Crossing Colorado’s High Plains along Road 74—they don’t bother with naming their byways in this northeastern corner of the state—cornfields and dairy farms stretch out flat as a checkerboard toward the eastern horizon, a big sky looming above. Hang a right onto Road 55, and beyond a phalanx of withered corn stalks, you’ll come across what look like Christmas trees out of a Dr. Seuss book. Closer up, their spindly, star-shaped leaves may begin to register: the telltale feature of hemp, among the first of its kind grown legally on American soil since World War II.
It’s a blistering September afternoon, and I’m parked in that hemp field in Eaton, Colorado, a town of 5,200 an hour north of Denver. At my side is Birgit Cameron, the head of Patagonia Provisions, the outdoor apparel company’s nascent food division. Cameron, who is in her early 50s, is here because she’s excited about hemp seeds for both their remarkable nutritional profile—ounce for ounce, they contain more omega-3s than salmon and more absorbable protein than soy—and their snackable crunch. Most of all, though, she’s excited about what hemp stands to do for American farmland.
Since launching Provisions in 2013, Cameron and her team have been quietly developing a pantry of idiosyncratic foodstuffs geared toward the Patagonia shopper: buffalo jerky, several types of wild salmon, tinned mussels, and fruit-and-almond snack bars in flavors like Inca berry and apricot, as well as breakfast porridges, soups, chilis, quick-cooking grains, and an American pale ale. What these all have in common, aside from a certain bougie rusticity, are ingredients—and farming methods—that the company believes can help heal the planet and curb climate change. For Cameron, hemp is a promising addition to the lineup.
This particular hemp farm, one of the state’s largest, is called Colorado Cultivars, and Cameron has asked Damian Farris, one of its cofounders, to show us how his crop is coming on. Three months old, the plants tower above us, their gangly branches knitted into a jungle of foliage. Under the soil, Farris says, they’ve been equally industrious, laying down a deep network of roots that break up soil compacted by years of industrial agriculture.
Perhaps more miraculous than what hemp can do for us is what growing it could do for farmland. Weld County, home to Colorado Cultivars, is the state’s richest agricultural county, and farmers here are struggling to remain profitable. Prices are falling for the corn they grow, while many costs—tractor fuel, fertilizers, pesticides—are rising. Compounding those problems is the fact that decades of industrial agriculture have deadened much of the land. “All the pesticides and herbicides kill the living nature of the soil, so you’re left with an inert soil matter, and each year you’re having to add more pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers,” Farris explains. Irrigation is a problem, too: After an unusually warm winter with minimal snow, the region’s inadequate water supply is manifest in shriveled corn stalks across Weld County.
Hemp, Farris believes, is exactly what local farmers have been waiting for. Today, between the sale of CBD oil, seed, and fiber, Farris says that growing hemp can bring in as much as three times the revenue per acre of corn. It also captures more carbon than corn, uses less water, needs less nitrogen from fertilizer, and is more resistant to pests and disease. What’s more, research suggests that hemp is capable of restoring soil that has been depleted by industrial agriculture, once thought to be beyond repair.
Farris gestures toward an unremarkable patch of land covered in scraggly weeds between his hemp field and the road. “That area has been getting chemical runoff from a nearby irrigation ditch, and for years, nothing at all would grow there,” Farris says. Last season, partnering with Patagonia and New Belgium Brewery, in Fort Collins, Colorado, Farris planted hemp in the fouled soil to see if it could restore productivity. Afterward, weeds began to spring up.
It’s this soil-saving potential in particular—and what it might mean for bringing polluted farmland across America back to life—that turned Cameron into a hemp convert. Cameron has begun using Farris’s seed in Provisions’ newest product, Savory Seeds, a sleeve of organic roasted lentils, buckwheat, and hemp that comes in flavors like mellow curry and chipotle lime—a healthy snack she hopes will catch on with customers ranging from the busy moms who buy Provisions’ snack bars by the caseload to hikers looking for something with more protein, and less sugar and salt, than your average trail mix. Each packet sold, as Patagonia sees it, amounts to another small step toward the food system of the future. “Basically, we believe that food can and should be part of the climate solution, grown in ways that restore our land, water, and wildlife,” Cameron says. “Healthy soil is a solution. Alternative grains and crops are a solution. So let’s start to learn about those things as a company, and move down a different path.”
