Growing hemp allows Dani Fontaine to support her family—including her 10-year-old son—and then some. Fontaine, 32, began farming the plant with her father in Longmont, Colorado in 2013, when the state legalized its cultivation. She extracts cannabidiol, or CBD—a non-inebriating compound that studies suggest could treat anxiety and joint pain, among other ailments—from her crop, selling it wholesale and incorporating it into her body care product line. Now, she earns enough to donate about a fourth of the CBD oil she makes to patients who can’t afford it.
Fontaine believes hemp could help struggling farmers earn a comfortable living, too, a major reason she and her father began growing the plant. They’ve seen firsthand the toll financial pressures can take on farmers' mental health. Her father, who used to farm corn and alfalfa, experienced anxiety, and many of the farmers he worked struggled with depression. Now, the two work with farmers across rural America and around the world to help them start growing hemp. “It changes farmers’ lives,” Fontaine tells me. “They’re coming from literally nothing—300 bucks an acre for corn bales—to 2,000 bucks an acre. They’re getting new clothes, new cars. It’s big.”
In recent years, media attention has attributed the anxiety, depression, and suicide among farmers to factors beyond their control, from drought to falling prices that threaten their livelihoods. Production costs have risen, while commodity prices have fallen, making farming less profitable today than it was just a few decades ago. The stresses of farming weighed heavily on Matt Peters, a farmer in Perry, Iowa. In May 2011, he told his wife, Ginnie, that he felt “paralyzed,” The Guardian reports. He hadn’t slept in days, working at all hours to plant his crop in a race against the weather. That evening, when he still hadn’t returned home, Ginnie tried calling him, but he didn’t answer. She found a letter he had written and dialed 9-1-1. When authorities found Matt, he had already killed himself.
But cannabis—both hemp and its high-inducing cousin, marijuana—could help turn the tide. For the first time in nearly 50 years, Congress is expected to federally legalize hemp as part of its 2018 farm bill later this year. Amid a burgeoning CBD market, Fontaine and other young farmers believe growing cannabis could alleviate the financial stress that contributes to the mental health issues farmers often face. That said, others note that pioneering a new industry brings its own, often unanticipated sources of stress.
Hemp and marijuana both belong to the Cannabis sativa family, and both contain CBD. Hemp, however, contains less than 0.3 percent THC—the compound that gets you high—while marijuana contains more than 0.3 percent THC. And unlike marijuana, hemp’s uses go beyond its pharmacologically active compounds. Oil from hemp grain can be used in food and beauty products or as biodiesel, while the stalks can be processed into textiles, paper, plastic or even building material.
Hemp was a common crop in the US. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 contributed to a decline in its production by levying a tax on cannabis, including hemp, making it less lucrative to grow and trade. Then, in 1970, Congress classified all types of cannabis, including hemp, as Schedule I federally controlled substances. It didn’t soften its stance until 2014, with a farm bill that permitted universities and state agriculture departments to grow hemp as part of a pilot program secured by Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell to offer hard-pressed tobacco farmers in his state with a replacement crop. Several states now allow hemp cultivation, and so could the rest, thanks to language McConnell introduced to the 2018 farm bill, which would legalize hemp.
For now, the US relies heavily on hemp imports—totaling $67.3 million last year—mostly from Canada. A domestic hemp industry could give farmers more financial stability, says Cory Sharp, CEO and founder of hemp consulting firm HempLogic, noting that hemp generally commands far higher prices per acre than conventional row crops like corn or soy: We’re talking thousands of dollars versus only hundreds. This type of financial stability could allow for people to farm and live with more freedom and less stress.
Meanwhile, more states are legalizing marijuana, bringing the tally to 33 that allow medical use, plus DC. But while he sees both marijuana and hemp emerging as major commercial crops, Nic Easley, CEO of 3C, Comprehensive Cannabis Consulting in Colorado, believes hemp stands a better chance, at least in the near future, with the 2018 farm bill already expected to federally legalize hemp, which would allow for interstate commerce. “We’re still looking at between three to four years minimum, and eight to nine years maximum until legal recreational cannabis [across] the US.”
Still, the shift toward legalization has seeded a flourishing cannabis industry. The popularity of CBD in particular—the wellness ingredient du jour, infused into everything from cold brew to face masks—has exploded; a recent report expects the CBD market to hit $22 billion by 2022. Now, an emerging crop of young farmers are eagerly pursuing this green rush.
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Lee Hysinger, 39, hopes hemp will help him gain the financial freedom that his day job in automotive sales can’t provide. He started growing hemp with his older brother and their two friends on his family’s farm in Simpsonville, Kentucky last year, selling CBD oil from their hemp at a farmer’s market and local retail stores. They’re still pouring earnings from their CBD oil sales back into the farm, but Hysinger sees it becoming profitable enough for him to farm full-time once they scale up. “In the end, we’re going to take care of our families,” he says while hanging their recent harvest in the barn to dry. Like Fontaine, Hysinger has seen hemp turn farmers’ lives around, namely tobacco farmers who struggled with dwindling demand until they switched to hemp as part of Kentucky’s participation in the 2014 farm bill’s hemp pilot program.
The promise of prosperity also draws young people to marijuana cultivation. Thirty-one-year-old Simon Evers says his financial situation “improved tremendously” when he began growing marijuana in 2015 with his fiancée on their farm, which is tucked in a hilly oak woodland in Mendocino, California. “It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to grow cannabis that I could gain any traction to earn a good living,” Evers says. Until then, he had led a fairly peripatetic existence, with brief stints as a deckhand, motorcycle mechanic, and a worker on fruit and vegetable farms. While working on a farm in Costa Rica, he befriended a marijuana grower from outside Mendocino, through whom he met the leaser of his current farm.
