Growing Industrial Hemp-Risks and Rewards
In 2013, Colorado became the first state in the US to legalize industrial hemp. The 2014 Farm Bill granted US farmers the right to cultivate hemp in states where production is legal and established hemp pilot research programs nationwide.
Industrial hemp is grown for food, feed, fuel, building materials, and more. Traditional hemp, grown for mass market products such as textiles and bioplastics, has a planting rate of 400,000 per acre (roughly 100 plants/square meter), and is drilled in like wheat. It grows tall and you harvest the tops for seed production and then use the stalk for a number of industrial purposes.
By comparison, CBD is an extract from the female plant, but is nearly devoid of THC. CBD plants are grown a lot less densely and are managed as single plants.
Where is it Legal to Grow Industrial Hemp?
Since 2013, 47 states have legalized growing industrial hemp.
In December of 2018, the 2018 Farm Bill was signed into law. It removed hemp, defined as cannabis (Cannabis sativa L.) and derivatives of cannabis with extremely low concentrations of the delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) (no more than 0.3 percent THC on a dry weight basis), which includes hemp seeds, from the DEA schedule of Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The 2018 Farm Bill explicitly preserved FDA’s authorities over hemp products. In late 2020, the US Senate extended the 2014 Farm Bill pilot program through September 2021 to give growers time to submit their final plans to the USDA.
Rewards for Growing Hemp: A Growing Industry
The industry has grown from zero to 465,787 total licensed hemp acreage mid 2020, quadruple the number from 2018. Hemp is used to make more than 25,00 different commercial and industrial products, including rope, textiles, clothing, shoes, food, paper, bioplastics, insulation, and biofuel. Applications for hemp-based products abound and any internet search will result in hundreds of results. And not just boutique or niche brands. Big players are getting into the game. New drinks are popping up, including hemp beer and CBD-infused Seltzers. Big players like Pepsi-Cola Bottle Co. of NY are grabbing headlines with new partnerships.
Hemp clothing is catching attention as being a sustainable, soil health-friendly option that can be made into soft, durable fabric that’s even touted to be anti-microbial and odor fighting.
Reality: There are Risks to Growing Hemp
While the industry is booming, there have been setbacks, and it still carries some notable risks for growing hemp.
Risk 1: Lack of Infrastructure
Growing hemp had been banned in the United States for over eighty years, which means large information gaps have developed with regards to production, pest management and economic impact. Now that it’s legal to grow industrial hemp in a vast number of states, the work must be done to develop the industry around hemp. Currently, the infrastructure to process raw hemp is essentially non-existent in the United States. Up until recently the US has relied on importing hemp fiber, hurd, and hemp seeds.
Not only does the US need to build up knowledge and a processing infrastructure, but also to bring together the factors necessary for a thriving industry: agricultural organizations, farmers, processors, and retailers. More research needs to be done to understand the business of growing industrial hemp plants to maximize consistency and yield.
Risk 2: Exceeding THC Levels
Currently the availability of seeds is a limiting factor in expanding crops. Most seeds are obtained from Canada and Europe. However, it’s not well known how seeds from other regions will adapt to US growing regions. The risk exists that small changes in environment can impact THC limits at harvest. If the hemp crop is brought in and it “busts” or exceeds the 0.3% THC limit at harvest as specified by Federal law, it officially becomes marijuana and must be burned at the grower’s expense to destroy it.
Other factors than seed adjustment can affect the TCH levels. Influences that impact THC levels can include be excessive water or nutrients such as nitrogen.
Risk 3: The Many Myths and Unknowns
Obviously, the number one myth is that hemp is marijuana; and this is the biggest hurdle that the growers and hemp industry need to overcome. You can’t smoke hemp recreationally since it doesn’t contain the same levels of THC as marijuana. And hemp is not illegal. But after those obvious myths, there are a few more that need debunked. There are still a number of myths and unknowns about how to grow hemp. For example, hemp is not drought tolerant. In fact, it requires a considerable amount of water, so monitoring and managing it effectively is important. Another myth is that industrial hemp doesn’t require fertilizer or does well on marginal land. Depending on whether you are growing it for the seed or the fiber, you’ll need to care for it similarly to soybeans or corn. Using intelligent technology to monitoring your new hemp crop throughout the season will help with building a body of knowledge and figuring out how to optimize your yields through controlling the timing and amount of inputs. Bottomline, the reality is that the body of knowledge about growing distinct varieties and adaptation to various regions is still growing.
Industrial hemp is an interesting crop with multitudes of applications that make it worth exploring as the limitations and regulations are eased across the US.
Useful Resources About Growing Hemp
AgMRC Agricultural Marketing Resource Center
National Hemp Association (NHA)
Purdue University Hemp Project