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Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

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There is a new/rebirth opportunity in the fiber marketplace—one that is sustainable and economically viable. Legalization of recreational cannabis in New Mexico was a big win for industrial hemp growers around the state. Why? Industrial hemp’s fundamental problem has been that it looks exactly like marijuana. While it lacks enough psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to get you high, hemp is visually identical to cannabis with high THC concentrations. Industrial hemp is grown for its fiber and seeds, while marijuana is grown for high levels of THC.

Now growers in New Mexico will need to ask themselves the question, “Will I grow medicinal cannabis, recreational marijuana or industrial hemp—or all three?” With the saturation of CBD growers, some entrepreneurs are looking at making other kinds of products to ensure they have buyers lined up for whatever they grow.

Once the hemp fiber is separated from the stalks, it can be used for clothing, bags, ropes, paper, beauty products, building materials and bioplastics. The woody inner stalks can be formed into building materials, mulch and animal bedding. Research has shown the hemp plant fibers can pack as much energy and power as graphene, which has been hyped as the model material for supercapacitors.

Unless you have a horticultural background or the money to access someone who does for guidance, look for another business investment. However, rewards from hard work could be substantial. The hemp fiber market is expected to grow from $209 million in 2020 to $482 million in 2025, a compound annual growth rate of 18 percent, according to projections from Hemp Industry Daily’s 2021 Hemp and CBD Factbook. Industry insiders expect the domestic hemp fiber and apparel market to develop into a multibillion-dollar industry.

Hemp fiber is largely imported for American-made clothing. Imports have more than doubled from $131,644 in 2018 to $330,252 in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Textiles and Apparel.

Hemp was just another crop until the turn of the last century. Thomas Jefferson grew hemp and invented a “breaker” machine to make hemp fiber, a cash crop in colonial times. Fear of the plant followed a wave of immigrants after the Mexican Revolution, which started in 1910. The marijuana that they brought with them was considered a cultural intoxicant. In 1937 the Marijuana Tax Act effectively criminalized the “Murder Weed” and “Assassin of Youth,” based on its connection not only to immigrants but to African Americans, musicians and other “deviants.” Industrial hemp had a brief revival during World War II, when the “Hemp for Victory” campaign pushed production to more than 150 million pounds.

Hemp as a cash crop died in 1943. By 1948 production was just three million pounds, plunging lower with the synthetic fiber revolution. Then, in 1970, the Controlled Substances Act declared industrial hemp, and all cannabis varieties, a Schedule I narcotic. That remains in effect, but Congress finally drew a line between industrial and recreational hemp with the 2014 farm bill.

Growers had not been allowed to produce hemp fiber commercially until 2018. President Trump signed the Farm Bill (Agricultural Improvement of 2018) into law on December 20, 2018. It removed the hemp plant, its seeds and derivatives from the Controlled Substances Act. Traditional hemp-cannabis sativa grows quite tall and consumes up to 75 percent less water than alfalfa and corn. The tops are harvested for seed production and the stalk for a number of industrial purposes such as textiles and bioplastics. It is bored into the ground like wheat and has a planting rate of 400,000 per acre (roughly 100 plants/square meter). Estimates are that a farmer familiar with the growing techniques of hemp can can yield an average of 700 pounds growing just one acre of hemp, which can fetch up to $175,000

Hemp grows prolifically with little water and no pesticides. It takes up relatively little space, produces more pulp per acre than trees and is biodegradable. It’s fast-growing, doesn’t require a lot of input, grows in marginal areas and has the ability to produce large amounts of biomass in as little as 60 to 90 days. Used as a cover crop, hemp can improve soil properties, reduce soil erosion, conserve soil water and recycle plant nutrients.

Organic hemp is one of the most sustainable fibers you can use, according to multiple sources, including the Textile Exchange and the Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibers. Hemp fiber naturally filters UV light, resists bacterial growth, breathes easily and has four times the strength of cotton. It retains color better than any other fabric and it won’t weaken when washed. Hemp protects your skin by naturally filtering UV light. Hemp has four times the strength of cotton; It won’t weaken when washed and is highly resistant to rot, mold and saltwater

Decades of drug prohibition mean we’re still lacking much of the infrastructure needed to grow and process hemp. New Mexico is a good place to grow hemp, but new markets must be developed, factories and other infrastructure must be created, systems put in place and buyers lined up to have a solid chance of prospering in the field. If you don’t have any background in horticulture it could be very difficult for you to produce hemp, mainly due to cost and infrastructure. There are opportunities in New Mexico now for industrial facilities that process the hemp plant and turn it into a material that can be used for oils, lotions, edibles, clothing, chocolates, bath products, car parts, insulation for houses and much more. Big Dog Industries, which specializes in all areas of the hemp market, recently purchased an old cheese factory in Lovington, New Mexico. The company plans to invest $15 million in the seed-to-retail hemp business in the hope of becoming a national player in the market. The New Mexico Economic Development Department pledged $750,000 from the state LEDA fund to the project, while the city of Lovington has pledged $250,000.

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