I’ve written several columns about hemp that don’t discuss CBD extraction. Don’t get me wrong, I grow and process hemp for multiple products including tinctures, pre-rolls and topicals sold under the LeBlanc CNE label. But this summer we’re growing hemp for fiber. I’m putting my money where my mouth is, planting what I preach.
Over the last three years I’ve grown hemp for fiber and two years ago, I reconnected with a childhood friend on Facebook rather serendipitously. Jonas and I are both retired – he worked in Hollywood and I worked in software. He also bought land in New Mexico, where he has a papermaking studio. My response? “Dude, you make paper? I grow hemp!”
I shared hemp fiber with him and he began making paper. He pivoted and approached hemp as hemp. It’s not wood or flax or cotton. Hemp has its own composition and characteristics. I began to prepare the raw plant material, allowing Jonas to make 100% hemp paper.
Jonas is an artist and wanted hemp paper to do letterpress, watercolor, small bookmaking, etc. Neither of us was interested in hemp toilet paper or laser printer stock. Having proved to ourselves and each other that hemp paper-making was within our grasp, he suggested we rent farmland five doors from his house and grow hemp together.
We spent last year reviving land that hadn’t been farmed recently. We got a late start and I didn’t know the local soil, water or weather. Let’s just say there was a steep learning curve. The good news is that we were able to install drip lines to irrigate the field and planted a clover cover crop in the fall to outcompete the weeds, as well as improve the soil. Bonus: Our landlord Gino caught the hemp bug and has been an active partner in our hemp farming venture.
This year, 2022, we’re definitely more organized. I think of our small farm as an experimental R&D plot that sells enough to break even on licensing and testing fees, with enough left over for our beer fund too. This summer we planted the same three hemp fiber cultivars in both New Mexico and Washington state. I’m looking forward to harvesting the data almost as much as harvesting the fiber itself.
This retired software nerd is running everything out of a Google Sheet, collecting both quantitative grow data and subjective results from papermakers like Jonas. Obviously western Washington and eastern New Mexico are as different as can be, but that is an advantage when comparing the three cultivars against each other. What we glean from our data will prepare us to expand the number of cultivars we grow moving forward. Our goal is to publish and share much of our work to inspire and guide others.
Growing hemp for fiber is only the first step in making hemp products. I’ve designed a harvest workflow that pre-processes the hemp stalk into usable material for papermakers, the textile industry and more. My personal goal is making hemp graphene, biocomposites and supercapacitors. I’ve removed pectin, lignin and hemicellulose with food grade enzymes in my backyard and kitchen. My goal is to build on our initial successes and scale up to as much as we can, as fast as we can.
Wish us luck and stay tuned for progress reports as we forge ahead!