Organic Broadcaster

Times are a-changin’ for U.S. industrial hemp farming

By Jennifer Nelson, MOSES

Hemp production is in its second season in Kentucky, where 125 sites have planted a total of 1,000 acres.

Photo by Lane Report

Annual retail sales in the U.S. of products made from hemp top $580 million, yet U.S. farmers can’t access this market because it’s illegal to grow industrial hemp in this country. The 2014 Farm Bill opened the door just a crack to allow hemp farming on small scales for “research and pilot programs.”

Twenty-six states—just Minnesota and North Dakota in the Midwest—have taken advantage of this provision, writing laws to allow farmers and research institutions to grow industrial hemp on a limited basis. These pioneering farmers and researchers are helping bring industrial hemp back to U.S. farms, creating new opportunities for farmers.

Suited to Organic Production
Hemp is a fast-growing, resilient crop that is well-suited to organic production. Of the nearly 40,000 acres in industrial hemp production in Canada in 2011, approximately one-third were certified organic. Many experts consider it ideal for organic crop rotations.

Hemp requires similar fertility as a high-yielding crop of winter wheat, including good nitrogen, phosphate and potash levels. Its long taproot helps mitigate erosion and remediate poor soil. And, because it canopies and grows quickly, pest and disease damage and control are minimal. One of the huge benefits of this crop is in the approximately 42 percent of biomass (from leaves, roots and tops) that returns nutrients to the soil for the next crop to use.

Industrial hemp can be planted between March and May, and harvested as early as August depending on whether it’s harvested for fiber or grain. Seed to fiber takes about 60-90 days, and seed to grain needs 110-150 days. Certified seed is expensive, and difficult to come by in this country. Most varieties available are European or Canadian in origin. For example, of the 12 seed trials conducted at North Dakota State University’s Langdon Research Extension Center last year, five were Canadian, five were French, and one each from Finland and Australia.

Industrial hemp has many uses, including paper, textiles, biodegradable plastics, construction, health food, and fuel. It is estimated that the global market for hemp includes more than 25,000 products.

Hemp nuts, are 33 percent protein, making them a perfect, easily digestible vegetarian protein with a highly concentrated balance of essential fats, vitamins and enzymes. The oil of hemp nuts offers the most essential fatty acids (EFAs) of any nut or seed oil, with the omega-3 and omega-6 EFAs occurring in the nutritionally optimal 1:3 ratio. The hemp “seed” is actually an achene like sunflower nuts—a simple dry fruit within a hard shell. Hemp grain is a superfood that can be processed into oil, butter, milk or even highly nutritious flour.

Environmentally conscious entrepreneurs and engineers are developing processing plants to use renewable hemp products, much to the reward of progressive-thinking building contractors and clients. “Hempcrete” is a mix of “shiv,” the inner woody stalk, and lime binder to form a lightweight concrete building material. The renewable material also has the unique benefits of the ability to sequester carbon over time and is very energy efficient.

Legal Status
Industrial hemp is a variety of Cannabis sativa, the same plant species as marijuana, which is why the federal government banned its production in 1970 under the Controlled Substances Act. Industrial hemp’s relationship with marijuana also is why hemp production and usage are controlled and regulated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). But, the two varieties are genetically, chemically and physically very different. As a distinct variety of Cannabis sativa, industrial hemp contains no significant amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

Before this era, hemp had been in production in the United States since the 1600s. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were active hemp advocates and farmers. Hemp was used to make everything from rope to ship sails to canvas wagon covers—it was even used for the paper drafts of the Declaration of Independence.

In 1937, the “Marihuana Tax Act” was passed, encouraging import of tropical fiber crops like sisal and jute. Hemp production in the U.S. declined, then surged again with World War II’s “Hemp for Victory” campaign. During WWII, Wisconsin produced up to 75 percent of hemp in the U.S., with 42 processing mills in operation. During this peak, “America’s Hemp King” Matt Rens, ran the Rens Hemp Company near Wauran, Wis., with numerous mills and over 2,700 acres of industrial hemp in production to provide the U.S. military with rope and other wartime material. Rens Hemp Company had the last functioning mill in the U.S. when it closed its doors in 1958 due to petrochemical plastics replacing renewable hemp. Finally in 1970, the Controlled Substances Act formally prohibited the production of industrial hemp.

In 2014, Section 7606 of the Farm Bill defined industrial hemp as distinct from marijuana, with THC concentration of “not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.” This section authorizes states to allow cultivation of industrial hemp to conduct research and pilot programs. In order to grow it, though, farmers must go through an extensive application process, which can include law enforcement approval and background checks.

