Hemp growers see hope on horizon after change in federal law

Cannabis growers looking for the next big thing after CBD craze

Bong Cezar holds up a sampling of seeds at the Pakalolo Seed booth at the conference Sunday. Pakalolo Seed is a clothing company and seed bank that grows varieties on Molokai and Oahu to ship to Colorado, Oregon and Alaska. The company also hopes to supply local dispensaries in the future. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photos

KAANAPALI — At the Maui Cannabis Conference in Lahaina on Sunday, cannabidiol oil was all the rage, featured in bars of soap, packets of tea and jars of cream.

But cannabis growers and advocates were also excited for the next wave of products that they hope will take advantage of even more benefits of the plant.

“CBD is a big craze right now, and CBD is great,” said Doug Fine, a New Mexico goat farmer who’s been studying hemp as a seed development researcher with the University of Hawaii. “But it’s one of 80 known cannabinoids. We’re just at the infancy both at our knowledge of what cannabis can bring, but also what products are going to be popular in five years.”

Fine was one of the speakers at the two-day conference, which focused on the business opportunities of cannabis as well as the plant’s many benefits and medicinal properties. Hemp growers and researchers like Fine also see potential for a new industry on the horizon now that the 2018 Farm Bill has removed hemp-derived products from Schedule I drug status.

Schedule I drugs, which include heroin, have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Tatiana Labore of the Lahaina-based Pakalolo Soap offers a selection of natural, CBD oil-infused soaps at the Maui Cannabis Conference on Sunday at the Royal Lahaina Resort in Kaanapali. The conference highlighted the diverse uses and healing properties of cannabis and its byproducts.

Both marijuana and hemp are part of the cannabis family, but hemp contains less than 0.3 percent of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of cannabis — in other words, the part that gets people high.

After the Farm Bill became law in December, the Maui Hemp Institute for Research and Sustainability announced that plantings would begin on Maui this year.

Fine, who’s been growing and studying hemp in Waimanalo on Oahu, said hemp is a great regenerative plant with roots that reach down deep and help aerate the soil — a particularly helpful quality in a place like Hawaii where decades of sugar have left the soil “very compacted, like a bowling ball.” However, the challenge to growing hemp in Hawaii is all the other plants that thrive year round in the islands.

“The problem in New Mexico is getting enough moisture and sun protection,” he said. “Here, it’s making sure that the plant you want to germinate and thrive is the one, because there’s 80 million others that are also going to love the nice treatment that you’re giving to the soil.”

Fine said that if farmers take the time to build up the microbes in the soil and use cover crops, hemp will eventually beat out the weeds by the second crop. It’s a quick adapting crop that also learns to secrete different levels of chemicals that are “naturally pest-resistant to an individual area,” he said.

Michael Rawlins (from right) chats with customers alongside Steffani Baku and Nalani Kirkman at the Malama Organics booth. The Haiku-based family business offers honey, salves, capsules and vaping products with CBD oil.

Realistically, Fine thought the best route for Maui farmers to go would be to form a cooperative and focus on growing hemp for fiber, because “going at it alone is not very valuable.”

“It won’t be easy, but I think it would take one entity to step forward that was willing to make the investment in the processing facilities, and hopefully those folks would have a cooperative mindset and bring in farmers,” Fine said.

Lahaina farmer James “Kimo” Simpliciano is a big believer in hemp. A board member of the Maui Hemp Institute, Simpliciano hopes to see farmers partner with Mahi Pono, the new owner of 41,000 acres of former sugar cane land, to help remediate the soil in the central valley. He also suggested redesigning the old Puunene sugar mill to allow it to process hemp.

“I think we’ve got to look at how we can utilize lands that are sitting fallow . . . and also utilize R-1 sewage treatment water to grow this plant and start building a new industry, create new jobs,” Simpliciano said. “We need to reverse our thought process of cannabis. We have to change the way it was labeled for over 100 years.”

Simpliciano hasn’t been able to grow hemp to scale yet, but he and some others with medical cannabis registry cards (known as 329 cards) have been benefitting from the medicinal properties of the plant and have been adding it to their diets as well. He hopes to see farmers on Maui start growing to scale in the spring.

Simpliciano, farmer Bobby Pahia and the Maui Hemp Institute recently received an $80,000 grant from Ananda Hemp in Kentucky to collect data on hemp and study natural farming practices while using “conventional methods, like tractors, because you can’t do everything by hand.” Simpliciano said there are plenty of opportunities now that hemp-related products are no longer classified as a Schedule I drug.

“CBD is great, but I think the whole plant has a better, bigger purpose,” he said, pointing to hemp’s potential as food, fuel and fiber. “So (with) Maui leading the way of no plastic, no foam, why can’t we now create our own biodegradable to-go plates or tissue or paper?”

Given the economic potential, farmers these days can’t just work the land, Fine said. They also have to know how to market their product and educate new consumers, including those once wary of cannabis.

“This is not an overnight, get-rich-quick scheme,” he said. “There’s really a lot to it if you want to do it right and you want to do it regeneratively. . . . Your work isn’t done upon harvest. You’re a marketer now.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.


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