When growing hemp was first legalized federally through the 2018 Farm Bill, most people getting into it were all about CBD. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s first National Hemp Report, in 2021, U.S. farmers grew $623 million worth of floral hemp — the type used for CBD — compared to $5.99 million worth of grain and $41.4 million worth of fiber hemp.
But even back in 2019 and 2020, as Ohio and other states got ready for their first full year of hemp production, researchers and industry experts noted fiber and grain hemp had a lot of potential.
“It’s not that no one wanted to produce industrial hemp back in 2020 … it’s just there was no infrastructure,” said TJ Richardson, of The Ohio Hemp Co.
That infrastructure is still in the works. But some farmers and processors in Ohio and Pennsylvania are making strides towards it.
There are a lot of potential uses for fiber hemp. Nike has unveiled several shoes made of partly of hemp this year. The U.S. Marine Corps are looking at developing a hemp-based fabric that could be used for military uniforms. BMW has used hemp mixed with plastic in an electric car to make the car lighter.
The International Code Council approved hemp-lime, or hempcrete, for the International Residential Code in April, a step toward officially recognizing hempcrete as a residential building material. Hemp grain has potential as food for both animals and humans.
That’s why some farmers and companies are starting to explore fiber and grain hemp.
In New Castle, Pennsylvania, DON Services is planning an industrial hemp production hub. It launched a fiber hemp test acres program with local farmers in 2019 and worked on Project PA Hemp Home, a house made with hemp building materials and designed to show hemp’s potential for construction.
DON stands for Disability Options Network. The nonprofit was founded by Chris Lloyd and Philip Berezniak to help address issues people with disabilities face. The organization has since expanded to work in other sectors, including housing. Lloyd was initially interested in hemp’s potential for soil remediation, and eventually made plans for a production hub.
The production hub will include a decortication facility, which separates hemp stalks into fiber and hurd, the woody, inner part of the stalk, said Lori Daytner, vice president of program development for DON. It would also include a facility for making HempWood, a building material. The hub could create more than 100 jobs and support 250 farmers, based on the average farm size in the area.
While processors are starting to get up and running in some areas, there still aren’t any near The Ohio Hemp Co., in New Carlisle, Ohio. The company, which is trying fiber and grain hemp for the first time this year, is planning to do most of its own processing, though there are a few processors in Pennsylvania to reach out to if it turns out to be more than it can do in-house.
The Ohio Hemp Co. plans to work with local universities on product development and testing for the fiber hemp this year, Richardson said. For the grain hemp, the company is lining up a few projects to test it out as an animal feed, and is also looking into selling edible hemp hearts.
Growing fiber hemp isn’t as labor intensive as CBD hemp, where a lot of work has to be done by hand. But it’s not without its challenges. In the first year of DON’s test acres program, the nonprofit only got one square bale out of four acres, due to some mistakes with planting the seeds too deep and not densely enough, heavy rain and a lot of weed pressure, Daytner said.
One issue is that there still aren’t herbicides approved for use in hemp, said Lee Beers, agriculture and natural resources extension educator for Trumbull County with Ohio State University Extension. He worked with DON’s test acres program on some research plots in Ohio in 2020 and 2021.
“If we can get some research and get on a label, it will make a huge difference,” Beers said.
There are a few other regulatory hurdles. Fiber hemp tends to have very low or no THC, Daytner said. But it still has to be tested, and if you have several different varieties or different fields, that can add up. Farmers also still need a background check to get permits for fiber hemp.
“It’s nothing overly burdensome, but come on, farmers have enough going on,” Daytner said. “Those are hurdles which we believe have absolutely no relevance and further are just hindrances in getting a domestic supply up and running.”
Just like with CBD hemp, the variety a farmer chooses makes a big difference. Varieties Beers tried in 2020 were taller than the ones in 2021. Those ones seemed to do a better job of crowding out weeds, he said. Most varieties are coming from other countries, and farmers in the U.S. are still figuring out what works best in their areas.
The Ohio Hemp Co. is testing out five different varieties on about 10 acres in Muskingum County, Ohio. They are heavily focused on research, and planted at different dates throughout May and early June, and with varying densities and spacing to compare how each variety does under different conditions.
“If we can produce data not yet available in the state of Ohio, that’s a success,” Richardson said.
The amount of interest in fiber hemp from local farmers hasn’t really changed in the last few years, Beers said. With corn and soybeans looking profitable, even with high input prices, most farmers aren’t likely to move acres to try fiber hemp.
But eventually, farmers working with a few hundred acres might find it useful to plant hemp in some fields if they can’t get corn planted by June 1, he said. The equipment for fiber hemp is just a grain drill or broadcast sprayer for planting and hay equipment for harvesting.
“It’s going to fit into a smaller farm rotation, once the infrastructure gets there,” Beers said.
DON has gotten some funding for the production hub, and is continuing to secure funding. The decortication facility alone will cost about $12 million for equipment lines, shipping, installation and training, Daytner said. That doesn’t include the building. They’re also building relationships with farmers and other companies.
“Farmers won’t grow unless they know what money there is to be made,” Daytner said. “It has to at least be comparable to corn and soy.”
The two or three years of experience makes farmers who have worked with DON’s test acres program some of the most experienced fiber hemp growers in the nation, Daytner said. It’s still an incredibly new crop for most people. But she believes in its potential.
“Folks didn’t think soybeans would take off 30 years ago,” Daytner said. “Now, it’s half of production in Lawrence County.”
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