For many years it has had
something of a stigma attached to it due to both hemp and marijuana
being part of the cannabis family. However, one significant
difference is the level of the compound commonly known as THC, which
causes the ‘high’ marijuana in known for. For marijuana, THC levels
are above 0.3 percent. For hemp, the levels are below 0.3 percent.
As hemp has begun to gain more acceptance, University of Illinois
Unit Based Commercial Agriculture Educator Phillip Alberti says
Illinois farmers have shown quite a bit of interest in growing hemp.
The state has had over 900 applications for hemp and 300
applications for processors.
The history of hemp production
The production may be taking off quickly now, but hemp has been
around for centuries.
A timeline of hemp’s history shows it has been around since at least
8,000 BC with recent discoveries in China and Taiwan showing hemp
was used in “pottery and food.”
History also reveals that in the 1700s, “American farmers in several
colonies were required by law to grow hemp,” which can be used in
Over the years, though, views on hemp changed and in 1937, “the
Marijuana Tax Act placed a tax on all cannabis sales (including
hemp), heavily discouraging the production of hemp.”
By 1970, hemp was classified by the “Controlled Substances Act” as
an “illegal schedule I drug, which imposed strict regulations on the
cultivation of industrial hemp.”
A farm bill signed by Obama in 2014 allowed states to start hemp
farming for research purposes, but it was not until December 2018
when the Hemp Farming Act Bill passed that hemp was removed from the
Controlled Substances Act.
Alberti says even with the passing of the bill, hemp is in something
of a “limbo” as states allow it, but it is still illegal federally.
Therefore, there are many unknowns, which can make growing hemp a
Uses and versatility of industrial hemp
Though there are unknowns, Alberti says growing hemp may be a good
alternative at a time when corn and soybean prices are somewhat
dismal, but he advises caution before making the plunge into the
Grain, seed and fibers are three of the hemp crops being produced.
Hemp is an extremely versatile crop. In fact, according to the
history of hemp, a 1938 Popular Mechanics article said hemp could be
used in over 25,000 products.
For example, hemp may be used in housing construction, protein and
oils, rope, carpet, clothing, biodiesel and biofuel among others.
Hemp can also be used as a food product. One example is hemp seed,
which is comparable to flax seed. Several sources say hemp seed is
nutritious, easy to digest, has Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, can
help with immune system deficiency and is a great protein source.
Hemp fibers have long been used in shirts, jeans, socks, shoes,
coats and several accessories, and can be found in beauty and skin
products such as lotion, lip balm and body wash.
One of the more well-known uses of hemp today is for CBD oil, which
is sold in many stores as a topical pain reliever.
With the uses and versatility of hemp, there is a need for more hemp
production, but there are some hoops for farmers to jump through.
Christopher Enroth, Horticulture Educator for the University of
Illinois Extension says the Illinois Department of Agriculture
requires all hemp farmers to be permitted to grow this crop and the
permit specifies a minimum of 500 square feet for growing hemp.
When starting out growing hemp, it is better to start small with no
more than an acre or two. Hemptech laboratories says, “If you have
100 acres that’s great but there is a massive amount of preparation,
work and understanding that must be done in order to be able to
produce on such a massive scale.”
There are benefits to growing hemp though. The Agricultural
Marketing Resource Center states, “Industrial hemp may be an
excellent rotation crop for traditional crops, because it suppresses
weeds and decreases outbreaks of insect and disease problems. Hemp
may also rebuild and condition soils by replacing organic matter and
providing aeration through its extensive root system.”
Soil content is important for
growing hemp. According to the Modern Farmer article “So You Want to
be a Hemp Farmer,” the best growing conditions for hemp are in
“well-drained soils that are high in organic matter.” Once
established, “hemp plants are very drought tolerant” though
“seedlings require irrigation for the first six weeks whenever the
soil is dry.
Enroth says this year some
farmers planted on marginal, low-yielding land, and the crop did not
thrive. He says in terms of varieties that do well in Illinois,
there has not been a variety trial for hemp since it was deemed
illegal in the early 1900s, but research is ongoing to develop this
body of knowledge once again.
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Before you decide to grow hemp, there are certain considerations
such as costs, space needed, storage, processing, equipment and
Alberti says if you plant 1,000-2,000 plants per acre at $1 to $2
per seed, just the seed input costs may be between $1,000 and $4,000
Hemp plants are “typically planted between three and five feet away
from one another,” since, as Alberti says, “they are like little
Storage is more complicated than it is with corn or beans. Alberti
says you cannot just take it to an elevator, so you need to consider
whether you have room to store the hemp and a place to dry it.
Additionally, with the Illinois Department of Agriculture opening
applications for hemp late spring 2019, Alberti says many did not
have time to look for processors. Hemp farmers in Wisconsin are also
facing this challenge and some still have their hemp in storage as
they attempt to find processors.
Hemp cultivation is another challenge. Though hemp can be cultivated
with regular farm equipment, special machinery is needed for
processing the hemp stalks. This machinery is rarely found in the
United States other than places like Colorado, but Modern Farmer
says, “To avoid making costly new equipment purchases, growers may
be able to contract with companies who accept the raw plant material
and do processing at a regional level.”
For those who decide to grow hemp, financing may present an
additional challenge because banks are not quite sure how to handle
it. According to the American Banking Association, “There has been
little to no clear direction on distinguishing legal hemp and
federally illegal marijuana, leaving banks uncertain about the
legality of working with hemp and CBD businesses.”
In a letter from the American Banking Association, the association
said, “Banks want to serve their communities and support their local
economies, but need clear, unequivocal assurance from their
regulators that hemp is distinguishable from cannabis, and that
serving the industry will not expose them to criminal and civil
liability, or regulatory censure.”
The legal uncertainty causes a problem, especially for the Federal
Deposit Insurance Corporation that oversees banks. Alberti says the
FDIC cannot give loans, but community banks can.
An additional challenge is hemp transportation. One article on the
legal status of hemp says, “Hemp transportation has come to be a hot
subject as the clash in between federal and state laws build
confusion.” With the confusion and unknowns, they say, “A lot more
discussion is necessary in between the two sides to clarify how
industrial hemp can be transported in between states.”
Combined with all these challenges, at this point, there is not a
lot of infrastructure, so Alberti says people are trying to develop
the supply chain, or network, for hemp.
With the uses and versatility of hemp, it is an alternative crop
with great potential. In a recent Forbes article David Carpenter
says, “Hemp has proven to be a superior choice over other
traditional crops.” Kentucky farmer Brent Cornett, has started
planting hemp where he previously grew tobacco and says, “There’s
been plenty of challenges with a new crop, but as of today, a
mediocre hemp crop is yielding a better return than an excellent
tobacco crop.” The future of hemp looks promising.
Industrial hemp - Agricultural Marketing Resource Center
So you want to be a hemp farmer - Brian Barth, July 9, 2018
Legal hemp in 2019 may be a boon for stressed out American farmers
David Carpenter, Forbes, Dec. 20, 2018
Read all the articles in our
Fall Farm Outlook Magazine