But money is only part of the allure. The young cannabis farmers I spoke to all had personal experiences with cannabis, describing how it had healed them or their loved ones, and cited a passion for sharing its therapeutic effects with others as their primary motivation.
Hysinger's father used CBD oil to successfully quell the pain from a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, as well as the anxiety he had over his difficulty breathing. Similarly, seeing marijuana alleviate his father’s multiple sclerosis symptoms “has been a huge inspiration” for Evers, who also uses marijuana to self-treat for depression. “I’ve really been empowered by this feeling that I’m really, truly contributing something really important to the world,” he says. "I feel like I’m an ambassador for this medicine.” (It’s important to note that research on the effects of cannabis on many health conditions is still limited and developing, although CBD has been shown to reduce the frequency of seizures due to two rare types of epilepsy.)
Beyond the therapeutic potential of CBD, Fontaine believes hemp cultivation will lead the world to a more sustainable future by, for instance, lowering our dependence on timber and fossil fuels. “I want to save the planet with hemp,” she says. She tells me she’s collaborating with university researchers to develop methods for mass producing paper, plastic, and other products from hemp.
Fontaine and the other cannabis farmers I interviewed say that making a living while what they view as helping the greater good has enhanced their mental health, especially since, unlike produce farmers, they often get to see the impacts of their efforts firsthand. Hysinger says customers who found little relief in the medications their doctors prescribed routinely approach his team’s farmer’s market stall to tell them how their CBD oil changed their lives. Lyle, Lee’s older brother, says these stories give him “an adrenaline rush. It makes me feel really, really good.”
But while cannabis cultivation may be more lucrative than conventional agriculture, it’s still a nascent industry, making it tricky to navigate. Those who expect to get rich quick from it often get a reality check. In their haste to cash in on the CBD rush, Sharp has seen plenty of prospective hemp farmers dive in without doing their research first, a problem he expects to grow if the farm bill passes. He tells me about farmers who let their crop go to waste by planting it at large scales before learning to properly harvest and process it, or secure a buyer. And because of hemp’s status as a Schedule 1 federally controlled substance, they usually can’t get crop insurance.
Marijuana farmers can experience rude awakenings, too. Trecia Ehrlich saw “a challenge of expectation” among the marijuana farmers in Washington State whom she interviewed for a forthcoming University of Washington study. “What they expected from the marketplace is not what they received,” largely because of their transition from an unregulated marketplace to a regulated one. Before legalization of recreational use in Washington State in 2012, marijuana farmers could risk their whole crop, but if they played their cards right, they could ship it to, say, New York, earning three times as much for it as they would at home, she says.
The regulated marijuana market entails less risk—but also a narrower profit margin. Those who choose to operate in it have to pay taxes on their previously untaxed good, and since they can’t ship it out of state, they also face restricted demand, Ehrlich explains. Evers also tells me about all the costs associated with licensing and permitting that emerged since California legalized recreational use in 2016. While he says he isn’t struggling, he has felt more of a pinch since then. Now, he and his fiancée are trying to rapidly expand their crop to cover these costs.
All this has heightened Evers’ anxiety. “It’s just a sense of insecurity… and constantly grappling with the potential of basically losing everything we’ve worked on for years,” he says. He adds that legalization has also sent “shock waves” through his community.
Maintaining compliance is a big source of stress for Hysinger, too. A few weeks ago, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture tested his crop to make sure its THC levels didn’t exceed 0.3 percent. Any plants he and his team didn’t harvest within 15 days of testing had to be re-tested or destroyed—but rains from Hurricane Florence set them back ten days. They had to scramble to harvest everything in time. “We barely scraped by,” Hysinger says.
The legal status of cannabis also makes financing cultivation difficult. Since the federal government still considers all forms of cannabis illegal, cannabis farmers can’t get crop insurance, and most banks won’t do business with them. Evers knows of farmers whose banks have closed their accounts after learning they grew cannabis, or refused to let them open an account altogether.
And finances aside, cannabis still carries stigma, which can also affect mental health, Ehrlich says. Her research found that some marijuana farmers felt hesitant to discuss their jobs with their families, or pick up their kids from school with their clothes smelling of weed. The famers I spoke to have also experienced stigma. Hysinger recalls when his wife dropped off their kids at daycare wearing a shirt that said “CBD.” “Nobody said anything, but we’ve got to be careful, he says. “We don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea and call CPS [child protective services].” Meanwhile, Fontaine has faced more overt stigma, mostly from older conventional farmers. Some have told her upfront, “This stuff is bad,” and worry that touching it will get them high.
But unlike perhaps, say, a potato or soy farmer, the cannabis farmers I interviewed say that their belief that they’re carrying out a larger social mission helps them persist despite these stressors. Ehrlich says that many of the farm owners and workers she interviewed did feel like “they were part of a cultural and political movement.” Indeed, Evers says he would grow marijuana regardless of the legal or other consequences he may face. “I feel like I’m doing something for the greater good,” he says. “That is so much bigger than this little box of regulation around it.”
While it hasn’t been easy, Fontaine sees farming hemp and using it to make CBD oil and other, sustainable byproducts—and teaching others to do the same—as her life’s purpose. Now, her fear of not planting enough hemp outweighs her fear of financial or regulatory challenges. “I had to realize I was chosen for this plant,” she says. “That kept me from giving up.”
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