The Growing Potential of Growing Hemp

Hemp farmer Brian Furnish

Brian Furnish is director of Global Production at Ananda Hemp, based in Kentucky.

It’s Time to Consider the Growing Potential of Hemp

Hemp, once a legal and thriving crop in the United States, was dealt a heavy blow with the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. The Act put heavy tax and licensing regulations on both hemp and marijuana crops, making hemp cultivation difficult for American farmers. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 proved to be a virtual death knell for the crop, classifying all forms of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, making it illegal to grow.

The crop is beginning to make a comeback, however. In the early 1990s, as hemp’s potential uses became more widely known, there was a sustained resurgence of interest in allowing commercial hemp cultivation in America. The Hemp Industries Association estimates an average of 15 percent annual growth in U.S. hemp retail sales from 2010 to 2015, with the majority of this growth attributed to hemp-based body products, supplements and foods.

“The amount of uses for hemp are limitless,” said Eric Wang, CEO of Ananda Hemp, in Cynthia, Kentucky. “In 15 years time, hemp will make up at least 85 percent of the products in your home, from food to building materials to paper. The high-tech possibilities are really incredible.”

Wang says that the way to legalization is through consumer demand. Given the environmentally diverse properties and technological potential, he says that it probably won’t be too hard once the truth of the crop is revealed to the nation at large.

“Hemp is going to be a game-changer,” said Wang. “Products are going to make a splash when created and are going to bring a lot of jobs to America. It will bring a lot of manufacturing jobs into the country as well as farming jobs. Hemp is another thing to innovate off of. People think innovation is all off of technology but there is a lot of innovation in building materials right now. We’re talking huge change.”

Harvesting hemp

Globally, more than 30 countries grow hemp, with China being the largest hemp producing and exporting country

Globally, more than 30 countries grow hemp, with China being the largest hemp producing and exporting country, responsible for an estimated one-fifth of total global production. The United States is currently the number one importer of hemp fiber, most of which it receives from China and Canada. Unfortunately, the United States is the only developed nation that has not produced an industrial hemp crop for economic purposes.

Experts suggest that the U.S. market for hemp products is approximately $600 million per year. In 2011, the United States imported $11.5 million worth of legal hemp products, up from $1.4 million in 2000, most of which was driven by growth in hemp seed and hemp oil used in food products.

In 2012, the U.S. hemp industry was valued at $500 million according to the Hemp Industries Association. The lobbying organization Vote Hemp estimated the total retail value of hemp products sold in the United States in 2016 was at least $688 million. This is a 20 percent growth over the 2015 retail value estimate of $573 million.

Hemp could also be a blessing to those who have been pushed to the fringes of farming thanks to declining crop prices and farm income.

“I’m an eighth-generation farmer and any time I can look for a new crop that helps me, or other farmers, stay on the farm, then I think it’s a good opportunity,” said Brian Furnish, director of Global Production at Ananda Hemp. “With the decline of tobacco over the last 20 years, I’ve been looking for other ways to diversify our operation. I don’t know of any other plant in the world that I could feed you with, then clothe you, then fuel your car, which you take to your house with walls made of it. If you’re sick, you can take medicine made from it. There are just many different things you can do with the plant.”

Furnish, who began farming hemp in 2014, says it is a great crop for current farmers because they can utilize current equipment for production.

“I’ve seen that farmers who have existing equipment, infrastructure and workers will have an advantage. Tobacco, corn and soybean equipment can all come in handy when trying to grow hemp. I see it as a very challenging crop to get into, though, if you don’t already have equipment, knowledge or land. If you are just growing seed hemp, you can take an existing combine that you use for soybeans and wheat and you can modify it a little bit to make it run pretty efficiently.”

Annie Rouse, owner of Think Hempy Thoughts, which sells hemp-derived CBD products, oils and clothing, also believes the crop could be a boon to farmers.

“Hemp has always been a part of my life,” said Rouse. I got so attached to it because, being from Kentucky and realizing that historically it was one of the state’s largest cash crops, why shouldn’t we be able to grow it again and reinvigorate Kentucky’s economy? We are a big agriculture state so it seems like it would be a good opportunity to grow it again. Hemp is a very sustainable product and is able to produce a lot of natural fibers instead of synthetic materials, which can have some adverse environmental aspects. Hemp just seems a viable and sustainable opportunity—we can utilize natural materials to grow an economy and help farmers in the process.”

Studies have shown that if hemp laws were relaxed, the economy would benefit. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), researchers in Canada and various state agencies estimate that the market outlook for growing the crop is mostly positive, citing rising consumer demand and the potential range of product uses for hemp. Some states report that if current restrictions on growing hemp in the United States were removed, agricultural producers in their states could benefit. The CRS also says that there can be production advantages associated with hemp. It acknowledges hemp’s benefits as a rotational crop and says that hemp may be less environmentally degrading than other agricultural crops.

Get to Know Hemp as a Crop

Hemp grows quickly

Hemp can reach heights of 16 feet and can grow up to 4 inches per day, and research from the University of Kentucky has shown that it can even grow as much as a foot in one week.

Hemp can be grown nearly anywhere in the world, regardless of soil type. There is also no need for pesticides as the crop naturally kills weeds while purifying the soil. However, according to Furnish, the first couple of weeks can be a challenging battle against weeds as the plant gets up to speed. The three-month harvest cycle makes it a great rotational crop. It can reach heights of 16 feet and can grow up to 4 inches per day, and research from the University of Kentucky has shown that it can even grow as much as a foot in one week.

