It was January of 2013, and Colorado’s landmark vote to legalize cannabis was still making national headlines. On Capitol Hill, Michael Bowman stepped into the office of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. He remembers Vilsack greeting him cordially: “Well if it isn’t Mr. Hemp.”
It’s an apt nickname for Bowman. He’s chair of the National Hemp Association, advisor to the North American Industrial Hemp Council, a member of Colorado’s Industrial Hemp Advisory Committee, and one of the staunchest hemp advocates in the country. His years of work behind the scenes were instrumental in passing the Colorado Industrial Hemp Act, and now he’s doggedly pursuing the passage of the Industrial Hemp Farming Act at the federal level.
It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate champion for hemp. Bowman’s roots in Colorado go through five generations of farmers and ranchers and some of his dearest friends are in the cannabis industry. He was raised on a farm on the eastern plains, just 20 miles from Idalia (population: 100) and about the same distance from Wray, a bustling rural town by comparison. Bowman still calls it home—but he’s just as at home in the fast-paced halls of Washington, D.C.
“In my work, I’m always willing to ask why. My dad would probably say that the first two words out of my mouth are always, ‘Why not?’”
Bowman was one of only 15 in his class, all hardworking farm kids from a conservative community, but as an adult he switched political parties, unhappy with Republican hostilities toward renewable energy and hemp production, the direction in which he felt farming needed to move. Bowman was always a passionate farmer, rising to 4-H chapter president and district officer in his youth, then earning his state farmer degree and deepening his farming savvy at the University of Arkansas. Now, he’s earning his master’s in sustainability.
After university, he was a full-time farmer on his family’s ranch, but even then, it was the kind of ranch willing to pilot non-chemical treatments for invasive weeds, to test water-saving irrigation techniques, and to raise some of the state’s first renowned Coleman Natural beef. He was raised Catholic, and as an adult carries most closely in his heart the church’s emphasis on social justice. In the course of his lifetime, Bowman has gone from full-time farmer to full-time advocate. He understands the state’s spectrum of issues and embodies the unique Colorado spirit: agricultural yet modern, self-sufficient yet community-minded, traditional yet not afraid to pioneer.
“I’ve always been very into staying at the front end of where agriculture is going,” Bowman said. “I’m always willing to ask the question ‘Why?’. My dad would probably say that the first two words out of my mouth are always, ‘Why not?’” It was just that sort of “why not” thinking that led Bowman to hemp.
After a life-changing trip to Zimbabwe—a visit to the project of holistic land management pioneer Allan Savory—Bowman found himself focusing more and more on changing public policy and spending less and less time on the farm. Although the seed had been planted for his future obsession with industrial hemp as a way to heal the soil and the economy, his first policy focus was renewable energy. Renewables, Bowman believed, were a tremendous opportunity for farming communities like his, and “the next frontier in agriculture”. Policy overwhelmingly favored coal-heavy, centralized utilities, however, which were of course backed by powerful interests determined to keep those policies in place.
Bowman pushed hard: in 2004, he co-founded the 25x’25 Alliance, a national organization committed to securing 25% of U.S. energy needs from renewable sources by 2025, with farmers leading the way. That was also the year he worked to help Colorado voters pass a 10% renewable energy standard, despite enormous resistance from utilities, some of which would be required to generate at least 10% of their power from renewable sources by 2015.
“It was a David and Goliath story, and David won,” Bowman said. “For me, it was that moment you realize just how important public policy is to the system.” He later went on to help elect Governor Bill Ritter in 2007, who was able to put in place even stronger renewable energy policies and establish Colorado as a clean energy leader in the nation.
That’s been Bowman’s goal with industrial hemp, as well: cementing Colorado’s leadership role while changing policy on a national level. His approach to changing policy behind the scenes paralleled his work in renewable energy policy. He would first directly engage legislators and key stakeholders. “Give me a problem you have, and I can probably give you a solution that ties to hemp,” he’d say. He’d build a local model, expand it throughout the state, then take it to scale nationwide. “Just like renewable energy, it was important to be able to point to Colorado,” Bowman said. “Every great state program is modeled on something that succeeded locally, and every great national program was based on a successful state program.” And every piece of legislation Bowman worked on with industrial hemp passed unanimously, he said, but for a single Republican “no” vote, just once.
“I like to joke with people: give me a problem you have, and I can probably give you a solution that ties to hemp.”
There’s still the one critical hurdle that hemp and Bowman have yet to jump: as currently defined, hemp is federally classified as a Schedule I drug in the Controlled Substances Act. Even with the proven success of Amendment 64, the passage of the Colorado Industrial Hemp Act and its growing track record, and dozens of states with some level of legalized industrial hemp in their books, hemp is listed alongside drugs like heroin and LSD. It is “willful, institutionalized myth and ignorance,” Bowman said. If he succeeds in helping pass Senate Bill 134 and House Resolution 525—collectively the Industrial Hemp Farming Act—then industrial hemp will be excluded from the definition of cannabis, and that myth can finally be dispelled.
When logic trumps myth, hemp can finally be seen from a “whole plant” perspective. That is, just as people don’t tend to think of grain alcohol when they see potatoes, or whiskey when they see grain, it’s just as illogical that they would immediately think of bongs and shatter when they see hemp. It’s a fiber, Bowman said, and one with endless potential to restore our soils and our economies.
The passionate advocate that he is, Bowman is already anticipating the next wave of hurdles for hemp once its potential is unlocked in the market. Cloth, clothing, building materials, battery storage, oil from seeds, food—hemp is a source of all this and more. “We’ll probably be faced with major industry pushback at some point, whether it’s from the pharmaceutical, or oil, or cotton industries,” he said. “I’m sure that will be the next battle line.”
Yet Bowman is ready for it. “Nature gives us abundance, and hemp gives us abundance,” says Mr. Hemp, drawing another parallel to his renewable energy days. “It gives us more than we need, and it can, should, and will play a central role in reinventing our economy.”
“Nature gives us abundance, and hemp gives us abundance.”