What’s next for industrial hemp growers?

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Hemp field
This photo shows a hemp field being harvested for fiber. (Kentucky Department of Agriculture's Industrial Hemp Program photo)

SALEM, OHIO — The 2018 farm bill creates new opportunities for farmers in industrial hemp, although state departments of agriculture advise growers to plan ahead before they produce.

The 2018 farm bill removed hemp from the federal list of controlled substances, which legalized commercially growing industrial hemp at the federal level. While hemp is still on the list of controlled substances for Ohio, the neighboring states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky are getting involved in the industry.

States are required to create a regulatory plan, according to Penn State Extension. This plan must include procedures for recording and describing land where hemp is grown, testing THC concentration (the active ingredient in cannabis), handling non-compliant product disposal and enforcing regulations.

To grow hemp, farmers still need a permit from their state, which must be renewed yearly.

Hemp uses

There are many different uses for hemp, but cannabidiol, or CBD, production stands out as a popular one.

The majority of permit requests the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture received as of February 2019, were intended for CBD production.

Crescent Gallagher, media director for the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, said many growers in the state are also interested in CBD products. He also said some companies are interested in using hemp fiber for rope and clothing.

Shannon Powers, press secretary for the department of agriculture, said one of Pennsylvania’s oldest processors is processing seed oil for culinary use.

hemp field
Hemp is an annual broadleaf plant with a taproot and is capable of rapid growth under ideal growing conditions. Plants grown for fiber will grow to 6-12 feet tall. (Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s Industrial Hemp Program photo)

Hemp can also be processed for animal bedding and feed, industrial fiber, fabrics and “hempcrete,” which can be used as a structural element.

Powers said hemp seems to have “an almost endless list of uses, which is one of the reasons people are so excited about it.”

She said hemp can allow farmers, who grow other crops or raise animals, to diversify. For example, dairy farmers could grow hemp for bedding materials rather than purchasing bedding, or could grow hemp as a new cash crop.

The market

Growers need to consider these uses and markets for their crops before planting.

Gallagher noted hemp is a fairly new legal crop, which is one of the biggest challenges for producers.

“It’s a learning curve for us,” he said, explaining that the department of agriculture and hemp producers in West Virginia are still determining best practices, rules and regulations for producing hemp.

West Virginia does have an advantage over some states, however, because it legalized growing industrial hemp commercially in 2017 and is now entering its second commercial growing season. Pennsylvania and Kentucky have also allowed industrial hemp to be grown under research pilot programs.

* * * Scroll down for information about Ohio legislation.

Before production can take off in Ohio, state lawmakers must first pass authorizing legislation.

Growers will face challenges from competitors in a global market, in addition to the domestic market.

“Canada and China have long-established networks of producers, supply chains and manufacturing facilities in place to deliver products from field to market,” according to a 2018 Penn State Extension article.

States that have not recently produced hemp do not have all of these established networks. In addition, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture notes that for harvesting, growers may need to consider alternate options, since not all combines are designed for harvesting hemp.

Because industrial hemp production has been so limited in the United States, Powers said growers have had to import seeds, which presented some challenges. During Pennsylvania’s pilot program, she said many growers faced delays in getting their seed. The state is currently working with federal agencies to make the process smoother.

According to Powers, it is also important for farmers to consider their investors and insurers.

“Investors and insurers try to value a crop based on past history,” she said, and with industrial hemp, there is little to no past history.

While some are willing to be involved, farmers need to consider who will invest in and insure their crops before growing. Gallagher advised growers to come up with a clear plan for their crop before producing hemp. Rather than growing first and finding a buyer later, he said growers should “find a market or buyers, and then work with those processors to figure out what their need is, and then grow what they need.”

Powers reiterated this, saying most growers have a market and a buyer before they start planting.

Environmental considerations

In addition to financial considerations, Powers pointed out that in Pennsylvania, there is a “whole different cast of characters in terms of weeds and pests than 80 years ago,” which was the last time hemp was grown commercially in Pennsylvania.

Weeds and pests affect which varieties of hemp are the most likely to be successful. Powers also said growers should be aware of what farmers around them are growing to avoid problems with cross-pollination.

She said the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture will not give permits for growing within three miles of a medical marijuana facility. The department also advises farmers growing for CBD purposes to grow at least three miles away from farmers growing other varieties of hemp.

Powers advised interested growers to “do your homework.” She said the gaps in research and development for hemp are being filled in quickly and the department of agriculture is working to support growers as they learn.

Gallagher agreed, saying the West Virginia Department of Agriculture is working with farmers on education as the industry develops. Learning more about hemp and having a plan before diving in will give growers a better chance of succeeding in this new industry.

* * *

In late March of this year, the Ohio Senate passed SB 57, which aims to “decriminalize hemp and license hemp cultivation,” according to The Ohio Legislature.

The bill is now under consideration by the House Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development. It completed its third hearing in that committee on May 7.

If passed in its current state, the bill would:

Distinguish hemp from marijuana.

Establish a hemp marketing program.

Require the director of agriculture to create a program for regulating and monitoring hemp production and processing.

Legalize hemp cultivation and processing under licenses issued by the director of agriculture.

Allow universities or the department of agriculture to cultivate or process hemp for research purposes without a license, under authorization from the director of agriculture.

The full text of the current version of SB 57, as well as the status and committee activity, can be found online at legislature.ohio.gov. https://www.legislature.ohio.gov/legislation/legislation-summary?id=GA133-SB-57

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Reporter Sarah Donkin is a former 4-Her and a Mount Union graduate from Columbiana County, Ohio. She enjoys playing and writing music, cooking, and storytelling in many forms. She can be reached at 800-837-3419 or sarah@farmanddairy.com.

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