Industrial hemp interest high, but infrastructure, legalities still roadblocks
By Bailey Webster, MOSES
At the MOSES Conference 2018 workshop “Prospects for American Hemp,” led by Kevin Gibson and George Weiblen, the first order of business was to pass around a package of hemp hearts made in Hastings, Minn.
“I can’t tell you what an unexpected privilege and pleasure it is to be passing around the first legally grown cannabis from Minnesota in many years,” Weiblen said to spontaneous applause and a few hoots. “These are are [hemp] seeds with the hulls taken off, and they are quite nutty in flavor, with a complete protein, and balance of omega 3/omega 6 fatty acids that the heart-healthy are particularly interested in.” He encouraged participants to taste them.
Weiblen has been studying Cannabis sativa—the species that includes both the psychoactive marijuana plant and industrial hemp, which is used for food, fiber, and an array of industrial applications—for many years. For a long time, he was one of only two researchers in the country with a permit to grow cannabis for study.
In “Times are a-changin’ for U.S. industrial hemp farming” in the May|June 2016 issue of the Organic Broadcaster , we offered an overview of the illustrious history of industrial hemp in the U.S., as well as hopes for its future. Research and pilot programs were just getting started in various states at that time, and there were a lot of unknowns about the future of industrial hemp in the U.S.
Now, two years later, progress has been made in research, and a lot of farmers are interested in hemp production. But the ultimate question—can hemp be a profitable crop for American farmers?—hasn’t been satisfactorily answered.
Many states have initiated pilot programs to allow controlled production for research purposes. Wisconsin just came on board this year with its research pilot program. In Indiana, farmers are chomping at the bit to start growing hemp, but must be affiliated with a university research project in order to plant the crop. The only hemp being grown in Indiana is being trialed at Purdue University by Professor Kevin Gibson and his research team.
In Minnesota, farmers have been growing trial plots for the last three years, starting with six growers and 38 acres in 2016. In 2017, there were more than 30 growers with 1,200 acres in cultivation. The numbers are not officially in for 2018, but applications were up, and the numbers have likely increased again this year. Minnesota is one of the easier states for farmers to trial industrial hemp—MDA supplies seed for the growers, which isn’t the case in other states.
Market for Hemp Hearts
Hemp hearts are touted as a “superfood” in the natural foods market. They’re one of the few plant sources that provide a complete protein; beans must be combined with rice or another grain to provide the balance of amino acids necessary for a “complete protein.” Hemp hearts have a 3:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, which is important for heart health. (America’s corn-centric diet generally provides a much higher omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio than is good for us). There is also a lot of interest in hemp oil, which has the same fatty-acid ratio.
Ken Anderson of Legacy Hemp in Prescott, Wis., is hedging his bets on hemp hearts as the most likely market for industrial hemp farmers, at least initially. Originally working in the construction industry, Anderson met Dr. David West, a well-known cannabis researcher who also lives in Prescott and had test plots of cannabis in Hawaii.
The two got involved in manufacturing HempStone, a hempcrete product that West had invented, made from hemp “hurd,” the woody inner fiber of a hemp stalk, and lime mined from limestone. In order to make this durable, non-toxic, environmentally friendly building material, he was importing the hurd from The Netherlands. “Wouldn’t it be great if American farmers could grow this?” he thought to himself.
On speculation, Anderson began buying up cannabis cultivars before anyone else was interested. He was one of the first people to legally import hemp seed to the U.S. since it was criminalized in the 1970s. He recently started Legacy Hemp, a certified hemp seed company. The company is in the process of choosing a location in Wisconsin for their first hemp seed processing facility. The goal is to produce viable hemp seed for hemp heart and hemp oil production for American farmers who would otherwise be importing seed from Canada.
When advising farmers interested in growing hemp for seed production, Anderson cautions, “You can’t make the mistake of growing lots of acres without a buyer at the end of it.” He’s committed to developing the hemp heart and hemp oil market in the food industry. Hemp hearts are generally thought of as a raw ingredient best sprinkled on salads or thrown into smoothies. But, Anderson has a vision of hemp hearts being used as a staple ingredient in a lot of different packaged food items.
Anderson is passionate about increasing the hemp market before increasing production.
“A rising tide raises all ships,” is his proverbial analogy. If it goes the other way around, he cautions it will be “…a race to the bottom of the price market.” And farmers know that race far too well.
When he talks with farmers who want to grow hemp, Anderson has two essential questions: “Do you have a postharvest plan? Do you have a buyer?” Farmers must have a plan for drying and processing the seeds before they even consider putting in a hemp crop. Hemp seed has a shelf life of only 12-18 months, so having a buyer lined up is equally essential. Anderson is excited to be that buyer for some farmers, once Legacy Hemp has a processing facility up and running.
Legal Gray Area
Part of the issue for farmers wanting to grow hemp is the constantly shifting and unclear legal landscape. Because all Cannabis sativa—even the strains with almost no THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana—was categorized as a Schedule I (most dangerous) drug from the 1970s until very recently, the legal parameters for growing and selling cannabis plants and products are extremely unclear.
For example, canabidiol (CBD) oil is thought to have beneficial properties, and can be produced from plants that don’t make THC. CBD oil is being actively sold by health food co-ops and stores, but it doesn’t actually have a clear legal status, either for producing or for selling.
The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), which runs the state’s pilot program, has applied to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to be registered as a seed importer, but has not been approved yet. So, growers in Wisconsin are on their own for acquiring seed. DATCP’s website says, “Moving seed into Wisconsin is done at your own risk.”
In Indiana, commercial activity in hemp production is not allowed, so farmers couldn’t make money on it. The permitting system is so cumbersome that it’s virtually impossible for farmers to grow hemp, even if they want to do it for free. There is new legislation being rolled out, but the system won’t change until next year at the soonest.
Hemp has gained a somewhat mythical status through the years, touted as the “ideal crop.” It’s supposed to be easy to grow, with minimal fertility needs, low weed pressure due to rapid canopy establishment, and virtually pest-free. It’s said to have an enormous range of uses, from food to fiber, paper, fuel, and industrial applications.
While there are nuggets of truth within these claims, hemp is a crop like any other, with specific nutrient, day length, and moisture requirements. It needs about 100 lb. of nitrogen per acre, similar to canola and most vegetable crops. Weeds can be a big issue in hemp, especially if the fertility is low (which affects the height and canopy). So far insect and disease pressure has not presented much of a problem in hemp trials, but bird predation of seeds has been a big issue.
Hemp does have a wide range of uses, that much is true. However, all of the uses of hemp require quite a bit of processing, and large-scale processing facilities simply don’t exist in this country anymore. Before we can begin growing hemp on a large scale for food, fiber, and industrial uses, processing facilities must be built.
Don’t Bet the Farm
The overall tone of the people who are “in the know” about hemp is cautious optimism. There are a lot of kinks that still need to be worked out in the legal system and in terms of production. Hemp seed needs to be more accessible, and processing facilities must be built. But hemp has a strong history as an agricultural crop in this country, and many committed farmers, researchers, and industry people intend to make it work. But, as Weiblen said wryly in response to questions of profitability for farmers, “I would caution against betting the farm on hemp at this time.”
Bailey Webster is a MOSES team member and an
organic vegetable grower.
From the July | August 2018 Issue