If a food startup seems an unlikely next act for a maker of fleece vests and fishing waders, consider the forlorn state of camping food. Though the past decade has seen a surge of investment in healthier packaged foods in the grocery store, from organic baby food pouches to yogurts from grass-fed cows, the backpacker’s pantry has mostly remained the domain of heavily processed energy bars and freeze-dried “beef stew” and “pad Thai.” “Most people who we’ve talked to have said, it might do the job ‘when I’m out there, but I feel so horrible after,’” Cameron says. Patagonia saw an opening.
But there’s a grander ambition at the heart of the company’s interest in food. Environmental stewardship has always been central to Patagonia’s DNA; since 1985, the company has tithed 1 percent of its annual sales revenue to environmental nonprofits for a total approaching $100 million in charitable grants. More recently, Patagonia has invested in building sustainable supply chains for its materials, such as cotton and wool, adopting fair-trade buying arrangements and supporting organic farming practices.
Lately, Patagonia’s founder, the swashbuckling outdoorsman Yvon Chouinard, has been focused on scaling the company’s environmental impact beyond the realm of organic cotton thermals and cruelty-free down jackets. In 2013, Patagonia unveiled a venture capital fund, $20 Million and Change (later renamed Tin Shed Ventures), which bankrolls startups proposing solutions to the environmental crisis. That same year, the company also launched Provisions, entering into an industry that Chouinard and Patagonia C.E.O. Rose Marcario see as one of the biggest contributors to global warming—but also one of the biggest opportunities to reverse it. They tapped Cameron, a food entrepreneur, to run the food division after a five-ingredient snack bar that she developed wound up on Chouinard’s desk. “He told me that he doesn’t like bars in general, but that he liked this one,” Cameron recounts, imitating his gruff delivery with affection.
One of Provisions’ keystone concepts is promoting soil health. Healthy soil contains massive quantities of carbon, which is released into the atmosphere when soil is exposed to the air by plowing. Regenerative farming avoids disturbing the soil in order to keep the carbon already in the ground from escaping; it also attempts to restore the vast array of microbes that cause soil to act like a carbon sponge, sequestering large amounts of the element from the atmosphere. According to the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit that supports research into organic farming, switching to regenerative organic agriculture in the world’s croplands and pastures could sequester more than 100 percent of annual carbon emissions. Making the switch would begin to reverse global warming; at the same time, it would produce more nutrient-dense food with a fraction of the water use.
This mission to promote regenerative practices has led to an unorthodox approach to product development. Often, when Cameron or Chouinard come across a particularly admirable ingredient or farming operation, they work backward to determine a way to sell it. For instance, Chouinard got wind of a South Dakota–based company called Wild Idea Buffalo that grazes animals on the Great Plains’ dwindling prairies. Grasslands capture and store large quantities of carbon, and raising buffalo on them is a mutually beneficial way of producing meat: The animals do not require feed grain, and their grazing improves the fertility of the land while allowing for its continued conservation. Buffalo meat also has an impressive nutritional profile because of the animal’s all-grass diet, making it an excellent fuel source for outdoor pursuits. Thus, buffalo jerky was born.
Then there’s Kernza. Six years ago, at Chouinard’s behest, Cameron paid a visit to a Kansas-based wheat breeder named Wes Jackson, who Chouinard has said is “doing the most important thing in agriculture in the past 10,000 years.” In the U.S., wheat is grown on some 46 million acres of land, an area nearly the size of North Dakota, planted from seed each year and then fully harvested, which can leave barren fields prone to soil erosion and carbon release. Jackson and his team at The Land Institute, in Salina, Kansas, had been working on creating a perennial variety of wheat called Kernza, which can be harvested without disturbing the plant’s deep root structure.
