Hemp is finally legal in the U.S.
When the U.S. Department of Agriculture established federal hemp production regulations at the end of 2019—as required by the 2018 Farm Bill—it represented a major milestone in the long fight to bring hemp agriculture back to the U.S. For the first time in decades, farmers could legally grow hemp on U.S. soil.
Once an abundant crop in states like Kentucky and North Carolina, hemp had largely disappeared from the U.S. farming landscape by 1940. The 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, spurred to passage by racist fearmongering, made no distinction between psychoactive and non-psychoactive varieties of the Cannabis Sativa plant, and hemp was effectively banned. Nixon’s signing of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, driven by his own racism, cemented hemp’s status as a pariah plant—a Schedule I substance whose cultivation could land you a long prison sentence.
Dr. Bronner’s: twenty years of hemp activism
Jack Herrer was among the first to compile the sordid history of cannabis vilification, and published a book in 1985 called “The Hemperor Wears No Clothes,” detailing both the racist underpinnings of cannabis prohibition and the tremendous potential of the hemp plant. A generation of cannabis activists drew inspiration from this book and began advocating for a change. David Bronner was one of them.
After taking the helm of Dr. Bronner’s in 1998, David Bronner quickly sought to advance his environmental and drug policy activism through his family’s business. He added hemp oil to his grandfather’s soap formula—hemp oil has excellent moisturizing and lathering properties that make it ideal for soaps. The addition of hemp oil soon brought Dr. Bronner’s into conflict with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which sought to ban all hemp products from market shelves. If effected, this policy would have put Dr. Bronner’s—and many fledgling hemp companies—out of business. Along with Vote Hemp, Dr. Bronner’s successfully sued the DEA and helped pave the way for a thriving hemp food and body care industry.
Even though hemp products could now be sold, hemp agriculture continued to be illegal in the U.S., and all of the hemp for our soaps had to be imported from Canada. Dr. Bronner’s worked hard to bring this issue to the attention of legislators and consumers through Hemp History Week, a public awareness campaign the company organized for ten years. Little by little, the walls of hemp prohibition began to crumble. Public opinion on psychoactive cannabis (marijuana) was shifting too, and when states began legalizing cannabis, hemp was not far behind. In 2019, hemp was finally removed from the Controlled Substance Act.
Victory Hemp: Building a U.S. Hemp Industry
Our ability to source hemp oil from U.S. farmers today depends on people like Chad Rosen—intrepid entrepreneurs who have stepped in to build up this industry from scratch. Chad Rosen founded Victory Hemp in 2015, realizing that there was a need for a middle-market hemp processor —an operation that could take the hemp grown by farmers and process it into a wide variety of ingredients useful for food and body care manufacturers. “We were blazing a path of what we wanted the supply chain to look like,” says Chad with excitement, explaining that he relocated from Southern California to Kentucky so that he could be at the heart of the U.S.’s traditional hemp-growing region.
Though many Kentucky farmers were looking to transition out of tobacco growing, Chad soon learned that not all Kentucky ground was ideally suited to the broad-acre production methods required for growing hemp grain, so he had to supplement his Kentucky acreage. Chad started connecting with farmers who were already growing grain crops on flat acreage in Michigan, North Dakota, and Montana—farmers who were open-minded about adding hemp to their crop rotations.
Being a middle-market processor, Chad not only had to convince farmers to start planting hemp, but also find buyers who would purchase the finished product. “In 2016, I was purchasing hemp grain from farmers then putting it in packages under our label and bringing it to the farmer’s markets to develop some cash flow,” explains Chad. He adds, “I was trying to find out if they liked the taste of it, if they understood what the nutritional benefits were—were they afraid that they were going to get high from eating it?”
The hemp hearts—the inside of the hemp seed—were popular at the farmer’s markets and Victory Hemp was able to convince natural food retailers to start carrying their Shelled Hemp Seeds (Hemp Hearts), along with their Cold Pressed Hemp Seed Oil, and Hemp Protein Powder. These products were eventually picked up by some larger retailers, and the increased cash flow meant Victory Hemp could purchase more sophisticated manufacturing equipment. Since then, Victory Hemp has evolved into a “business to business” company, selling hemp ingredients to food, beverage, and skincare manufacturers.
Making the most of hemp
Chad knew that traditional hemp ingredients had tremendous nutritional value but were green, gritty, and difficult for product formulators to work with —“that was when we embarked on a thirty-month journey in the labs to figure out how we could process the hemp hearts and separate the protein and the oil without the use of solvents in a low, minimally processed fashion.”
Victory Hemp was able to develop innovative processing technology that has resulted in two new, highly functional ingredients from the hemp heart: V-70™ Hemp Heart Protein and V-ONE™ Hemp Heart Oil. These two ingredients deliver the nutritional excellence found in hemp while providing a neutral color and flavor profile, allowing hemp ingredients to be used in a wide variety of applications for the first time. With fewer potential allergens than soy protein or almond protein, and a bland taste when compared to the strong flavor of pea protein, these ingredients offer distinct advantages for the development of meat and dairy alternatives, nutritional beverages, and cosmetic and personal care products. With more useful end-products and higher profitability for hemp, Victory Hemp could now contract with more farmers to put hemp in the ground.
Through Victory Hemp’s participation in Hemp History Week’s Grassroots Program, Dr. Bronner’s and Victory Hemp made a connection—one that would ultimately lead to Dr. Bronner’s being able to source U.S.-grown hemp seed oil for all of our products.
A good crop for rotation and soil health
For farmers who have “seen the light” and want to keep their soils healthy through regenerative organic practices, hemp offers an excellent addition to their crop rotation. Hemp has deep taproots that help loosen compacted soil and increase aeration. Deep taproots also help bring nutrients closer to the surface, benefiting crops that follow in the rotation with shallower roots. It is also useful as a cover crop, planted in the off-season to help suppress weeds and other pests without the use of chemicals.
But as Chad Rosen of Victory Hemp has observed firsthand, there are deeply entrenched structures and incentives that make it tough to convince farmers to turn away from chemical-intensive agriculture. Chad likens making this change to “turning around an aircraft carrier—an enormous undertaking.” But like Dr. Bronner’s, Chad views making this change as essential in making agriculture an industry that helps mitigate climate change rather than contributes to it.