Industrial hemp hasn’t been grown as a commercial crop in the U.S. since the late 1950s. But with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, legalized commercial production of industrial hemp in all 50 states has opened the door for the redevelopment of a domestic hemp industry in the U.S.
It’s also opened the door for countless agronomic-related questions from would-be hemp growers for a crop that has had little production history and, as yet, an undeveloped processing and marketing infrastructure, according to Michigan Farm Bureau Associate Field Crops Specialist Theresa Sisung.
“While industrial hemp production may prove to be a good fit for U.S. agriculture, there’s simply a lot of practical questions that we don’t have answers for yet,” Sisung warned. “Doing your homework and learning from experiences of producers in other states, and countries for that matter, will be essential if we’re going to realize the potential of this new cropping enterprise.”
According to Sisung, a good starting point in considering the new crop is to review the newest Michigan State University (MSU) Extension bulletin, E3402 – Industrial Hemp Production in Michigan. Authored by nine different MSU Extension and Crop & Soil Science, the bulletin draws on the expertise of university researchers from across the country and Canada.
“The bulletin provides a thorough explanation on the history of Industrial Hemp production and regulations, while also focusing on practical agronomic and market considerations,” Sisung said. “MSU has also launched a website, ‘Information about hemp production in Michigan,’ with additional information — including an option to submit questions from interested growers.”
According to the MSU Extension bulletin, states have been given the authority to regulate industrial hemp, meaning Michigan growers and processors must register their hemp acres and facilities with MDARD and submit crop samples for THC testing.
Industrial hemp is cannabis cultivated to produce fiber, grain, biomass, or non-intoxicating medicinal compounds, such as cannabidiol (CBD). As defined by law, industrial hemp has less than 0.3% THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive component in marijuana.
Industrial hemp enthusiasts commonly claim that more than 25,000 uses exist for the crop. Certainly, a multitude of products can be derived from industrial hemp, such as fiber, grain, seed, oil, straw, and plant tissue (non-seed) oil extracts (cannabinoids).
The processed stems yield longer, higher-quality fibers called “basts,” and shorter, woody, lower quality fibers called “hurds” or “shivs.” Bast fiber can be used to make end products such as fabric and rope, while hurd is used for animal bedding, compost, and other lower value products.
Seed can be resold for crop planting, hulled for food, or crushed for oil and oil derivatives and for cake (the meal left after removing the oil) byproducts. In the European Union in 2013, 56% of hemp seed was used for food and 44% for animal feed.
The Hemp Industries Association (2019) reported total U.S. retail sales of hemp products (fiber and grain) at nearly $700 million in 2016, with the market expected to grow at a rate of 10% to 20%. U.S. hemp imports have increased to meet this demand, reaching $67.3 million in 2017 with about 90% of the imports supplied by Canada.
The market for CBD, which is concentrated in the glandular trichomes (specialized hairs) of flowers and leaves in industrial hemp, is expected to grow. However, the lack of extensive clinical trials related to CBD’s use in the treatment of various illnesses and conditions, and the probable regulation of CBD as a pharmaceutical product by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, make estimates on market growth speculative at best.
The MSU Extension bulletin also suggests growers look at the development of hemp markets in other countries when considering the crop’s economic feasibility, citing hemp acreage in Canada. Legal since 1998, industrial hemp production varied greatly during the crop’s early years.
“At first, farmers may not have known whether the crop was suitable for their farming operations. Then, after many had decided to give hemp a try and acreage jumped substantially, a commercial buyer collapsed and left many farmers with seed and fiber they couldn’t sell,” according to the bulletin’s authors.
In addition, a boom-season harvest and resulting price drop meant many growers lost money on industrial hemp.
“These troubles might have been avoidable if a strong marketing board had existed to help bridle the early competitive forces and market instabilities, and to dampen the price fluctuations. Without a marketing board (or a similar limiting mechanism) in the U.S., the amount of hype surrounding the crop could initially spur comparable overproduction and market troubles.”
In addition to learning more about the agronomic nuances of industrial hemp, which isn’t currently labeled for applications of any herbicides or insecticides, it will be crucial that growers sign contracts with reputable buyers of industrial hemp products before planting a hemp crop.