I met with Jacob Waddell, Director of the US Hemp Building Association, outside of the WNC Ag Center in Asheville, North Carolina, on July 26, 2021. The following day he was on the Industry Hemp Panel at SAHAE (Southern Atlantic Hemp & Arts Expo). The Southern Atlantic Hemp members include: North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. Hemp is on the rise, and not just in the Southeast. Canada is a leader in hemp production, as well as its being used in countries throughout the world. Hemp grows faster than wood, is stronger, more permeable, with a negative carbon footprint. Watch Bringing it Home (You Tube), by Filmmaker Linda Royal on the wonders of hemp. Panels ran throughout the 3-day event, along with vendors, food trucks, and three stages of non-stop music, one a smaller ASHEJAM/GetOfftheGridFest stage for more experimental sound. Thirty music acts weren’t able to be covered as there was so much going on. There were jugglers, stilt walkers, and fire spinners. Performing artists, workshops, and interactive theme camps provided family-friendly entertainment in addition to the all-day marketplace and live music. There were Panels not only on Industrial Hemp, but also cannabis reform policy, mental health issues, such as psychedelic psychotherapy for PSTD, alcoholism, depression, POW rights in sentencing, harm reduction, and Southeast regional activism were covered. One highlight was a surprise nostalgic thrill catching “Amie” by Pure Prairie League (Instagram) for a few precious seconds. I tore out of the Magic Bus, where I was visiting with musicians and activists, when the song began and twirled around like a kid getting a glimpse of the joyous crowd, which will, undoubtedly, grow next year at its 2nd annual event. – Mark Katzman
MK: What is the US Hemp Building Association and its mission?
JW: We’re an association that’s focused on moving forward the hemp building industry and products in that industry.
MK: The diverse uses of hemp in building materials, textiles, cosmetics, rope, detergents, soaps and much more, are nothing less than astounding.
JW: Hempcrete is the first thing most people know about, but you have innovators throughout the market that keep on coming out with new products. Hempwood is a big one. They basically are taking hemp stalks and turning them into a wood replacement and using it for furniture, flooring, and cabinetry. I don’t know what the wood industry thinks about this, but I don’t think they’re, like, scared or anything, at least not yet. (laughs) It’s just a good option. They use all-natural materials. It has a carbon negative footprint. It’s pretty incredible that you can have this material. Trees take decades to grow, and when you talk about hemp, you can get a crop of hemp maybe twice a year, three in certain climates. The fact of the fast growth cycle is amazing, and you’ve trapped all that carbon when it’s growing there. And then you have the batt insulation, which is made of the long fibers.
MK: How do you get Lowe’s to sell Hempwood?
JW: We haven’t broken through to that type of large box-store yet. We have two main hurdles there. One is a box-store like that is going to want to replace the supply, so there’s a level you have to grow to. And I can tell you, after talking with Greg Wilson (founder/CEO Hempwood), that they’re trying to get up to that level, preparing for that, because they can see that coming. The other thing is the consumer demand. The more we show the consumer the benefits of this and the qualities of it and get their thirst for it, any store is going to sell something that someone will buy.
MK: Besides an Expo like this, how do you get the message out, especially to farmers?
JW: I want farmers to be successful. I don’t want them to jump in this industry that will not support them. I don’t want a bunch of farmers growing this if they don’t have a place to sell it. That’s why we’re working so hard on the end-product side of things, on the final stage, because if we can create the demand, then the farmers will have a place to sell to and then it makes sense to be growing this. We saw some sad things happen with the bust on CBD. I mean, a lot of farmers lost, and that’s sad. We don’t want to repeat that. So for us, if we can prove a demand, and get that hunger out, then they’ll have contracts with these people to grow and produce products that will hopefully end up in the box-store. And then suddenly the industry will actually grow, and that will lead to lower prices as we get the economy to scale.
MK: Is there a difference between growing hemp on land verses controlled indoor environments?
JW: For cannabinoids, indoor growth makes more sense if you have a lot more control. When it comes to fiber and grain and hemp hurd, you’re looking at volume. You want a field that’s completely packed as tight as you can and get tonnage out of it. You want a twenty-foot plant. That’s a little restrictive in most greenhouses. The Canadians have been doing this for a decade before us, and they’ve been using it in Europe longer than Canada. They’ve figured out how to grow on scale for grain because they’re 80% of the grain market in the United States. I actually don’t know enough about their farming practices, but they’ve figured it out. We’ve just got to follow what they do because this has been grown internationally. We’ve seen different cultivars in different ranges and different areas that have survived very well. It’s trying to find the cultivar that fits your environment. States all over the country are doing this right now. Vermont University has been doing a dozen or so studies over the past three years on Industrial Hemp. Bish Enterprises in Nebraska and a couple of states around there are studying seven different cultivars, and Pennsylvania and Tennessee are working on theirs. The Agricultural Department at the University of Georgia is studying hemp. It’s coming along.
MK: Where do you see the hemp industry a few years down the road?
JW: We want to get it so that we can build without variances and it’s a common material that people can build with. Then it gets to expanding people’s options. There are a couple of potential things that could happen that would accelerate the industry a great degree. Carbon credits is a big one. Right now there’s legislation going to the House about farming carbon credits, and that’s good. But we’re talking about the plant above it. And the thing is, that when you deal with a field of hemp, 4/5ths of the carbon storage you have is above the ground. If you get all that pulled out you get around two tons of carbon in the field and have eight tons of carbon coming out of the field. If you can put that into a building and sequester it there, then, technically speaking, if the carbon credits is working properly, suddenly housing could probably be cheaper due to the fact than they’re getting a rebate because of the carbon credits they’re using and reselling. Carbon credits is a brokerage thing. There would be someone or a group of people buying carbon credits from the builders and then reselling it to companies.
MK: There is a huge variety of uses for hemp beyond hempcrete and panels for industrial use, such as insulation, for instance. Do you work in a laboratory to develop new products?
JW: My laboratory is my garage. (laughs) I do experiment and play with things. I come from a material science background, so I started with the simple stuff, which is mixing different ratios and trying different processing, like compression and density techniques, to see what different properties I could get out of it. I was able to make small planters and things with thin walls. I was really just trying to approach a thin wall structure. It’s all really a balance of the size of your hurd and your processing technique. That type of stuff – and I’m not the only one out there whose tried this – is similar to a drywall substitute. I don’t know if it functions or works or anything, but I was able to make it in my garage. People around the country are doing things like this and that’s the exciting part, the innovation everywhere. The reality is, it needs a lot of testing.
MK: Is there a clearinghouse or mailing list for people to keep abreast of industry innovations and products, possibly share their experiments and converse with each other about all of this, like in Reddit?
JW: I would suggest joining the US Hemp Building Association. We have seven committees that are talking and focusing on different ideas and issues. On top of that we are trying to build that networking. Right now we’re working on scaling up our website, and a forum is a big part of that, because we have these questions popping up. I come from a business background in the automotive industry before I got into hemp. I started as an industrial engineer, an efficiency expert, then three months later I was program managing. And I got to a point – and this is true of academia too – I got to a point where I saw what the future was. I saw the people around me were on another level, and that didn’t look like fun. I said, I don’t want to do that, and went looking for something else. Before my current position I was running a small business making CBD products.
MK: Any final thoughts?
JW: I give the same advice to farmers and small businesses: grow as the demand grows, because you don’t want to buy a million-dollar piece of equipment if it’s going to take you ten years to get a million dollars back. You want to buy a $50,000 piece of equipment that can do the job so you’ll be paid back. When the larger demand grows to the point of the million-dollar piece of equipment you can invest in that. It’s a slow build.