SALEM, Ohio — Hemp isn’t marijuana. But the reputation that accompanies marijuana seems to be stunting the growth of what could be America’s next cash crop.
By some estimates, hemp is used in 25,000 products worldwide. The U.S. market, estimated at $600 million, is supplied totally by imported hemp today.
Industrial hemp was grown commercially in the United States until after World War II, when it became regulated, along with marijuana, and its cultivation was prohibited.
Industrial hemp and marijuana are different varieties of the same species of plant.
Unlike marijuana, industrial hemp is grown for fiber and seed, and must maintain a concentration of the chemical tetrahydrocannabinol, THC — the substance that makes marijuana intoxicating — below the 0.3 percent legal threshold.
A provision in the 2014 farm bill was the first glimpse that the U.S. might bring hemp out of hiding. The provision allowed states, where hemp production was already legal, to begin university research and pilot programs.
Hemp is used in many industries — agriculture, textiles, recycling, automotive, furniture, food/nutrition/beverages, paper, construction materials and personal care.
It is an annual broadleaf plant with a taproot and is capable of rapid growth under ideal growing conditions.
Hemp plants grown for fiber will grow to 6-12 feet tall without branching. In dense plantings, those that are seed drilled, the bottom leaves fall off due to lack of sunlight and the male plants die back after shedding pollen. This generally occurs four to five weeks into the growing cycle.
The stem has an outer bark that contains the long, tough fibers. They are similar in length to soft wood fibers. Hemp rope, textiles and clothing is made from these fibers.
The core contains the “hurds” or “shives” (short fibers), similar to hard wood fibers and these are used for building, particleboard and pet bedding, as well as plastics, according to the National Hemp Association.
For grain production, the plant may branch and reach heights of 6-10 feet. Tall plants do not mean more grain and shorter plants are preferred for combining.
In well structured and well drained soils, the taproot may penetrate 12 inches. In compacted soils, the taproot remains short and the plant produces more lateral, fibrous roots, according to the National Hemp Association.
Thirty-one states have passed legislation allowing some type of research or production, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures website.
“Industrial hemp has a rich history in Pennsylvania, and we believe there is a great deal of opportunity for growers, processors and other businesses that make a range of products from automobiles, paper and textiles to a range of food and beverage products,” said Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding in a recent news release.
Under a new research pilot program, Pennsylvania will approve up to 30 projects in 2017 that will help determine future opportunities for growing, cultivating and marketing industrial hemp.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s signing of the Industrial Hemp Research Act, Number 92, in July 2016, provides the ability for industrial hemp to be grown or cultivated.
In Pennsylvania, hemp can be grown and cultivated only for research conducted under an agricultural pilot program as established by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
Some advocates in Pennsylvania are campaigning for less regulation, allowing commercial activity.
“Ultimately, we hope advocates realize that Pennsylvania is just as committed to the future of hemp here as they are, but if we fail to roll out this program successfully, we risk jeopardizing the future of hemp production in Pennsylvania for years to come,” Secretary Redding wrote in his blog Dec. 26, 2016.
“There is simply too much upside potential for our farmers, our state and our economy to risk letting that happen.”
The Kentucky Department of Agriculture is in its fourth year administrating a pilot program. The department has approved 209 applications to grow approximately 12,800 acres of industrial hemp for research purposes in 2017, according to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture Industrial Hemp Program Manager Doris Hamilton.
More than 525,000 square feet of greenhouse space were also approved for indoor growers.
This marks a leap from the 33 acres of industrial hemp grown in 2014, which steadily rose to 922 acres in 2015 and to more than 2,350 acres in 2016.
Currently, Kentucky farmers can grow industrial hemp only as part of the state’s pilot program, which began in 2014 immediately after authorization by the farm bill.
“Our strategy is to use KDA’s research pilot program to encourage the industrial hemp industry to expand and prosper in Kentucky,” said Ryan Quarles, Kentucky’s agriculture commissioner in recent news release.
“Although it is not clear when Congress might act to remove industrial hemp from the list of controlled substances, my strategic objective is to position the Commonwealth’s growers and processors to ultimately prevail as national leaders in industrial hemp production,”
In Kentucky, hemp can be grown for three harvestable components: fiber (stalk), grain or floral material.
This year, 41 processors have been approved and given multi-year contracts, said Hamilton, and these processors are focusing on product development and marketing.
“The processors range from individuals who will crush the grain for its oil and sell it at a farmers market, to companies able to handle large amounts of hemp,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton and her team have worked to get growers and processors on board, and to forge relationships with law enforcement.
To strengthen KDA’s partnership with state and local law enforcement officers, the department provides GPS coordinates of approved industrial hemp planting sites to law enforcement agencies before any hemp is planted.
GPS coordinates were required to be submitted on the application.
Participants must also pass a background check and consent to allow program staff and law enforcement officers to inspect any premises where hemp or hemp products are being grown, handled, stored or processed, said Hamilton.
The 31 states running pilot or research programs are working together, to some degree, attending a national hemp conference and sharing results and best practices, said Hamilton.
But Kentucky also has a large group of academic support, with 10 Kentucky universities participating in hemp research.
Now that the applications are in, each Kentucky applicant will go through a 3- to 4-hour training to set the expectations, requirements and sign a contract, said Hamilton.
“Last year we imported 60,000 pounds of hemp seeds from nine countries for the program; this year we will likely need to double or triple that,” Hamilton said.
Once harvest comes around, KDA will sample each field and test it to monitor THC. They will also visit each processor to inspect its records, facility and compliance with program guidelines, she said.
“You can’t launch a new crop without looking for improvements across the board, from planting to harvesting and the infrastructure across the entire value chain,” Hamilton said.
“Our goal is that if and when hemp can be grown outside of these programs, that Kentucky farmers and business are ready to take the lead.”
KDA will count this year’s pilot a success when each grower and processer adds to the pool of best practices and can record a profit, said Hamilton.
“Actually just having this much hemp being grown in Kentucky is already a success,” she said.
Hemp production outside the pilot program will depend on federal legislation to legalize the plant as an agricultural crop.
The Hemp Farming Act of 2015 was introduced as H.R.525, by U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., Jan. 26, 2015, but was not enacted. A companion bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon.
Legislation not enacted by the end of the session, Jan. 3, 2017, was cleared from the books. The bill had been referred to the subcommittee on health, according to www.congress.gov.
- Industrial hemp is used in agriculture, textiles, recycling, automotive, furniture, food/nutrition/beverages, paper, construction materials and personal care.
- Industrial hemp is made up of varieties of “Cannabis Sativa” that contain less than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
- It is an annual broadleaf plant with a taproot and is capable of very rapid growth under ideal growing conditions.
- The female flowers and seeds are indeterminate, meaning that there are both ripe and immature seeds on the same plants at the time of grain harvest.
- Hemp plants grown for fiber will grow to 6-12 feet tall without branching.
- The stem has an outer bark that contains the long, tough bast fibers that make hemp rope, textiles and clothing.
- The core contains the “hurds” or “shives” (short fibers), similar to hard wood fibers and these are used for building materials, particleboard and pet bedding, as well as plastics.
- For grain production, the plant may branch and reach heights of 6-10 feet. Tall plants do not mean more grain, and shorter plants are preferred for combining.
- Combines manufactured in the last 10 years will harvest hemp with few modifications. Draper headers are preferred, as there is more room for the hemp heads to lay down and feed evenly into the combine. Conventional headers are also used.
Source: The Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance, www.hemptrade.ca/, and Hemp Technologies, www.hemp-technologies.com/