field into consideration can save a lot of time when trying to narrow down what the stressor is.
4. Observe Plants in the Margin or Nearby Fields
Sometimes non-crop plants surrounding hemp in a field can be a huge clue to solving the mystery of a sick crop. Weeds may show the same symptoms as the hemp crop, which can indicate whether the issue is abiotic or biotic. If all the plants (of multiple species) in an area show the same symptoms, it is a pretty good indication that an abiotic force is at play. It is important to note if only some of the plant species observed show the same symptoms as the primary crop because some diseases and insect pests can attack multiple plant species.
5. Understand the History of the Field and Its Management
Field selection plays a huge role in plant health. Many things can go wrong due to the specific area where the crop is planted. Fields with low areas are prone to standing water during heavy rain events. The previous crop planted there could increase the risk of disease or insect pressure. Herbicide carryover could damage the current crop. Taking notes on the history of the field, learning how it was managed, and collecting soil samples for analysis can help diagnose problems—or, better yet, prevent certain issues.
6. Consider Recent Weather Conditions
You should consider weather events and temperature when evaluating plant health. Keeping an eye on what the weather has been doing can help you record events leading up to the observed damage. Weather events can directly damage plants. This could mean a single event, like a hailstorm, or prolonged events, like drought. Weather events can also increase the likelihood of infection by pathogens or increase the movement of insects into the field.
Both local and statewide extension educators or crop consultants often scout or receive information on many different fields and will be aware of drought events or other stressors that may be affecting larger areas.
Pinpointing the Problem
Once you’ve identified whether the stressor is likely biotic or abiotic, you can then begin to take a closer look at what the stressor may be.
Symptoms of stressors may be difficult or impossible to identify just by looking at the plant. Because biotic and abiotic stressors can look similar in some cases, appropriate diagnosis may require sending tissue to a lab.
Having an idea of what the stressor(s) may be reduces the need to send samples to multiple labs. For example, growers often work with university-based plant diagnostic labs or private labs, depending on their locations and services. Some facilities may be limited in the services they can provide, so samples may need to be sent to multiple locations for a complete evaluation.
Diagnosing issues in hemp takes a lot of practice. Understand that symptoms of stressors are still being investigated, and stressors in some plants may look different in hemp. Knowing what a healthy hemp plant looks like will make it easier to spot an unhealthy plant. Doing good detective work takes patience, observation and an understanding of the crop.
Marguerite Bolt is the hemp extension specialist at Purdue University’s Department of Agronomy. She received her M.S. in entomology from Purdue University and her B.S. in entomology from Michigan State University. Bolt’s research has focused on hemp-insect interactions and plant chemistry.
2020 Hemp Cultivation Map
Hemp Grower's interactive cultivation data map provides a state-by-state breakdown of acres grown, licenses issued and more for the 2020 growing season. View More