Hemp: Agriculture’s Newest, Oldest Crop

by Dave Adalian

There’s always something new at the World Ag Expo — new ways to harvest, new growing techniques, new ways to fight pests, new farm tools, new production methods. It’s what the Expo is all about. This year, however, there was something new that agriculture hardly ever sees: a new crop.

Well, not entirely new. For the first time in the Expo’s 53-year history, hemp, the red-headed stepchild of US agriculture, was welcomed back into the fold at the world’s largest agricultural gathering. Growers from around the globe came to Tulare, eager to remake the acquaintance of what may be the world’s most useful plant.

A Crop as Old as Civilization

Hemp, as most people know, is cannabis. It’s the same plant that bears intoxicating flowers that produce a high when smoked. Yet, it’s not the same. Hemp is the industrial version of the plant, and under a fairly new federal law making the crop legal to grow again, industrial hemp must contain less than 0.3 percent THC (the active cannabinoid that causes intoxication).

In both of its forms, cannabis is one of the oldest crops cultivated by man. On the Oki Islands near Japan, archeological evidence shows cannabis was harvested there in the earliest days of agriculture nearly 10,000 years ago. For millennia it was a source of food, fiber, medicine, and, of course, relaxation. For thousands of years it was a staple crop around the world.

Then, in the early 20th century, everything changed. Racism and ‘Marijuana’

The popular term for cannabis around the world is “marijuana,” but few people today are aware of how that word came to replace the proper name of the plant, “cannabis” or “hemp.” It began with media magnate William Randolph Hearst and was born of his hatred for non-whites.

At the turn of the 20th century, while the United States was engaged in fighting the Spanish American War, Hearst’s nationwide chain of newspapers began vilifying our country’s enemy in print. But the hatred wasn’t limited to Spaniards. Hearst’s editors and writers aimed their vitriol at all Latinos — especially Mexicans, after the revolutionary army of Pancho Villa seized nearly a million acres of land belonging to Hearst.

Part of the effort to besmirch Mexicans was a renaming of cannabis, a vital crop grown by farmers across America and an important ingredient in many patent medicines of the day. Hearst’s writers chose the exotic-sounding word “marijuana” to suit their purpose, frequently calling it the “killer weed from Mexico.”

Outlawed and Stigmatized

Hearst’s newspapers created stereotypes that persist to this day, not just of lazy, unintelligent, cannabis-smoking Mexicans, but also of blacks, who were portrayed as “marijuana-crazed negros,” emboldened by the drug to commit heinous and violent crimes, and worse to possibly think of themselves as equal to whites.

For a third of a century, headlines in Hearst papers decried the evils of cannabis, and the blacks and Mexicans who allegedly used it, driving themselves into murderous frenzies. In 1937, the propaganda campaign finally paid off — with the aid of a compliant Congress and power-hungry  civil servants — the first efforts were made at the national level to outlaw what was still one of America and the world’s most important crops.

There were objections to making cannabis illegal, most notably from the American Medical Association, which considered cannabis to be a much-needed medicine, as well as industry groups, such as the National Oil Seed Institute. Those objections fell on deaf ears.

To this day, high-THC cannabis remains a Schedule 1 controlled substance, considered by the Drug Enforcement Agency to be as dangerous as heroin and LSD, and more dangerous than methamphetamine and cocaine. Even as medical and recreational cannabis are legalized in state after state, it remains federally illegal. The years of propaganda that gave cannabis its undeserved bad name also made hemp guilty by association.

New Interest in the New(ish) Crop

But in 2018, that began to change. That year saw the passage of the Hemp Farming Act, a law that moved low-THC cannabis off the DEA’s Schedule 1 and back into the fields of America’s farmlands. California followed the federal lead and soon had its own set of regulations for industrial hemp cultivation.

Not long after that, in the run-up to the 2019 Expo, the International Agri-Center began getting calls from farmers interested in learning about hemp. Too late to include hemp in the Expo, Jennifer Fawkes, marketing manager for the Expo and the Agri-Center, worked with cannabis consultant Christian Gray to arrange a series of seminars on hemp, along with a reception for would-be hemp farmers.

“We expected 20 people at the hemp seminar,” Fawkes said. “We got 200.”

Fawkes and Gray knew they were onto something big, so they put their heads together. It was a simple meeting that would have big consequences. She remembers the moment with apparent fondness.

“We had a chat at the back balcony about it,” Fawkes said. “We thought we could do more.”

2020 Hemp Action Plan

What Fawkes and Gray came up with, once the pair had approval of the Expo’s board of trustees, was a plan for more than 33,000 square feet of room for a pavilion dedicated entirely to hemp production. More than 40 exhibitors quickly bought out the available room, with hemp exhibits spilling into a nearby outdoor area.

“We decided to go small this year so we could focus on quality,” Fawkes said.

Even with a cap on the number of participants, Fawkes and Gray found bringing the hemp exhibitors up to speed on how the Expo works took extra effort. Exhibitors who have been coming to the show for years know the ins and outs, but those working to promote hemp are newcomers with little experience of selling the benefits of their industry.