“Hemp” refers primarily to Cannabis sativa L. (Cannabaceae), although the term has been applied to dozens of species representing at least 22 genera of prominent fiber crops. Cannabis sativa is a summer annual plant and is strongly photosensitive, which means that it flowers according to the length of the day and not physiological maturity. It is also mostly dioecious, in that male and female flowers occur on separate plants, although there are a few monoecious varieties (male and female flowers on the same plant).

Hemp crop

Depending on the harvestable component of interest, (i.e. fiber, grain or cannabinoids) male plants might be vitally necessary or completely unwanted.

Different plant parts are harvested from hemp for specific purposes. Depending on the harvestable component of interest, (i.e. fiber, grain or cannabinoids) male plants might be vitally necessary or completely unwanted. Fiber crops are generally all male plants, while those focusing on seeds and cannabinoid may only focus on the female flower.

The drug potential of cannabis is defined and measured by the presence of the psychoactive ingredient delta-nine tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is the fourth most popular recreational drug after caffeine, alcohol and nicotine, with its use increasing in states where marijuana is legal.

A 2015 study published in Scientific Reports by Dirk W. Lachenmeier and Jürgen Rehm found that marijuana was 114 times less toxic than alcohol. Although marijuana typically has a THC content of 5 to 10 percent, levels as high as 37 percent in buds have been reported. In contrast, industrial hemp—hemp grown for commercial non-intoxicant purposes—has less than 0.3 percent THC.

Is Growing Hemp Legal?

The path to legalization is well on its way. On February 7, 2014, President Obama signed the 2014 Farm Bill into law. Section 7606 of the act, Legitimacy of Industrial Hemp Research, defines industrial hemp as distinct from marijuana. It also authorizes institutions of higher education and individual state departments of agriculture that have legalized hemp cultivation to regulate and conduct research and pilot programs if: 1) the industrial hemp is grown or cultivated for purposes of research conducted under an agricultural pilot program or other agricultural or academic research; and 2) the growing or cultivating of industrial hemp is allowed under the laws of the state in which such institution of higher education or state department of agriculture is located and such research occurs. The law also requires that the grow sites be certified and registered with their state.

As of December 31, 2017, 33 states had passed legislation related to industrial hemp. In 2017, 38 states and Puerto Rico considered legislation related to industrial hemp. These bills ranged from clarifying existing laws to establishing new licensing requirements and programs.

Several states enacted legislation in 2017: Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, North Dakota, Nevada, New York, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming. Florida and Nevada authorized new research or pilot programs. The governors of Arizona and New Mexico vetoed legislation that would have established new research programs. State statutes, with the exception of West Virginia, define industrial hemp as a variety of cannabis with a THC concentration of not more than 0.3 percent. West Virginia defines hemp as cannabis with a THC concentration of less than 1 percent.

In August, 2017, a federal bill was introduced that could take hemp off of the Controlled Substances Act altogether. The legislation, authored by Representatives James Comer (R-KY), Thomas Massie (R-KY), Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Jared Polis (D-CO), would exempt industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act. According to a press release issued by the congressmen, the bill “creates a new category for hemp research at universities and state departments of agriculture and allows for further commercialization of industrial hemp crops.”

The Growth Potential of Industrial Hemp

Harvesting hemp

In 2011, the United States imported $11.5 million worth of legal hemp products, up from $1.4 million in 2000.

“Industrial hemp isn’t a new crop to the United States, but most Americans aren’t aware of the wide range of legitimate uses for it,” said Goodlatte. “By removing industrial hemp from the definition of a controlled substance, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act will finally allow for responsible, commercial production of industrial hemp without fear of violating federal law. This bipartisan legislation is the product of many months of robust discussion with both lawmakers and stakeholders.”

While the initiative was applauded by hemp groups around the country, some say that more could have been done. “The hemp industry has had some concerns as to some of the compromises that Comer had to make with Bob Goodlatte,” said Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp. “For example, there is a provision for administrative inspection that would allow the Drug Enforcement Agency to still have a major role. If there is any organization that has really stood in the way, and continues to stand in the way, of bringing it back as a crop, it is the DEA. They’re not an agriculture agency and their whole approach to this is as an illegal drug, and it is really frustrating. I think that provision really needs to go. The DEA is the agency that had authority over cannabis as a whole and they don’t want to give up any of their authority. They see hemp as a threat to them.”

The greatest increase in hemp production is in Oregon, where producers are expected to plant more than 1,000 acres this year. “Southern Oregon is really recognized as one of the best biomes—not only in the country, but also the world—for growing cannabis,” said Frederick Schilling, co-founder of Medisun Farms in Ashland, Oregon. “In Oregon we have the blessing of the state to grow hemp; it’s a legal product here under the Oregon Department of Agriculture.”

Schilling has been growing hemp for three years, but has been involved in the industry for the past ten. “Farming hemp excites me because it’s the renaissance of a crop that, for various reasons, has been demonized and rendered illegal. I love being around the reemergence of such an incredible plant. It’s really, really exciting.”

“Hemp has a lot of upside,” said Schilling. “It has a tremendous upside not just for the farming community but environmentally. Hemp creates so many products—medicines, plastics, food, fiber, just a lot of stuff. That really excites me. I believe that we are at a point in our culture and our society that information gets passed on too quickly and we’re at a point in our societal intelligence where we want these things; we want things that make sense. It’s too big not to see it on our doorstep within the next three to five years . . . Hemp has a stigma that we have to overcome, but when you start putting the facts out regarding the economics and the products it can make, there will really start to be a demand for it.”

By Jordan Strickler. This article appeared in the April 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A.

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