Conde & Seber:
Building Toward The Future With Hemp
All over the Pacific Northwest one can see the effects of the massive deforestation that's been taking place out there during the past 20 years. Whole valleys and mountainsides have been clear-cut - stripped of all plant life - to meet our insatiable demand for fiber, paper and wood. So when High Times learned that Bill Conde, a longtime hemp activist who once ran for governor of Oregon, was researching making an alternative to plywood utilizing hemp, we decided to look into it.
What immediately stands out when going to see Conde is the huge billboard for Conde's Redwood Lumber on the side of Interstate 5, just outside of Harrisburg, Oregon. On one side of the company name is a giant green marijuana leaf and on the other side is an American flag inside a peace sign. In the heart of lumber country, the lumber industry is talking about planting hemp and converting to it as a primary source of fiber. Credit goes largely to Conde, David Seber and Barry Davis, partners in the research and development company called C & S, the company at the forefront in research on hemp use for fiber. HT met with Conde and Seber - Davis was unavailable - to find out what progress they've made in developing a substitute for clear-cutting old-growth forest.
High Times: Bill, why don't you tell me about where you grew up and how you ended up in the lumber business?
Bill Conde: I was born in 1943 and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Grew up there, graduated from high school, went into the military for four years, then went to work at several different places. I ended up involved in the mobile home industry, where I had to buy redwood. I moved to Oregon about twenty years ago and opened up a redwood lumber yard down in Cottage Grove. One day while I was driving home from a delivery I picked up this hitchhiker - David Seber - and we've been buddies ever since. He's the "S" in C&S.
HT: When and why did you start working to develop hemp fiber for commercial use?
BC: David and I have been working on hemp as a fiber for nearly four years now. The why of it really has to do with twenty-five years of being an old-growth redwood merchant, working with the dead bodies of the oldest living things on the planet. It starts weighing heavy on you if you have any conscience at all.
I just reached point where I asked myself, "What's my life for?" I mean, it surely wasn't just to cut down old trees and make picnic tables and decks out of them. And that's when I realized that as someone in the industry I was in a position to help make the change over, to change the fiber that's being utilized. So David, Barry Davis and I formed C&S to try to do just that. And in the four years we've been working on it we've made great progress.
HT: When I ask hemp activists, they say Bill Conde's the guy who's been active the longest. Any truth to that?
BC: In the state of Oregon that's probably true, but there are a lot of us who have been doing it a long time. Personally, I was really encouraged years ago - back in the sixties - when I saw a guy walk into a courtroom in Southern California with a live plant in his hand and set it on the judge's desk. It had a little sign that said "God grew it." That was my first inkling that something was really wrong with the way the whole system was. Actually, the first time I smoked a joint, I knew there was something wrong with the laws.
HT: Why don't you tell me a little about yourself, David?
David Seber: I was born and grew up on the East Coast. I attended two universities, Fairleigh Dickinson College and the University of Denver, in which I hid in the late sixties until coming in contact with the whole counterculture movement. I've been a hemp enthusiast ever since.
In 1980, after working in the ceramic tile industry and doing international business representing Japan, Korea and Brazil in the US market, I went into the lumber business. I established a redwood lumber yard down in southern Oregon working with William - who taught me everything I know about the lumber business - and I've been associated with it ever since. Eventually we came to the conclusion that it was time - because we had made a good part of our living from wood - that we ought to give something back to the forests and decided to look into establishing hemp as an alternative for wood. When we started looking for a place to begin we came up with the idea of fiberboard.
HT: How did you come up with that?
DS: Well, after making an initial study of "hemp activities" that were going on, we determined that no one was doing anything in terms of construction products whatsoever. Then I came across a book called "Modern Particle Board and Fiberboard Manufacturing," and William and I learned what the industry was about. The author's name is Tom Malone, and I called him. It turns out Tom is the foremost expert in wood construction composites in the world and runs the wood products laboratory at the Washington State University. We went to visit him and presented him with what we thought was the potential for the use of the hemp fiber in replacing wood. And not only did he confirm to us the impending timber shortage and the real need for a substitute, but he felt hemp had great potential.
HT: How did you go about beginning the actual work on the idea?
DS: We immediately made an agreement to enter into a formal contractual relationship between our company, C&S Specialty Builders, and Washington State University, then went about locating and importing some fiber for him. I ended up connecting with the French Hemp Institute of Le Mans, which provided us with fifteen hundred pounds of hemp fiber. At the same time, we started making our initial contacts in the lumber industry to see if we could generate some interest in what we were doing. And although we were initially met mostly with snickers, there were a few people who were interested in the idea.