“Ninety percent of them have never attended the show, much less exhibited,” Fawkes said. “It takes a lot of customer service touches to get them to understand.”

To make matters even more complicated, organizers decided late in the game to add a contest to show off hemp’s versatility.

“Halfway through the planning of this we added the Hemp Innovation Challenge,” said Fawkes. “Entries from 14 countries came in.”

Winning the inaugural contest was Victory Hemp Foods. The company won top honors for its work to create food additives derived from hemp seeds. (See sidebar story on page X.)

The Plan in Action

Besides the exhibitors showing off their hemp equipment and products, the Expo’s hemp pavilion also played host to 19 different seminars on the hemp industry. Topics for the seminars, which were well attended, included basic information during panel discussions such the Business of Hemp and First-Time Hemp Farmers, and ranged to more practical how-to subjects in seminars like Hemp Genetics, Seeds, Starts and Planting, Hemp Processing and Extraction and Hemp Economic Models, a review of financially successful help operations.

“It’s exciting so far. It’s looking great,” Fawkes said. “Lots of good panels. Lots of good experts.”

With a successful run of the Expo’s first Hemp Pavilion, Fawkes says she’ll be working to dial in their branding and extend their outreach into the established hemp industry. Given the popularity of hemp at the Expo, Fawkes is looking to expand hemp’s presence aggressively for the 2021 ag show.

“What I’d like to shoot for, based on the quality of exhibitors and early response this year, there’s every possibility we could double the size of the tent,” she said.

Fawkes says she was not surprised at how well hemp was received by attendees at the Expo.

“It’s a hot topic at the show, and why wouldn’t it be?” she said. “That’s where we talk about new crops and new possibilities.”

Cash Crop

According to the Hemp Business Journal, in 2017, the value of the US hemp market was worth some $820 million. They also report the value of the US hemp market will grow to $1.9 billion by 2022. But the expansion doesn’t end there. According to Grand View Research, the revived hemp industry in the United States will experience a compound annual growth rate of 14 percent, meaning the crop’s value by the year 2025 will be $10.6 billion.

Those impressive numbers, made possible by the 2018 change in federal law, are why hemp was one of the stars of this year’s Expo.

“I’m into a business opportunity,” Fawkes said. “It’s fully legal federally. It’s a new crop and brings new exhibitors to the show.”

That projected growth, however, cannot happen without building a new infrastructure for the new crop.

“We want hemp to be sustainable,” Fawkes said. “If it’s not a crop that can be profitable, it’s not going to be sustainable. It’s got to be something that helps farmers.”

Two of the factors limiting growth of the industry are processing capability and a lack of knowledge about the crop, Fawkes said, and that’s where the Expo can play a key role.

“All we can do is provide the right education and bring farmers to the table,” she said.

Bigger, Bolder, Brighter

While industrial hemp is now legal in all 50 states, there remains some stigma attached to it thanks to the efforts of those who sought to outlaw the plant as a drug early last century. Even in Tulare County — home of the Ag Expo and one of the world’s leading centers of agricultural production — industrial hemp remains a prohibited crop, as county leaders continue to fear hemp will somehow provide cover for blackmarket growers of high-THC cannabis.

The lure of profits and a change in the law, however, have softened the reluctance of farmers, a traditionally conservative group. Instead of playing to those fears, 30-year Expo veteran Joseph Seimas, who represents Tracy-based GS Distributing, thinks the Expo organizers should be even more bold in their presentation of hemp.

“I think their tent is too small,” Seimas said. “They need to move us out in the middle (of the Expo).”

Seimas was at the Expo promoting Hempsac, a product intended to control the sometimes overwhelming odor of hemp.

“If you seal them, a dog couldn’t smell it,” he said.

Seimas also thinks the Expo should include high-THC cannabis equipment and services. Seimas also represents CenturianPro, a high-end automated trimmer used for medicinal and recreational cannabis harvesting. Yet before the Expo got underway, Seimas was unsure of the reception the Hemp Pavilion would get from attendees. “We’ll see how many people come through,” he said.

An Ag Revolution

The change in federal regulation back in 2018 marked the beginning of a revolution in agriculture, but the effort to get government officials to see the crop’s benefits began decades before the plant was finally legalized for industrial use.

Back in the 1990s, Chris Boucher was already a champion for industrial hemp. A hemp farmer for the US Department of Agriculture, an arm of the government that never gave up entirely on the value of hemp as a raw material, Boucher was also one of the country’s few hemp importers, bringing in sterile seeds for food processing and oil extraction, and hemp fabric for textile production.

Then, in 1992, Boucher and a handful of other hemp entrepreneurs formed what would become the nation’s first industry group dedicated to protecting and promoting hemp.

“There were just five of us,” he said. “We started as a co-op. It went to 100 of us in ‘94.”

It was that same year the group changed its name and its mission, becoming the Hemp Industries Association. It now represents more than 1,500 hemp growers across the United States.

