The 2018 Farm Bill gave hemp the comeback it deserved. The new bill established federal regulation of hemp and legalized it nationally for commercial cultivation, removing hemp and hemp seeds from the DEA schedule of Controlled Substances where it had been listed alongside marijuana. The bill made hemp eligible for crop insurance and allowed for hemp to be moved across state lines. In short, it opened up the opportunity for hemp to be the strong agricultural product it was centuries ago.
This promising new bill has made hemp especially interesting to existing farmers and to those looking to get into cannabis or agricultural farming. It’s a brand new industry with almost limitless possibilities for the future, yet also one that has lots of history and stories of both success and failure. One thing is for sure, hemp is on the tip of everyone’s tongues and it’s quickly finding its place in the world of American agriculture.
A Brief History of Hemp
For centuries hemp was successfully harvested for its fiber, seeds, and flowers. Hailed as a plant with endless possibilities, hemp fiber can produce textiles, rope, clothes, paper, plastic composites, building construction materials, animal bedding, food, drinks, and agricultural supplies.
Hemp seeds can produce a number of items, including food, edible oil, personal care products, and industrial fluids. Hemp seed is often used for essential oils, pesticides, livestock feed, bird seed, and amazingly as fuel for cars and for bioremediation of soil containing heavy metals.
Hemp is one of earliest plants to be cultivated in the world and was a popular crop in early American history. Seeds arrived with the Puritans for the purpose of planting to cultivate strong hemp crops to use as they built up their settlements and repaired ships. Shortly thereafter, the British colonies in America were legally required to grow hemp as it was found to be particularly useful in maritime endeavours, largely because of its natural decay resistance and how easily it adapts to cultivation.
Even after the American Revolution, hemp continued to be an important part of daily life. Farmers felt it was their patriotic duty to grow hemp and were even allowed to pay their taxes with it. George Washington advocated for hemp and praised its usefulness in making rope and fabric, and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp and eventually improved on hemp varieties.
Hemp was a flourishing crop in America, however between the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 and the popularity of synthetic fibers in the following years, hemp saw a dramatic decrease in popularity and the industry soon found itself in decline. In 1970 the Controlled Substances Act essentially ended the hemp industry in the United States by banning cannabis of any kind, including hemp.
Growing hemp is not as easy as following a list of instructions, unfortunately. Every grower uses a different method, often based on what type of function they need the hemp to perform and how well the plant grows in their local climate. Some farmers grow for hemp fibre, while some grow for CBD. The key is first determining what the end goal of the hemp plant will be.
Which month the farmer chooses to plant will very much depend on the climate of their farm and the local weather patterns, but overall most planting happens at the end of May or the beginning of June. Hemp is usually planted into rows on flat ground, with somewhere between 1,500-4,000 plants per acre.
After the plants are in the ground, the farmer must ensure that the hemp has adequate water reaching its roots. This is where it can get tricky. Hemp prefers hot and sunny weather, so it doesn’t like its roots to stay moist. This means a drip irrigation system like what is used for crops such as corn or beans just won’t work well for hemp. Instead, the soil must be allowed to become completely depleted of moisture before more is added. Using this process will help keep the plant healthy and pests and disease away.
Once hemp starts growing, options for treating the plant are extremely limited. Hemp growers don’t use herbicides, insecticides, or fungicides on their plants, so tending the plants is all done naturally or by hand. Even weeding must be done by hand. The key for growers is to do their best to avoid any issues beforehand, because once a problem presents itself there is very little chance of doing anything but just sitting back and waiting to see what happens.
The first 60 days of the grow cycle are impressive for hemp plants. They can grow as tall as 6’ and as wide as 5’ in a short amount of time. Soon after, the plants will reach sexual maturity and farmers growing for CBD must once again be alert to what is happening in their crop and ready to remove any male plants before they pollinate the area. CBD production comes only from the flower and biomass of female plants, so even one male plant in the field can trigger seed production in the females and decrease the number of flowers it produces and the overall concentration of CBD.
After just 100-120 days, the plants are ready to harvest. Because hemp is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and cannot legally contain more than 0.3% THC, the USDA must see test results from the growers that proves the THC in their plants falls below those levels before they are allowed to harvest. Once that test clears the regulatory process, the growers are free to move forward and harvest their crop.
Harvesting takes time and patience. Since this industry is new, there are little to no standards for the harvesting process. Harvesting time on a farm with hundreds of acres can take anywhere from 5-7 weeks and is done in a way that is often planned as the crop is being pulled.
As time progresses and the industry grows, as will the standards for harvesting. Being a brand new industry, the logistics are still being figured out, but with so many bright entrepreneurs in the game it won’t take long for the industry to find its process.
As the crops are cut from the field, they are brought down in wagons or trailers and hauled indoors for drying. Dying is another area where the process will vary greatly from grower to grower. Some choose to grow on a warehouse floor, or in tobacco barns or sheds. Some use dehumidifiers, fans, or mechanical dryers. The choices are many and overall up to the growers and the climate they live in and facilities they have available.
As long as weather cooperates, plants can be done drying in about two weeks. After they are fully dried, they are stripped of all green material and put through a hammer mill, which is a machine used to crush material into smaller pieces using the repeated blow of small hammers inside the machine. From there, the materials can be used for the CBD extraction process.
Hemp is a young industry with a turbulent past. While the future looks incredibly bright for it, it is still in its beginning stages and anyone joining the industry now can expect some ups and downs while it gets established. For instance, hemp grown for CBD is a young crop and prices for the plant can and do change by the month, and sometimes by the week. Eventually this may level out, but while the industry finds its feet hemp growers can expect a lot of unknown.
The best way to mitigate risk is to start small. Instead of buying up hundreds of acres of farmland to cultivate hemp, just start with a few acres. Use that as a starting point to get an idea of how the process works, how it would be able to scale, and what kind of profit to expect. It’s also a great opportunity to find a processor who is reliable, knowledgeable, and timely in their work. This is often an aspect of the process that growers overlook, but one that can make or break their business.
While the risks are many, the rewards can be equal. Not only is the industry blooming, it’s also a product that is doing actual good for the people and the environment.