WSDA - Webinar - Hemp Building Materials
(April 12, 2023) - Summary

Several stakeholders introduced themselves and started to network around increasing the capacity of the state to produce and process hemp into construction materials.

Here are some observations from the Wednesday April 12th Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) Webinar on Hemp Building Materials.

My top 4 takeaways:

  • Cannabis Programs Manager Trecia Ehrlich kicked off the conversation by talking about her role facilitating the hemp producer licensing process and hosting a networking space as lawmakers were in the process of regulating hemp consumables with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, audio - 5m, chat log, transcript - WSDA).
    • Ehrlich said the virtual “meet and greet” wasn’t about lobbying for bills in the Washington State Legislature (WA Legislature), but instead a chance for those invested or intrigued by this area of hemp to “learn from one another and for you to create connections that you can utilize.” She explained her role included oversight of the Hemp Program at WSDA, where typically staff “help folks get their license so that they can put plants in the ground, get those plants tested, and then what these farmers do with those plants is kind of up to them.” WSDA officials saw hemp was “utilized for many of its cannabinoid products,” which Ehrlich called “historically the most popular use that we see among our licensees. However, the tides have been changing and we're seeing that folks are getting more and more interested in creating…climate smart solutions for hemp.” She reported fielding “maybe a call a week” for information about hemp building materials and so she set up the webinar to assist interested people in networking around that topic. Regardless of whether participants had a hemp business or were “purely curious,” Ehrlich encouraged them to share openly.
    • Welcoming Bio Fiber Industries Founder Ashley Stallworth and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Nahele Bailey, Ehrlich said they would explain what their company was doing around hemp, and “then I am gonna call upon each of you to introduce yourselves and let us know what your experience has been, how you're connected to the space,  [or] what you have to share.”
  • Two leaders from the company Bio Fiber Industries explained their current capacity for processing on an industrial scale and the environmental implications of expanding hemp as an input for construction materials.
    • Founder Ashley Stallworth was grateful for the opportunity to speak to hemp stakeholders, and described working with hemp processing “for quite a while.” Having started in 2016, when “2018 really kicked in, we focused a lot of time and energy and economics towards figuring out how to be able to process and grow these commodities into industrial inputs.” He hoped to “resurrect natural, clean-based green building solutions” and make people aware of the company’s “processing capability” to help “leverage climate smart commodities for the right types of projects,” specifying those which furthered “environmental and social justice, but as well as to improve” the standard of living “for all people.” Stallworth welcomed questions about his company’s hemp work and voiced excitement at being able to “move this to the next phase of development” (audio - 2m).
    • Ehlerich encouraged examples of “what products you've made, and what they're being utilized for” (audio - 5m).
      • Stallworth said they’d looked at the “verticals” for hemp crops, finding it was “good for the animal bedding,” a “good market fit” for the state. There was a long history of hemp cultivation and he noted products could be made “mold and pest free, and fire proof,” pointing to products Bio Fibers sold or assisted in processing like “carbon bricks” and insulation.
      • Stallworth commented that they had helped with research around “sheer tensile strength” and designing more advanced materials which could be incorporated “into other industries in the state like aeronautics.” He had begun to collaborate on “renewable energy” products such as “closed loop type systems that can literally offset a lot of things and draw natural energy” with private and public entities “to make sure that people know…we're here, this is a possibility.” Expecting there was a lot of growth potential, Stallworth mentioned “builders and architects” could give input on what would be the most useful hemp materials for them to produce in order to “basically speed up building” because faster construction projects saved them time alleviating things like housing challenges.
      • Remarking that “infill is good…that's a little bit more labor intensive,” yet Stallworth saw it as “definitely worth it, especially since the state is saying ‘hey, we want to be able to generate jobs, right we want to be able to do a lot of good things for people.’” Eventually, he wanted hemp to join “traditional” agriculture in Washington state, with “thousands” of acres in production to generate hemp of “assured” quality. Until that time, Stallworth said Bio Fiber Industries would continue “experimenting and trying to integrate the best way that we can.”
    • “We've been at this for a while; we've worked out general processing techniques and capabilities within the state,” CTO Nahele Bailey commented. Their “decortication” facility could transport hemp bales from the farm and transform it into “construction grade hurd,” he said. Bailey talked about working on various projects including with “a local youth group,” port officials, and construction firms (audio - 3m).
  • From business interests to sustainability goals, ten attendees shared their passions and perspectives for the hemp sector.
    • Bonny Jo Peterson, Industrial Hemp Association of Washington (IHEMPAWA) Executive Director, conveyed her interest in “all things hemp,” after finding “a need and an opening...for many environmental issues.” She voiced excitement over Bio Fiber Industries, “many other projects,” and equipment effective at hemp processing that already existed. Peterson named topics like “what varieties grow best here” and “how those should be processed” were top of mind, along with mentioning IHEMPWA member Forest Concepts as another company able to decorticate hemp (audio - 4m).