“The biggest barrier to hemp production is law enforcement,” said Ken Anderson, principal of Original Green Distribution LLC, a hemp materials distributor in the U.S. “Industrial hemp wins when it’s back in the hands of farmers, treated as the agricultural crop that it is.”

Anderson, who lives in Prescott, Wis., has worked extensively on industrial hemp legal reform and pilot growing projects in Kentucky, with good results. He is currently working to create a farmer cooperative of hemp growers in Minnesota, while also building an industrial hemp processing facility near Cottage Grove. He needed to submit a Request for Participation in the Minnesota Industrial Hemp Development Act Pilot Program (RFP), an extensive process requiring a detailed proposal, background check and letters of support from law enforcement officials. He just received word that his request is approved, making his project the first to grow hemp in Minnesota since the 1950s.

In partnership with Dr. Dave West, a longtime plant geneticist and proponent of industrial hemp, Anderson’s main focus is quality of production, and procuring much-needed appropriate seed germplasm and certifying viable hemp seed for production in the U.S.

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Dr. Paul Mahlberg, Senior Fellow of the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Indiana University, holds one of two DEA permits issued since 1970, allowing him to grow Cannabis in the United States. He has studied different varieties of the plant for over 30 years, focusing on cellular structure. He currently serves on the North American Industrial Hemp Council, and as an advisor to Stevia Corp.’s subsidiary Real Hemp LLC. He sees huge potential benefits if the U.S. legalizes hemp production.

“Industrial hemp will provide additional income for farmers, not to mention the boost with processing industry and jobs gained,” he added.

Mahlberg said one of the barriers to industrial hemp production is the idea that THC-producing marijuana cultivars could be hidden in fields of 12-14-feet tall, single-stemmed industrial hemp. Marijuana cultivars are short, branching plants with flowering buds that contain the higher levels of THC. Not only do they look completely different, producing them within the same vicinity would mix genetic traits, and reduce the quality of both varieties, he explained.

Growing Market
Currently, China, Korea, the Netherlands, Chile and Austria are the world’s top five producers of industrial hemp. U.S. markets, especially for organic hemp nuts and fiber, present ripe opportunities for domestic farmers. With U.S. organic farmers able to produce hemp, the country will be less dependent on foreign markets, and the quality of processing equipment and seed variety and availability here will increase. U.S. farmers also will reap the benefits of having a practical, fast-growing crop to add to their organic rotation, adding good biomass to soil while requiring little input.

Wayne Hauge, who farms lentils, barley and Durham wheat in Ray, N.D., is a strong supporter of industrial hemp. He sees where it would fit in beautifully with the crop rotation and soils types in the area, especially along the Missouri River. Hauge is most interested in seed production, as he has closely watched Canada’s increasing market and sees the huge potential for economic growth.

Kevin Gibson, a professor of botany and plant pathology at Purdue University, agrees with Hauge. Gibson and his team are using a three-year Ceres Trust grant to study and perfect viable hemp seed cultivars and best production practices, ultimately building infrastructure and support for farmers to grow quality hemp. Along with a team of faculty, extension educators and farm professionals, Gibson is trialing 50 varieties from Canada this year. He’s crossing his fingers that they’ll get their desired varieties in time to plant. Last year they were only able to trial two very expensive cultivars, and due to intense flooding in the area, had a hard time getting an all-around production baseline.

“Industrial hemp holds great potential for farmers,” Gibson said. “But, we don’t want this to be a short boon, and then the farmers lose. The research institutions should carry the risk of finding viable seed, production and processing, then provide farmers with the infrastructure to start farming within.”

Gibson hopes to bring research results to the 2017 MOSES Organic Farming Conference, and come back in 2018 with farmers who can share their experiences growing hemp.

Given farmers’ existing machinery, Gibson believes that harvesting hemp for grain will be the most feasible transition. Harvesting for grain and fiber can both be done with a combine, modified for different heights, and with different implements. But hemp fibers are tough, and winding around bearings and other moving parts can cause wear on the combine. On smaller acreages, sickle bar mowers and hay swathers can be used to harvest hemp fiber, and a round baler can bale after the retting or turning process.

As new hemp seed varieties are developed for different harvest purposes, be it grain or fiber, the harvest will become more differentiated as well, and it will be necessary to experiment with machinery and settings to ensure the best quality and yield of seed and fiber harvest.

Many farmers, legislators and industry professionals see industrial hemp as a sound economic and environmental opportunity for organic farmers in the U.S. We just need to bridge the remaining cultural barriers and misconceptions about industrial hemp and put viable seed in the hands of our farmers.

Jennifer Nelson is a MOSES organic specialist and a flower farmer at Humble Pie Farm.

From the May | June 2016 Issue

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