The Indigenous hemp and cannabis cooperative – growing dreams

The Indigenous Hemp and Cannabis Farmers’ Cooperative members in Sisseton, South Dakota, at the hemp meeting. (Photo by Winona LaDuke.)

By Winona LaDuke

This August, The Red Lake Ojibwe Tribe will lead the Native nations with their cannabis dispensary, something a lot of people will be happy about, including myself. There are a lot of people who would like to smoke good, clean medicine and that’s one way to make sure it happens ­– own your own dispensary.

Another cannabis plant is a quiet backdrop to the big legalization moment. That’s fiber hemp. Harvest is soon. Red Lake, Dakota and White Earth tribal members are moving ahead in that industry. This spring, father and son Ron and Jery Lee Chilton, Will Sayers, Nick Bellrock, and Darren Klarer planted 46 acres of hemp in a field just south of the Pine Point Elementary School. Two years ago, that field was owned by RDO Offutt, the big potato guys. Now it’s planted with fiber hemp, the stuff you make clothes, cars, rebar, housing, and more out of.

This is the eighth-year tribal farmers on the White Earth reservation have been planting fiber hemp, and this is the biggest crop. These farmers are on the front lines of what is going to be the New Green Revolution.

At Sisseton Dakota Oyate (Lake Traverse Indian Reservation), Breon Lake, Gerald German and Ella Robertson are growing fiber hemp. This is Lake’s second year, with good success last year selling his fiber and then purchasing more seeds. He also picked up seeds from Pine Point this year. In early July his forty acre crop was 5 feet tall. Hemp likes Dakota territory.

Meanwhile back in Pine Point, Jerry Lee Chilton, from Anishinaabe Agriculture talks about farming, “when you go out there in the early spring, you get to hear those birds and then you get to till up your spot there and make it look like art out there, that’s good. It’s good to be proud of what you can grow out there and learn from the older farmers and your ancestors”.

Together these farmers have created the Indigenous Hemp and Cannabis Farmers’ Cooperative. They are working with Anishinaabe Agriculture, a non-profit organization out of Pine Point, Minnesota, with financial support from the Bush Foundation. The cooperative is needed because there’s limited knowledge about growing fields of fiber hemp and processing it. (More people know how to grow marijuana than hemp.) These Native farmers want to own the seeds, fiber and mills, and build houses, make packaging, paper, foods and more. And they want to grow hemp organically, because hemp can help sequester more carbon than any other field crop, and doing it right is the only way.

The potential for fiber hemp to transform the economy and ecology is significant. Fiber hemp can replace many carbon intensive industries, from concrete to textiles, and can also bioremediate (clean up) land. Hemp uses less water than, say cotton. That’s all important in this time when the skies are red from climate change and the US cotton crop failed last year due to lack of water.

Growing to the l000 or so acres needed for some manufacturing takes work and capital. That means cooperation. The Indigenous Hemp and Cannabis Farmers’ Cooperative wants to prove that cooperation, not competition, is the way to go. Think of this math equation: One Hempwood factory (they make flooring, cabinets and more out of hemp) takes about l000 acres of land, and that means lots of seeds, equipment, organic fertilizer, and storage. And, since you rotate crops, you’ve got to get more farms and more crops. Chilton’s team at Anishinaabe Agriculture put in 20 acres of sunflowers to begin that crop rotation, hoping to produce organic sunflower oil.

Very few Native farmers have all the equipment, acreage, storage and transportation capacity. That’s why the farmers are making a cooperative. These same farmers hope to own value added processing to make anything from insulation to textiles. Producing hemp for the building and textile industry will require hundreds of thousands of acres, and the reservations to the north and west have land, or land they need to get back.

Lower Sioux is an example of that. The tribe has equipment to process hemp into hurd for housing, and the possibility of growing your own building materials is a good one for any tribal economy. Add to that, western tribes have the wind power to run the big mills. That’s all pretty revolutionary. Hemp can help transform this region. A recent grant by the McKnight Foundation will help develop some business plans for these industries, plans which involve cooperatives.

Seed Security
There are not enough seeds for the farmers of the future. Anishinaabe Agriculture has been researching how to create strong varieties. Some of that work is with the University of Minnesota, where Dr. George Weiblen is working to restore feral varieties with tribal farmers. He is the head of cannabis research at the University. “Encouraging hemp’s comeback feels good. We’ve waited a long time for this, and there’s nobody I’d rather do this with than first nations.” Weiblen said.

“Feral varieties (“ditch weed”) must be pretty tough because they have been hanging out illegally for seventy years or so,” Chilton said. “Strong seeds are good seeds. That’s why the research work is important. And, with climate change, it’s time to get seeds for the region. The Patagonia Foundation supported much of this work.”

After the seed is planted, the processing is the next step, and making textile grade fabric is very hard. White Earth hemp under permits by Winona’s Hemp, went to North Carolina, Virginia, then Mexico for spinning and now weaving. That’s a long way for a hemp bale to travel, and that’s why regional cooperatives make sense. Hemp has proved to be high quality and this fall Patagonia will be releasing a workbag with hemp from White Earth Anishinaabe farmers.

While the Anishinaabe Agriculture Institute works to grow out seeds, the cooperative is meeting with farmers. A meeting in late June on the Pine Ridge Reservation linked up Oglala farmers with Anishinaabe farmers. At a meeting, held at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center in Oglala, a dozen Lakota and Arikara farmers talked about the industry. There were questions ranging from which seeds, to building plans for tribal housing. The farmers are all very interested in the potential of integrating the plant into a tribal economy – the New Green Revolution.

Many bags of hemp seeds were distributed this spring across the north country. Looking at the Anishinaabe fields, Dr. Weiblen says, “These plants, you can’t keep them down.”
Plants which have been eradicated for decades come back to a new economy, no longer criminals. These are, indeed, fields of dreams.