    • Suneeta Eisenberg said, “I'm here because I love Pam [Bosch] and…we would hope to build this year…with hemp as well.” They were part of a group attempting to construct Noisy Water Living and Learning Community Center using hemp building materials. “I work with the city and the county and I'm a big hemp advocate. We're regenerative agriculture practitioners, and so we hope to also grow hemp and my partner is working with the…Kulshan Carbon Trust” to produce “biochar” she hoped could be adapted into a “clean manufacturing center” at Skagit Valley College. Eisenberg wanted to learn and “lean in” to collaborate with others on sustainable building of their community center, or other areas like “agro-tourism” (audio - 3m).
    • Camile Wagstaff, White Coat Laboratory Co-Founder, identified herself as a student at Washington State University (WSU) who studied “plant pathogens and insects that spread them. And so I also co-own a crop consulting company, so any growers that want help with any pests or diseases let me know” (audio - 1m).
    • Pam Bosch, Highland Hemp House Founder, introduced her experience building “a 3200 square foot house. It's fully permitted. I believe it's the first one on the West Coast” made from hemp building materials (audio - 5m).
      • Bosch explained having to self finance after learning about the benefits of hempcrete and meeting with representatives of a Dutch company specializing in the material. She was also engaged as “a grandmother” who was “very concerned that we are not adapting to climate change fast enough.” She believed “hemp really offers us, in just the building industry, but also in many other interconnected areas [like] regenerative agriculture, biochar” help for societies to “accelerate our response to carbon capture if we took this seriously.”
      • “As I try to…interest people and show people ‘come and study this model,’” Bosch said she’d found that rather than being “20 to 30% more expensive…my experience is it's 20 to 30% less expensive.” She brought up working with “Latino farmers and ranchers in the San Joaquin Valley and we're demonstrating that we can build houses that farm workers can own.” Bosch argued the “biggest obstacle to being able to solve our real life-threatening problems are maintaining the status quo…disruption is a very difficult thing to do and we just have to hit that wall of either we disrupt or we essentially erase our future.”
      • Bosch looked forward to better understanding hemp processing options in Washington state. Highland Hemp House was becoming a nonprofit and “could be there to connect people” if the organization got more support. She concluded that “there's so much that we can use this bio aggregate filler to do that we just have to make the connections.”
    • Etienne Pierson expressed an interest in “looking at cannabis hemp, but fungi and other Farm crops, and just kind of going for a cooperative model” to help “struggling” farmers (audio - 1m).
    • David Gang, Washington State University Center for Cannabis Policy, Research, and Outreach (WSU CCPRO) Director and professor at the WSU College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences, described having got involved after federal legalization of hemp in 2018, and appreciated the opportunity to meet more people in the industry. As a land grant university, he said WSU had “a mission to support the Ag industry,” economic development, and “the well-being of all of the citizens in the state” (audio - 4m).
      • Gang talked about the “variety trials” for cannabis at WSU being similar to research conducted for other crops, but highlighted how “we're very, very interested in the fiber and grain types of hemp and how those can be used for all kinds of building materials.” He reported some people at the university were “working with the hemp seed oil to…produce adhesives, epoxies, [and] other things naturally based instead of petroleum based.”
      • Expecting there was a lot of interest around hemp building materials, Gang saw “challenges right now, the current legislative situation and legal framework,” but fiber research was already “heading in the right direction.” He praised the work of Bio Fiber Industries leaders, stating, “there was one processing facility in the US that was IND Hemp” in Montana, “and now there's 20 such facilities around the U.S. The one in the west side of Washington's the first one in our state.” Although they’d found “that hemp can grow well in…the region,” he warned the “middle step” of processing hemp once it was harvested was the top challenge to wider use of hemp building materials, “but it's not an insurmountable one.”
      • Gang noted his partnership with Peterson and IHEMPWA had benefited both universities and industry as he predicted growth in the hemp sector and encouraged others who were interested to reach out to him.
    • Rebecca Weber, WSDA International Marketing Program Senior International Trade Specialist, found hemp was still “in the infancy” of joining their work on “export assistance…helping companies get information about what's happening in the overseas market” or understanding regulations to export to specific countries. For hemp, her office wasn’t concerned with “what are the US requirements because there aren't really…export certification, export requirements.” Instead, they focused on “what are the import requirements? What does the country on the other side require? What [would] they need for documentation?” (audio - 3m)
      • Weber claimed that THC limits for hemp were lower in Europe, however common agriculture policy for the European Union formally changed in January 2023 to match the U.S. limit of 0.3% per dry weight.
      • “What I'm really interested in learning is more about” what kind of building materials would result from processed hemp, Weber commented, saying she was familiar with CBD oil, but felt “fiber products…and some of these other things that are coming out” were sure to be “very interesting.” She encouraged people to use her as a resource and also help her learn more about the crops’ marketability.