“You have these giant roots that hold onto nitrogen that would otherwise pollute and carbon that would be released into the atmosphere,” Cameron explains. After visiting Jackson, she felt that Kernza should be introduced to the marketplace as quickly as possible, and worked with The Land Institute to secure FDA approval for the new grain. In 2016, Provisions released Long Root Ale, a crisp, malty American pale ale brewed with Kernza. Thinking about the broader potential for the carbon-sequestering grain makes her eyes go wide. “Think about the environmental benefits,” she says. “It could be huge.”
A transition of the magnitude that Patagonia envisions is still a distant goal; less than 1 percent of U.S. farmland uses organic practices today, let alone the kind of regenerative methods that promise to make a dent in carbon emissions. And Provisions, with its 23 products sold only in Patagonia’s stores, on its website, and through a relatively small network of outdoor stores and natural food markets, is a tiny player in the colossal packaged-foods industry.
But Cameron believes that the company’s choices can generate a ripple effect in the marketplace that outweighs the volume of product they themselves produce. Already she’s seen the beginnings of this transformation with Kernza: When Long Root Ale was released two years ago, it garnered a lot of attention for the fledgling grain, and now General Mills is growing Kernza for use in its Cascadian Farms line of products. Cameron hopes that, over time, General Mills and companies like Nestle and Anheuser-Busch InBev will see the benefit of investing in these practices. “A small percentage of them adopting Kernza could mean thousands of acres converted away from industrial agriculture.”
When it comes to Provisions’ own sales—as Chouinard well knows, you’ve got to do well to do good—for the food line to reach a meaningful scale, its products will need to appeal beyond the die-hard backpacking set. To that end, Cameron has been thinking about new products for grocery stores; cooked breakfast porridges are great in the backcountry, for instance, but a breakfast bar would be an easier sell for on-the-go commuters. She’s also exploring the idea of offering frozen proteins—buffalo bratwursts and salmon fillets—from their ranchers and fishermen.
The quality and environmental bona fides of Provisions products are hard to beat—after sampling the offerings extensively, I now prefer their wild salmon pouches to the fresh fillets available at my local fish counter—but a high price point seems a likely obstacle. How large could the market really be for shelf-stable fish at $28 per pound? At more than $2 a piece, can Provisions’ organic fruit-and-nut bars compete with widespread cheaper (admittedly nonorganic) offerings from the likes of Lärabar and Kind?
Cameron says that the company isn’t willing to compromise on its sourcing to hit a lower price point, but expects that eventually, “as regenerative organic crops gain in momentum, adding more acreage, the price of those products will adjust downward.” Until then, Provisions’ impact will depend on whether it can achieve the same kind of widespread adoption for expensive, outdoorsy food that Patagonia has for expensive, outdoorsy clothing—a business that reportedly does $1 billion a year in sales.
When asked about the future of Provisions, Marcario says she’s pleased with the venture’s traction and thinks that it has the potential to eventually grow larger than the apparel business. As always, she says, Patagonia is taking the long view. “At the end of the day, our customers are telling us they want a healthier planet,” Marcario says. “For us to ignore that is bad business.”
Back at Colorado Cultivars, Damien Farris feels the same sort of momentum, not only from consumers clambering for hemp products, but from farmers eager to grow them. “Lifelong conventional farmers are seeing the demand for organic hemp, and asking about turning their land organic,” Farris tells me. This year, Farris harvested 1,500 acres; next season, he estimates that number could top 10,000. He’s already seen the changes in Eaton. When he began to farm here four years ago, birds and insects were all but absent. Now, his fields are teeming with ladybugs and crickets, and a pair of hawks has taken up residence in the area, perching on farm equipment to swoop down for the mice that now scurry through the leafy fields. It’s a small step toward mending things, but it’s a start.