Can farming hemp help fight climate change?

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A small farm in upstate New York is working to revolutionize the organic farming industry, starting with supporting their local ecosystem while growing, among a variety of grains, hemp — the plant behind the multi-million dollar CBD industry.

Hemp, a species of cannabis that does not create a marijuana-like high, has an ancient history with usage dating back centuries.

Ben Banks-Dobson, who runs Stone House Farm’s 2,600-acre operation, is hoping to help the Earth while promoting the unique plant and its variety of uses.

“Hudson Hemp was born out of a transition from conventional to organic farming,” he told CBS News’ Michelle Miller. “Our corn and soybeans only goes into chicken and hog feed for local farms selling their meat locally.”

He also expressed hope for the small plant’s ability to aid the climate change fight. 

“Our climate problem is that we have too much CO2  in the atmosphere and not enough carbon in our soils, trees and wetlands,” Banks-Dobson said. “If what we do were to be adopted on a wider scale, the planet does have the space for more regenerative agriculture forests, wetlands rebuilding to sequester a lot of our excess CO2.”

However for now, hemp is only grown on a fraction of the reserve.

Illegal until recent years, Banks-Dobson said existing industries like cotton and paper felt “threatened” by hemp’s flexible uses.

“With Henry Ford’s invention of a car that… actually ran on hemp-based ethanol… the petroleum industry, they had no interest in seeing hemp successful, either,” he said. “They realized they could connect the drug cultivars of cannabis and hemp all in one basket.”

Necessity brought a temporary reprieve during World War II, but cannabis was banned outright by the Controlled Substance Act in 1970. It remained illegal until the 2014 and 2018 farm bills eased restrictions and allowed states to develop their own unique piloting programs.

“I work on two crops. I work on Willow, which is a bioenergy crop, and for the last three and a half years I’ve been working on hemp,” Cornell University horticulturist Larry Smart, who is part of New York’s pilot program, said.

Smart also believes hemp has the potential to combat climate change, if corporations are willing to commit to making more hemp-based products over those derived from fossil fuels.

“Fossil fuels have the advantage that they can be delivered across long distances through pipelines while hemp fiber, for example, is very bulky, it’s going to be expensive to move,” he said. “So we need to have local agriculture supporting local businesses.”

Hudson Hemp is one of those local businesses, and their mission includes improving soil health and air quality.

The small operation also has some high-profile supporters, like Susan Rockefeller, who is on the board of the Peggy McGrath Rockefeller Foundation — which owns the land the farm sits on. 

Her mother-in-law, Peggy McGrath Rockefeller, “wanted to save American farmland,” she said.

“We’re trying to restore, regenerate, and reimagine a food system that can benefit the land, all the animals, and the people that rely on it,” Rockefeller said.

The mission is no easy feat for small farmers who already work with thin margins — many rushed to grow hemp for CBD, in turn driving prices down.

Asked how the average farmer could afford the sustainability and diversification he achieved, Banks-Dobson said to start with a “manageable amount.”

“There are several small hemp farms who have grown a half acre, an acre, two acres… the investment to do that isn’t very much,” he explained. “If you’re already a vegetable farmer, you can incorporate it. I’m actually seeing these are mostly the hemp farmers surviving.”

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