We first met Michael Lewis of The Growing Warriors Project at Farm Aid 2015 where he and his fellow farmers presented the first United States flag to be made of American-grown hemp in nearly a century.
We're excited to report that Patagonia, the $750-million apparel and gear retailer, has made a great documentary, titled "Harvesting Liberty," about the partnership that made the flag as part of Patagonia's campaign to push for legalizing the cultivation of industrial hemp. The partners consist of The Growing Warriors Project, which helps veterans to grow high quality, naturally grown produce, and Fibershed, which develops regenerative textile systems that are based on carbon farming, regional manufacturing, and public education.
The following is an interview we did with Lewis in 2015 a few weeks after Farm Aid. Check it out to learn more about the flag project and why hemp farming can be part of a sustainable farming future in America. Also, take a moment and check out the video on this page of hemp processing as demonstrated by the Kentucky Cloth Project at Farm Aid 2015.
Tell me about the background of the hemp flag project: how did it start and how does Growing Warriors, Freedom Seed and Feed and Kentucky Cloth Project fit into the effort?
The Kentucky Cloth Project was the vision of Fibershed founder Rebecca Burgess. She had a vision of blending Kentucky hemp with Kentucky sheep's wool and alpaca fiber to create a cloth that could fit into the existing textile industries infrastructure. Fibershed awarded portions of a Patagonia grant to Growing Warriors and the Kentucky Cloth Project was born. Growing Warriors used the funds to pay Veterans Kevin Lanzi and Fred-Curtis Lewis to tend, harvest and develop a small-scale hemp decorticator for processing the fibers. During our growing season we had daily fly over visits from [law enforcement] Black Hawk helicopters and in frustration we planted some of our acreage in the pattern of an American flag. The frustration of being harassed for growing cloth that could, and in fact has, been used for making an American flag was what started the Homegrown Flag Project. We decided we would do it, but that we would do it the way it would have been made in the early 1800s.
Freedom Seed and Feed, a company I cofounded in 2013, supported the project financially, paying for the labor, plant materials and equipment needed to make this flag. Contracting with local artisans allowed us to understand the process and give us ideas on how we could scale production up slowly and responsibly. The blending of Kentucky hemp with biodynamically grown California cotton made for the perfect blend. I am amazed at the team that came together to make this happen.
How does Growing Warriors support veterans?
Our mission is to equip, assist and train military veterans in production agriculture for themselves, their communities and their families. Current Government figures put the number of veterans and active duty military personal receiving Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, stands at just over a million. Our answer to this problem is simple: teach them to grow and preserve their own food together, as a community. We accomplish this by partnering with cities, hospitals, universities and community based organizations to bring hands-on curriculum-based learning to veterans and their families in a community garden setting.
With the help of our fiscal sponsor, the National Center for Appropriate Technologies, we bring a wide range of educational services to veterans and community members.
If veterans are interested in getting involved in farming how they can and do you have some resources they should turn to?
There are a number of national organizations that provide services for veterans in and around agriculture. The first step in any decision-making process is research. I would make the most of the online resources available through ATTRA Library and learn what you are interested in as far as production and then find the person in your area doing it best. Another great resource we use often is the Farm Aid resource link. This can put you in touch with some amazing organizations in your area to begin the process of getting involved.
Tell me about the USDA and Kentucky State government's involvement in the hemp project - it's part of a USDA pilot program, right?
The Kentucky Department of Agriculture has an arrangement with farmers that allow them to grow under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). This allows private farmers to conduct research on farms. The Farm Bill authorized the research of hemp through Universities and the State Departments of Agriculture and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture took the Drug Enforcement Agency to federal court over the issue of the MOUs and won.
Tell me about the flag itself: Take me through the process from hemp seed to the finished flag. What was being demonstrated at Farm Aid and how did you dye the flag?
After the hemp is cut in the fields we use an old process known as retting to break down the lignins that hold the baste fibers to the pithy fibers. Nature takes care of that as microscopic organisms eat the simple sugars that hold the plant together. After the plant has retted for several weeks it is dried in the barn. The next process is what we demonstrated at Farm Aid and it is called breaking, or decorticating. We use old hand powered machines to crush the center pithy fiber separating the baste fibers. Once the fiber has been separated it is ready to be spun. This was all done by hand spinners in Kentucky. After the fiber was spun it was sent to Tennessee for dying. The blue was from indigo plants while the red came from madder. After the dying, the yarn was re-spun and from there it went onto a loom for weaving into the final product.
Why is the flag important?
When you think about how textiles feel today, whether a flag or a t-shirt, they are very uniform and smooth. I think this is important because it represents our unity and our diversity. We made this American ingenuity with people from all walks of life. Life and society are not uniform or standardized in any way. This flag represents the bumps and ridges in our society and the great things that happen when we accept differences and work to solve problems. It represents all of us and our future.
Some of the farmers who grew the hemp for the flag used to grow tobacco. What's the significance of this transition?
Tobacco was something that helped tie together the rural economies here in Kentucky. The Burley coop worked to create a system of equity that allowed farmers and communities to prosper. The loss of the parity price structure for tobacco farmers was a significant blow to rural economies. While it may not be possible to get another legislative parity program going there is much opportunity to establish a consumer parity program with this crop. Allowing farmers to explore and build new processing is their communities is a good thing, but it has to be regional and farmers have to be involved in the process. If we treat hemp as a business as usual crop, we will get a business as usual result. It is one thing to create an opportunity for a farmer, but it is meaningless if it is not done fairly with equity in mind. It won't be any one crop that solves this issue, it will have to be consumers demanding that farmers be treated fairly and with dignity. Hemp represents an opportunity for farmers to work together like they did in the heyday of tobacco and that is a positive.
What would be the benefit of expanding who can grow hemp?
I am not sure how to best answer this - my first thought is to say, slow down. We have a lot of mistakes still to make and the market is not settled. There is a lot of speculation in the markets about this crop's potential, but until 100 percent proven I would caution against big capital investments until things settle and we have processing.
The environmental impact of expanded production is undeniable. The crop lends itself to sustainability with its diversity. Everything from flags to super capacitors can be made from a crop that doesn't require heavy inputs. That's a big win for the planet, but we have to move forward responsibly.
If other farmers are interested in growing hemp how can they get involved and what resources should they turn to?