    • Doug Boon, 7 GenerationsManaging Partner and a member of the Tulalip Tribes, called his company “kind of a green energy and agriculture company where…a lot of our clients are Native American tribes that are out there throughout the Pacific Northwest” as well as “along the west coast [of] the United States and its interior.” He said “companies that are wanting to do business in Indian Country or with First Nations or indigenous folks” would partner with them “to bridge that gap.” Boon complimented Gang and Peterson, and mentioned that he’d first met Stallworth at a WSU event in February attended by Governor Jay Inslee which highlighted hemp as part of a potential housing solution (audio - 12m).
      • Coming to the field after 23 years in the gaming and hospitality space, he’d seen “quite a bit of interest,” first “in cannabis particularly in Washington with tribes” but increasingly with hemp. Before working to set up Tulalip Tribal code and open Remedy Tulalip—the first cannabis retailer owned by the tribe—Boon had more “experience working with the state of Washington establishing rules and regulations” than he’d had with cannabis. After hiring “a number of younger people who knew more about cannabis than I did and we actually opened a very successful business,” he became interested in hemp.
      • Boon relayed that 7 Generations served as a liaison between “a number of the land grant universities and the Hemp Innovation Center headquartered out of Oregon State University, OSU,” and tribal governments “here in the state of Washington, Idaho, Oregon, California, Nevada, [and] Arizona.” 
      • Industrial hemp was a sector he observed had been “gone a while,” and Boon wanted to “carve out a space for Indian Country that they can share in what's being restarted.” He further said as “there are more tribes that are rural than there are tribes that are urban,” that some reservations had “very large land footprints and this is something that could proliferate and could have its space in Indian Country.” Boon had previously shared this interest with Stallworth and Bailey, offered the example of the Tulalip Tribe where there were “184 homes that have been boarded up and closed on our reservation…50% of those homes have been closed due to remediation and problems with mold, and so finding building materials that are an alternative material” was of “huge interest to Native American tribes.”
      • The biggest obstacles to getting involved in hemp production and processing were start-up costs and regulatory requirements, Boon stated, happy to see others “working, finally, towards the right things.” He wanted more businesses like Bio Fiber Industries, whose owners had an “earnestness about what they do…but then we also have to garner the interest of large industry as well” as economics of scale were needed to truly have a positive impact for housing or the environment. Boon pointed to a tribe he knew had been cultivating hemp since 2014, “but they haven't been able to sell it…this year they're going to grow their first crop where they actually have a contract to sell it.”
      • Boon said hemp crops were earning the nickname “the new Buffalo” among indigenous populations “because you can use the entire plant and it has so many uses.” He compared it with cotton, where the “cotton seed goes towards something and…the biomass from goes to this, and then…all of the cotton is used.” Boon commented on partnering with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agriculture Research Service (ARS) which he argued had been influential on the cotton industry and could have a similar impact on hemp. He wanted to see more decortication facilities and processing options for hemp harvests, and to “steer it towards those traditional means as much as possible.” However, since hemp textiles used a fraction of the plant biomass, Boon was confident building materials or “composite parts” for planes or cars could use the majority of the remaining plant material.
      • Hemp needed to become a “regular Ag crop that added in the farmers’ rotations,” which Boon felt would only happen if the crop was a viable commodity for farmers. He argued Washington was well suited to be part of the growth of hemp as a common building material, but only if tribal governments included it in their agricultural policy.
    • Richelle Wheeler said she was “looking to build my home with hemp” in Newport, Washington after getting her production license, but hoped to find a facility able to process it for her. She intended to grow enough hemp to build her house, then use the crop to educate others about the utility of hemp as a construction material “and also animal bedding.” Wheeler had “some connections on seeds” after she “bought the wrong kind of seeds that's more for making the oil” and was amenable to trading for industrial hemp seeds (audio - 2m).
    • Representative Shelley Kloba commented via the chat log she was “interested in meeting over the summer or fall to figure out how the legislature can support farmers” and encouraged participants to email her (audio - 1m).
  • Ehrlich and others spoke about future events related to hemp building materials and opportunities for hemp-related internships at Washington universities.
    • Looking ahead, Ehrlich was pleased with the “incredible amount of experience, a ton of knowledge, a ton of energy, a lot of really brilliant entrepreneurial people” who had participated in the networking and hoped it would lead to meaningful collaborations. Her intention was for the WSDA hemp program to serve as the “connective tissue that you may need throughout your process” and offered the staff email address for people to reach out. Ehrlich also planned to host similar networking events in the future “as issues arise,” expressing her happiness with the participation (audio - 2m).
    • Stallworth said “we have a couple webinars coming but we also have an in-person workshop coming up at the end of June” which people could pay to attend, though sponsorships were available. “We received a grant from the Washington Micro[enterprise Association] to do outreach,” he told the group as he called for them to contact him and “stay engaged” (audio - 1m).
    • Peterson explained that WSU and OSU offered hemp-related internship options funded through an “agricultural assistance grant” IHEMPWA was affiliated with. She added her members would “love to have everybody come out to the fields and see the, the different varieties of fiber and grain that we're growing” (audio - 1m).

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