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A Better Crop

By Doug Schnitzspahn
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When a team from iconic outdoor brand Patagonia met in Denver during the Outdoor Retailer trade show in 2019 to discuss the possibility of working with an industrial hemp farm in the U.S., Colorado Gov. Jared Polis took note. He responded—immediately—showing up for a lunch and listen and then sending a rep to tell the brand that if industrial hemp was going to return to America, he wanted it to start in Colorado. “We just wanted folks to come together and start trading notes and business cards,” says Ed Aumen, business unit director, fieldwear at Patagonia, “but Polis’ office said they were willing to find enough acres in the state to do a test plot for the upcoming season.”

Starting any operation from scratch is not easy. Despite once being a vibrant American crop, industrial hemp has been illegal in the U.S. since the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 sought to tighten restrictions on marijuana as a drug, despite the fact that hemp contains minuscule amounts of THC. That all changed with the 2018 Farm Bill, which made industrial hemp legal again as long as THC levels are below .3%.

The use of hemp in clothing—and products as diverse as building supplies and auto parts—has been legal, however, meaning that manufacturers have had to source hemp offshore, mostly from Canada and China. Farming industrial hemp requires infrastructure—farmers need the seeds and they need to be able to decorticate the plant, strip off layers that won’t work for fabric (though these scraps do have other industrial uses). From there it can be made into clothing.

Woman lifting hay on a farm

Patagonia plans to begin selling work wear made with U.S. hemp in the next few years, possibly as soon as 2023. Though still produced in China, it will be the first apparel made from hemp cultivated in the first legal industrial hemp growing operation in America.

“Once it’s harvested it has to get stripped apart into fiber,” explains Aumen. “That fiber goes to a spinner, which spins it into a yarn. Then that goes to a textile mill. And then it is woven into a fabric.”

Polis’ office connected Patagonia with Wright-Oakes Farms in Colorado’s San Luis Valley for a 500-acre test plot, but without the seeds and proper machinery, there could be no crop. Luckily, Patagonia’s Chinese hemp supplier, who had been at the Denver meeting, stepped in, providing the seeds, which are sensitive to elevation. It turned out that the Chinese farm is at about the same high altitude as the San Luis Valley. The Chinese supplier would also provide expertise and even send essential hemp harvesting machinery to Colorado. The plan was to send the U.S. hemp to China to manufacture into clothing (the U.S. does not have the infrastructure to do this) so the supplier would still benefit.

Then COVID-19 hit. “So he couldn’t ship the machinery,” says Aumen. “But somehow they located a decortication machine in Colorado. It’s bizarro to me why someone would even be sitting on something like that, but they had one. Soon we were Zooming back and forth and sending videos from the Chinese textile mill to the farmer in southern Colorado.”

Governor Jared Polis in a hemp field

Governor Jared Polis (R) visiting Wright-Oakes Farms

Fully on board, Gov. Polis drove to the St Louis Valley to inspect the acreage in person. “Polis heads down there and walks the field in a cowboy hat,” says Aumen. “He’s super invested in it for all the right reasons. He’s trying to figure a new revenue stream for the farmers.”

Wright-Oakes Farms harvested 500 acres of hemp and stored it in a shed while Patagonia sent samples to China to test it in the machinery and process it into a first-quality fiber that can be spun into a yarn, which can then be crafted into Patagonia textiles. Although it has not set an exact date, Patagonia plans to begin selling work wear made with U.S. hemp in the next few years, possibly as soon as 2023. Though produced in China, it will be the first apparel made from U.S. hemp from the first legal industrial hemp growing operation in America.

Hemp leaves

Photo by Sarah Hayes

Finding a Way to Save Mother Earth

It’s no surprise that Patagonia has both a strong interest in hemp and in investing in U.S. farmers. The California-based company, which was founded by outspoken climber, surfer, and activist Yvon Chouinard, operates as a B Corp. That means it has a legal mandate to put environmental and social causes and the welfare of its employees and community ahead of corporate profits. And it doesn’t just do this on its word. B Corps must submit to third-party validation and keep their operations transparent.

Chouinard and his company have been cantankerously disruptive when it comes to progressive causes over the years, once encouraging customers not to buy one of its jackets to reduce consumption (they did anyway) and including a label in a pair of shorts during last year’s election that said “Vote the Assholes Out.”

Chouinard even demanded the outdoor retailer trade show move out of its biannual home in Salt Lake City because Utah politicians wanted to sell off and degrade public lands. Patagonia then joined a lawsuit against the Trump administration when it dramatically cut Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

The brand has also been at the forefront of sustainable apparel innovations, creating a pioneering program that allowed customers to recycle old Patagonia clothing and investing in organic cotton for its ever popular t-shirts. Cotton is a natural fiber, but the process of growing it and turning it into fabric often involves pesticides and other agricultural chemicals that, while they may make growing crops easier, wreak havoc on natural soil systems and leech into ecosystems beyond the farm. To that end, Patagonia has also invested in regenerative agriculture, partnering with the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA) through its Patagonia Action Works, which supports grassroots organizations that make a difference out in the field.“Regenerative agriculture is one of the most promising methods of sequestering carbon, slowing climate change,” says Elizabeth Whitlow, ROA executive director. “Regenerative practices build healthy soil and use compost and natural methods—age-old farming methods—where you keep the soil covered so that you don’t have problems with erosion, and you use things like nitrogen-fixing crops.”

“Polis heads down there and walks the fields in a cowboy hat. He’s invested in HEMP for all the right reasons. He’s trying to figure a new revenue stream for the farmers.”

—Ed Aumen, business unit director, fieldwear at Patagonia

All of that makes hemp a natural fit for Patagonia. It’s a tough fiber, stronger than cotton, far easier on the environment than synthetics, and it fits into Patagonia’s philosophy of working with materials that do less—or no—harm to the ecosystem and support local growers. Patagonia has been using hemp in apparel since the 1990s and made it a staple of its work wear collection, which launched in 2017.

Woman working on a farm

Photo by Forest Woodward

No surprise then that Patagonia was a big proponent of changes in agricultural laws, including 2018 Farm Bill that brought industrial hemp farming back to the U.S. It released the film Harvesting Liberty, which documented the efforts of Growing Warriors’ Michael Lewis and Fibershed’s Rebecca Burgess to legalize the crop in 2016. That activism and the ability to grow hemp in the U.S. again resulted in the partnership with the state of Colorado and Wright-Oakes Farms that synchs with Patagonia’s core values and mission.

“We grew all the hemp with zero pesticides or herbicides. Plus, hemp needs very little water. So we love it,” says Aumen. “And when it comes to the farmers, the last thing they want to do is spend money on chemicals to spray onto their fields. Ultimately, what we’d love to have happen here is for this be a no-till situation, regenerative agriculture. Industrial hemp can contribute to great soil health.” At the end of the day, it is “the strongest fiber that you can put into a textile in the world.”

In the long run, the return of industrial hemp to the U.S. could provide a healthy boost to the American economy and provide longterm security for small farmers.

“Ultimately, what we’d love to be able to see is a state like Colorado grow industrial hemp and sell its fiber around the world—and hopefully at home too,” says Aumen. “The domestic textile mills—what few there are—are licking their chops to figure a way to make fabrics with U.S.-grown hemp. If we can bring industrial hemp back to the U.S. and have it grown organically, then we are doing exactly what we’re supposed to be doing, finding a way to save Mother Earth.”