Tim Houseberg’s ambitions for hemp are nearly as expansive as the opportunities for the plant itself.
After a nearly 30-year career with the Cherokee Nation in environmental protection and financial services, Houseberg has spent the past three years building a hemp-related non-profit and genetics company, conducting multiple studies on the plant, and forming numerous partnerships across the hemp sector. It’s all been to support his ultimate vision of bringing tribal sovereignty to his community and others.
But Houseberg’s latest hemp initiative may be his most ambitious yet.
In September, Houseberg’s newest venture, Native American Cannabis Alliance (NACA), announced it had signed three memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with Indigenous farmers from tribes including Mohawk Nation, and Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal Nations.
NACA is a joint venture between Houseberg and Everscore Inc., a startup direct-to-consumer marketplace for THC and CBD products.
Houseberg says the MOUs will open up access to 500,000 acres of tribal farmland for not just growing cannabis and hemp, but also creating manufacturing campuses to process the crops grown on that land.
It’s a partnership that Houseberg envisions bringing workforce development, agricultural advancement and economic opportunity to some areas of the U.S. that need it the most.
“The opportunities for tribes cultivating [hemp and cannabis] have been kind of hit and miss,” Houseberg says. “They are slow to take advantage of it. …. So, this is a great opportunity for us. Working with NACA and Everscore is going to change the way we have opportunity going forward.”
Help on Tribal Land
Houseberg has been working to bring cannabis and hemp to tribal communities for several years, but it’s an effort that stemmed first from health and education initiatives.
Houseberg is from Stilwell, a small town on the eastern border of Oklahoma where Native Americans make up more than half the population.
Though small, Stilwell has a compelling history. It was one of five places where Cherokees dispersed following their long trek along the Trail of Tears in the 1800s, according to the National Park Service. In the mid-1900s, it was designated the “Strawberry Capital of the World” and drew nearly 20 times its population in tourists for an annual festival.
But in 2018, the city gained a darker reputation when the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) revealed Stilwell residents had the lowest life expectancy in the country at just 56.3 years old compared to the national average of 78.8.
Cherokee Nation officials later noted discrepancies with that report, and the NCHS eventually amended the life expectancy to approximately 74 years, as reported by the Tulsa World.
Still, at the time, the number jumped out at Houseberg. He also knew of the other challenges in Stilwell, where the median household income is just half that of the state of Oklahoma; 43% of children live in poverty; and nearly 27% live without health insurance.
The newly retired Houseberg, along with his parents, set out in 2018 to utilize their backgrounds in education, environmental science and Native American law to form Native Health Matters (NHM), a 501(c)(3) organization that began as an initiative to promote health and wellness in local primary schools.
But Houseberg’s focus with NHM quickly turned to cannabis and hemp.
“We’ve thrust ourselves into this new, emerging crop because of some relationships we had and some we were making,” Houseberg says. “As American Indians, the worst thing we ever did was trade our corn fields for oil fields. … [Now], our overarching [focus] is food—to try to impact and change our local communities through food sovereignty and also help Indians who are in agriculture to stay in agriculture.”
The Many Arms of Native Health Matters
While NHM continues to host art and food education programs in primary schools, Houseberg has spent the past several years with the organization examining the various ways hemp can benefit his community.
His first order of business was establishing a genetics company, Cherokee Genetics Co., as an arm of NHM with the goal of providing growers in the area with affordable, quality hemp fiber and grain variety genetics that are suited for the area.
“The first pound of seeds I bought, I paid $10,000 for, and the feminization and population rates that we got were not even close. We set out and decided we don’t want this to happen to anybody,” Houseberg says. “The idea is not to have farmers being taken advantage of.”
Since establishing the company, Houseberg has been taking a magnifying glass to the varieties he provides by conducting various studies on them alongside several universities, including University of Arkansas and Clemson University (in South Carolina).
With NHM’s emphasis on food sovereignty, Houseberg is studying the nutritional content of the different hemp varieties as a food source. He is also conducting field trials with the varieties to gain a better sense of how they perform agronomically.
Houseberg is also working on studies regarding the soil remediation properties of the varieties he offers.
“Soil wellness is a big thing for us,” Houseberg says. Areas across the U.S. grapple with poor soil health, Houseberg explains, and healthier soil leads to healthier crops and ecosystems. But beyond that, soil health is another issue that hits close to home—Stilwell is located just a county away from the Tri-State Mining District, an area across Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma that contains several Superfund sites. These are contaminated sites identified and targeted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for eventual cleanup.
These sites are not only directly contaminated, but also connected to waterways that have become contaminated, too. So, Houseberg has spent the past several years with Clemson University studying how his hemp genetics remediate heavy metals and other toxins from both soil and water. He anticipates the results of those studies being published in the spring.
As Houseberg built connections and bolstered research surrounding hemp, he became acquainted with Jeffrey Sampson, CEO and founder of Everscore—and together, the two are now hoping to take Houseberg’s efforts and turn them into an opportunity for Indigenous people.
The idea behind NACA is to connect brand owners who need hemp or cannabis with grower suppliers. The brands involved in the partnership will be those that sell on the Everscore marketplace.
Growers will receive offtake agreements before they begin planting to minimize risk of oversupply and broken contracts, Sampson says. The decision to cultivate cannabis, hemp for cannabinoids or industrial hemp (for grain and fiber) will depend both on the grower and the demand in the marketplace. (Cannabis products will not be shipped across state lines.)
“By marrying supply and demand with technology, we’ve created an end and collaborative, sustainable ecosystem that solves fragmentation so small growers and small brands ... have the opportunity to play in what’s going to be one of the largest industries of our time,” Sampson says.
Another goal of NACA is to set up campuses where the plants will be processed, ideally also by Indigenous employees, to promote workforce development and local manufacturing and testing to keep costs low.
Sampson says he and Houseberg aimed to onboard tribes that were located across the U.S.: the Mohawk Nation spreads from New York State into Canada; the Cheyenne Nation is primarily in Montana; and the Arapaho Nation is located in Oklahoma and Wyoming.
“As many of our traditions, cultivation has been passed down from generation to generation,” said Roger Jock, representative of the Mohawk Bear Clan people, in a press release. “NACA is operated in the spirit of the tribal alliances formed hundreds of years ago with the benefit of modern technology. We invite our fellow tribes to explore joining NACA to activate the next generation of indigenous farmers and secure sovereignty for all.”
The tribes involved in the MOUs are due to begin growing next spring. Ultimately, Houseberg says he hopes to use this partnership to continue bolstering tribal opportunities in this growing market.
“What’s different here is we have a place to take it to. … The worst thing in the world is jump out and grow it and think, ‘Now what?’” Houseberg says. “This is a unique opportunity for us."