Industrial hemp could be big business in Washington

Published on Wed, Jul 30, 2014 by Ian Ferguson

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Sandy Soderberg, president of Evergreen Hemp Co., thinks Whatcom County could be the epicenter of Washington’s next billion-dollar industry: hemp.

Soderberg hosted an informative session on industrial hemp at her Semiahmoo residence July 26. Experts and politicians were in attendance, as well as a few people who were just curious about what this plant can do.

One thing hemp can’t do is get you stoned, unlike its notorious cousin. Formally known as cannabis sativa, hemp is closely related to marijuana but doesn’t cause intoxication when smoked. Instead, it is used in dozens of more practical applications. Its fibers have been used in ropes and textiles for millennia, and modern builders have found innovative ways to use it as a building material. Its seeds are used in foods and pharmaceuticals. Hemp oil is an ideal biofuel, and the plant’s ability to pull toxins out of soil makes it handy for superfund cleanup sites.

“There’s an old song that goes, ‘anything you can do I can do better,’ – that applies to hemp,” said Bob Burr, a candidate for Bellingham City Council. “You name it, industrial hemp does it. Building materials, fabrics, fuels – it’s a hearty crop and could be a viable industry anywhere. It’s a no-brainer.”

Kevin Hodge, president of HempAdobe Homes in Arizona, has a background in aeronautical composites that he has used to help develop and implement a form of hemp concrete that is so strong it doesn’t require rebar.

“The strength and insulation properties of this material make it a game-changer. It can be molded with conduits run through each panel for wiring and plumbing. There’s no need for rebar, so it requires less labor. It has seismic resistance, and the R-value is very high. With a 12-inch wall, the energy savings pay for the cost of construction,” Hodge said.

Carrie Lewis gives natural homebuilding workshops through her business, Cob Designs in Bellingham. She showed a sample of hemp lime plaster that absorbs water and hardens when wet.

“It’s highly mold resistant, so it would be great for exterior applications here in the Northwest,” Lewis said. “I’m just being exposed to hemp fiber and I’m hopeful for greater access. It would be great if it were produced locally.”

Tim Pate, who sits on the advisory committee for industrial hemp administrative rules for the state of Oregon, passed around a piece of medium density hemp fiberboard developed during his time with C & S Specialty Building Supply in the ’90s.

“That board met or surpassed every standard in the industry,” Pate said. “It’s lighter and stronger than wood. Washington has no shortage of intelligent, capable people in the timber industry, and it wouldn’t take much to convert some of those same factories to produce hemp fiberboard.” 

The one major obstacle to hemp production is that it is illegal to grow in the United States. Hemp is closely related to marijuana, which is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Agency. Although hemp is not a drug, it can cross-pollinate with its more potent cousin, a concern that will have to be addressed before the industry takes off. 

Despite this obstacle, recent measures at the state and national level are beginning to open the doors for industrial hemp production. The federal 2014 Farm Bill included a provision that would allow institutions of higher education and state departments of agriculture to grow or cultivate industrial hemp to study it for possible future use as a commercial product. 

Washington House Bill 1888 would permit the development of an industrial hemp industry in Washington. The house of representatives unanimously passed the bill on the last night of the regular session, and had gone to roll call in the senate when the senators tabled it to vote on a drone bill.

“The amended bill will be brought back in the January 2015 session,” Soderberg said. “We’re assembling a volunteer commission board to draft the rules and regulations for growers so that when the law is passed, the department of agriculture will be able to distribute licenses as soon as possible.”

Politicians in attendance at the meeting included State Senator Doug Erickson, Rep. Vincent Buys, Whatcom County councilmember Barbara Brenner, Burr, and house-hopefuls Joy Monjure and Luanne VanWerven.

Soderberg said a handful of farmers in Whatcom County have a total of over 1,000 acres ready to dedicate to hemp production. 

“There are so many things we can do with industrial hemp once our farmers are allowed to put these seeds in the ground,” Soderberg said.