Now when you talk to production-level people in the lumber industry, you don't ask, "How did the wood turn out?" You ask, "How was the fiber?" If the fiber's good, you know you have good stock coming back. If the fiber is bad, you know you're in trouble with the lumber you're going to receive. Inside the industry everyone anywhere near a production capacity relates to wood not as wood, but as fiber, and we were really on to something with the fiber aspect of what hemp could do.
HT: So you're confident hemp fiber has applications. Where did you go from there?
DS: We started to approach various sources to see if we could, first, import the fiber, and second, whether we could get manufacturers interested in producing products out of such a thing. I am still working on locating sources to import this raw material because even for our trials we need a pretty massive amount of hemp fiber. The lumber industry is built on the concept of giant volumes, continuous production, and very low profit margins relative to the value of the product. When you talk about your average composite factory, you're talking about a place that uses anywhere from a thousand to fifteen hundred dry tons of biomass in the form of wood chips every day, seven days a week. That's how the industry is set up.
So we started to design programs to show the industry how they could switch over, how we could present them with a replacement fiber for wood that they literally could use in their existing facilities. Because the amount of wood fiber that's being used is so massive, we couldn't find any other plant that has any hope of giving us enough raw material to supply the amount of fiber that's used from the forest today.
HT: Didn't C&S come up with a number like ninety-four million acres of timber versus four million acres of hemp?
BC: It's about that. According to the US Forest Service in Washington State, in the Pacific Northwest forests - which are the most productive forests in the world today - the average yield per acre, per year, is four hundred fifty-nine board feet. Now, if you take that four hundred fifty-nine board feet of lumber and you dry it down, take all of the moisture out of it, you have about seven hundred pounds of fiber per acre, per year.
HT: What do you get with hemp?
BC: The very first crop of commercial hemp harvested in England recently - and they don't know diddly yet - produced four tons of fiber per acre.
HT: More than ten times the yield.
BC: And that was in a hundred and twenty days. A good hemp fiber crop will give you up to ten tons per acre in a hundred to a hundred and twenty days. Which is twenty times as much production as with timber. Now consider that every year in the United States we use forty-five million tons of tree fiber for paper alone, which takes the annual growth of ninety million acres of mature forest. With hemp's ten tons to an acre, it would only take four-and-a-half million acres to satisfy our pulp needs. Even in a worst-case scenario - a single crop annually - it would only take nine million acres of hemp to supply the pulp. The complete thing would be nine million acres.
HT: So you're looking at annual yields of hemp that compare favorably to tree yields that don't replenish for twenty-five years.
BC: Twenty, twenty-five years is a bare minimum. There are some specialty trees, cottonwood for instance, from which you can get a crop out in seven or eight years. But even those will not produce as much fiber per acre after ten years of growth as what hemp will do in a hundred to a hundred and twenty days. And not only that, hemp fiber is superior.
HT: Why is that?
BC: For several reasons. Number one, it's superior in its strength to tree fiber. Secondly, it way out-produces tree fiber. Lumber industry people talk about trees' renewability. Yes, trees are renewable. Oil is renewable, too, if you've got a hundred million years to hang around! It's all renewable, but is it sustainable? Anytime you cut down a tree, it takes longer for the tree to grow than the life of the product that you're making from it. So, it's not sustainable from that point of view. Now hemp, on the other hand, takes a hundred to a hundred twenty days to grow, and that's sustainability.
Additionally, there are a number of environmental factors to consider, particularly in the making of paper products from pulp, the most important of which has to do with a substance called lignin. Tree fiber has lignin in it. Lignin is extracted with chlorine, a major river pollutant that converts to dioxins and so forth. Hemp though, is very low in lignin, so low that you can use hydrogen peroxide to break the lignin out. Which doesn't pollute anything.
So hemp fiber is superior in every way conceivable to tree fiber.
HT: What about hemp's effect on the soil? After you grow it for five years is your soil going to be completely depleted?
BC: As a matter of fact, just the opposite. Hemp is utilized to refurbish soil. Hemp leaf is fifty percent nitrogen. You take the leaf and put it back down into the ground to enrich it. The truth of the matter is we could take this damn clay soil out here in Oregon and make it into beautiful soil. Hemp is such a short crop that you don't have to rotate it, and you can grow companion crops with it. Around the world hemp has been grown on the same ground for years and years without depleting the soil.