For Boucher, who spent much of the 2000s fighting for the legalization of industrial hemp while the Drug Enforcement Agency was trying to shut it down, the Hemp Pavilion at the Ag Expo is a dream come true. It’s one he almost can’t believe in.

“This is like almost a mirage,” he said. “It’s magical to see this happen so quickly.”

The Darkly Inspiring Art of Vicken Massoyan


by Dave Adalian

The art of Vicken Massoyan--always somber, sometimes startling, often haunting--is his visual diary.

“I’m not really inspired, at least at this point in my life, by things that are not darker,” he says.

His art is born out of recurring mental images of his past, and the Fresno-based painter likens his artistic process to a cleansing.

“It’s my way of letting it out,” Massoyan says. “It’s like comforting. It’s like a release. It’s a way of rethinking.”

His paintings are filled with hidden tragedies reimagined, and violence and death are frequent themes in his artwork, as they have been in his life. Massoyan’s imagery is often as unsettling as it is striking, and his art is always deeply personal.

“I think it’s historical, both textbook and personal. It’s basically my life,” he says of the artworks he’s created. “I wouldn’t paint something I didn’t know or understand or wasn’t really moved by.”

Unfortunately, what’s moved his life has too often been violent conflict and disease.

Massoyan was born in the city of Aleppo in war-torn Syria, coming at the age of three with his family to Fresno, where they joined the city’s Armenian enclave. The early years of Massoyan’s education were spent in an Armenian school, and when he eventually entered the public school system he learned English as a second language. Drawing served as a means of finding himself among the different worlds he inhabited.

“I started illustrating as a kid as a way to express myself,” he says.

Art and imagery would eventually become Massoyan’s career as well as his way of life. His parents took notice of his talent and enrolled him in his first art class--lessons at a chain craft store where the boy found himself the youngest student by half a century. With the help of a mentor, his art progressed through his high school experience, and he eventually took a degree in design at the National Education Center in Glendale, Arizona.

For 25 years, Massoyan has worked in the advertising industry, and now serves as the senior graphic designer for JP Marketing in Fresno. His work has supported advertising campaigns for dozens of local businesses and institutions, including the City of Fresno, Noble Credit Union, and Groppetti Automotive.

“I work on things and then suddenly I wake up and my concept is on TV,” he says.

But constantly in the background have been dark images created from dark instances in his life. These are the ones he commits to canvas, the ones that relieve and reframe dark episodes for Massoyan. A story the artist tells about a particular work--The Masson Twins--illustrates how his work is a means of coming to terms with loss.

“My mom--I have five siblings. I lost two at birth. Then my sister died of cancer, and now it’s just me and my brother--my mom told me this story that she had a miscarriage of my two twin sisters. She said they put them in a jar and took them way,” Massoyan recalls. “I actually did a painting of a Mason jar with two fetuses in it. Fifty-seven years after this happened to her, my mom and I are sitting in a lobby and I’m showing her my work on Instagram. She said, ‘Are those your sisters?’ She was totally cool with it.”

Massoyan says the artwork is intended to make his audience contemplate their own mortality, but not everyone who views it is as comfortable with the concept as his mother.

“Other people in my studio were like what the fuck is wrong with you?” he says of the reception of The Masson Twins.

Yet for the artist, the work is cathartic, helping unburden him of the tragedies of life.

“This is one way I’m dealing with it,” he says. “Some people come to my studio and love it. Others come in and just walk out.”

Less shocking but no less poignant than the portrait of twin sisters he never knew is Syrian Civil War Casualty Art. In shades of gray, Massoyan depicts a barrel bomb like those used in the years-old armed conflict in Massoyan’s one-time homeland. On the bomb’s side is an ornate emblem, the crest of an Armenian library in Syria a friend of his was visiting when a bomb killed her father and maimed her.

“I’ll be on a drive and that image just comes in,” Massoyan says of in image that inspired the piece. “She’s just the sweetest girl. She’s such a beautiful person with a personality to match. And her arm’s lopped off.”

Another of Massoyan’s works--Talar--depicts a young girl, her face obscured by or transformed into a human skull. Piercing the girl’s chest is the dipstick from a 1970 Ford Mustang. The story behind the painting is bittersweet.

“The girl with the skull, I started that 21 years ago. It didn’t take me 21 years. I put it aside,” Massoyan says. “That’s my sister Talar who died of cancer.”

The work is actually a way for Massoyan to remember a joke he and his sister shared.

“They had an IV directly into her heart, and when I used to take her to treatments, I’d tell her she was going to get her oil changed,” he says. “It’s one of the only paintings that’s hard to talk about. Sometimes I just say it’s a friend of mine I lost to leukemia.”

The 1970 Ford Mustang was Talar’s favorite car.

Learn More

To experience more of Massoyan’s work, visit him at the Broadway Studios, Studio No. 23, 1416 Broadway Street in Fresno during the Fresno Art Council’s bimonthly ArtHop, held on the first and third Thursday of each month.

Beginning in March, Massoyan’s paintings will hang at the restaurant:

Veni Vidi Vici at 1161 N. Fulton St.

Follow his Instagram @vickenmassoyan.