HT: You've invested in making prototypes of composite board with hemp fiber. How did you go about that, and were there any complications along the way?
BC: Well, as David explained, we contacted the wood engineering lab up at Washington Sate University and sent them fifteen hundred pounds of hemp fiber from France to experiment with the composite boards. And yes, there were immediate complications, because in this industry they're used to working with trees, which have short fibers. The longest fiber, for example, in a Douglas fir tree is only three-quarters of an inch long. And when they took our hemp fiber and stuck if in this great big powerful mill that they got up there it immediately jammed. So the first thing we found out was that hemp is far stronger than anything they're working with. So we cut it up into one inch and shorter pieces in order not to jam the machine, which we were initially afraid was going to cost us a lot in terms of the hemp fiber's strength.
HT: Did it?
BC: Not a chance. Our first board still came out to be world-class quality. But we also found out something else from making that first board, which is that we have a raw material that can be put into that system exactly as it is without changing it. Without costing the mill owners anything in the way of machine investment.
HT: How big was the first board?
BC: The prototypes are all just little ones. Eighteen inches square.
HT: What are you aiming for in the way of a finished product with your prototypes?
DS: Our product is called medium-density fiberboard. It's the flagship product of the composite industry. It's used in applications that range from furniture to backing in automotive panels. The reason why we chose MDF for our prototype is because if you can produce MDF, you can produce a whole spectrum of other products. It's an indicator of what the potential of the industry is.
HT: So we're looking at a hemp-composite wooden furniture substitute?
DS: Not at all. We believe that with particle board we may be able to eventually make structural beams for building that will literally rival a steel I-beam in strength. The first law in the science of composites says that all other things being equal, the strength of the product is directly proportional to the length of the fiber. The longest fiber in a Douglas fir is three-quarters of an inch. If you grow a fifteen-foot hemp plant, you get a fifteen-foot fiber and that's why we're doing the MDF for right now.
HT: If that's true, you could revolutionize an industry.
BC: And do it with the machinery that's already in place.
HT: What's keeping you from producing these products right now?
BC: A couple of things. First, you need money to do what we're doing, to initiate this sort of project. We're establishing our reputation and our abilities within the industry now, as well as educating people in the industry to the potential of hemp fiber. Eventually somebody will come to us and say they want a particular product and we'll say okay, we will develop that product with a hemp-based composite for you. And then we'll be in production.
HT: Do you have anyone lined up yet?
BC: Without getting into detail, there is one manufacturer in the state for whom we've prototyped three boards. He is currently using in excess of six million board-feet of old-growth vertical-grain lumber a year and would like to be able to produce his product out of a hemp-based medium density fiberboard. If the prototypes work - which we're sure they will - they will engage us, we will engage a manufacturer, we'll set the whole thing up. We've accomplished the entire economic loop, except for one thing and that is the supply of the raw fiber.
HT: Are enough countries already producing commercial hemp for import?
DS: No. Ultimately it will have to be grown here, but until then we're working with five countries to try and demonstrate the feasibility of using the hemp directly into the production line as soon as possible.
HT: What about a commercial crop here in America? How close are we to that?
DS: We are very close. We're working with some of the major economic and political forces in the Northwest on the forest issue and we believe that within the next couple of years we will actually make it possible to legally grow. And the universities we've been working with are behind us one hundred percent on this and we hope to get more of them involved, specifically with agricultural growing part of the program.
HT: Assuming all goes according to your plans, how important could the utilization of hemp fiber eventually be?
BC: We're talking about a whole new wave of the Industrial Revolution. The thing is that we use certain raw materials in our life. Aside from the foods that we eat, everything that we utilize in our lives - our clothing, our housing, our cars - is made from raw materials. And fiber is the largest single raw material utilized by the human race. In the United States, the tonnage of fiber used from trees every year equals the total tonnage of all metal, plastic and cement we use. So, what we're talking about is not only sustainability, which they have not been able to achieve by cutting down the forest, but the potential for real, honest-to-God major growth. Imaging making all these things that we want and actually sustaining the health of the ecosystem while we do it!
I'm talking about alternatives. Once we make this move to hemp, the step to solar energy and all the other technologies that are really clean and that we need to have happen, well, this is going to open the door for all of them.
Picture caption: Bill Conde (left) and David Seber (right) inspect a new shipment of hemp fiber.
For more details:
C&S Specialty Builders
23005 N. Coburg Road
Harrisburg, OR 97446
Tel. (800) 728-9488
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