Reintroduction of hemp nears for U.S. farmers
History often holds tight to mistakes. In the case of hemp cultivation, that grip has remained firm with time and become wrapped in a tangle. Industrial hemp farming has essentially been illegal in the U.S. for the past 78 years, yet the country is currently the world’s largest consumer market for hemp products.
Agriculture is getting ready for a lesson straight from the fields of yesteryear—the reintroduction of hemp to U.S. farmland. The 2014 farm bill gave states a green light for hemp cultivation related to research and development.
Despite a storied history in the U.S. until 1937 (hemp farming briefly returned during World War II), industrial hemp production was banned partly due to an association with marijuana. Although both are part of the Cannabis sativa family, hemp is marijuana’s non-intoxicating cousin; it’s different in chemical and genetic make-up.
More than 30 countries grow industrial hemp as a commodity; the U.S. is the only major industrialized nation that bans hemp cultivation. Globally, China is the top hemp producer, and the majority of its production goes into textiles.
When industrial hemp is allowed back on U.S. farms, farmers will be playing a game of catch-up in knowledge and infrastructure compared with the rest of the world. But industrial hemp advocates believe the deficiencies mask economic opportunities.
From the base of hemp to the tip of the leaves, all of the plant is usable because of its fibrous nature. The seeds can be eaten or pressed for oil extraction. The stalk is used for paper, textiles, clothing, construction and health products.
The U.S. is ripe for domestic hemp production, says Nate Taylor, consultant and marketing lead, Memes Associates. The economics are already in place with huge momentum on the organic front and consumer demand from a sustainability perspective.
“We have huge issues facing our major cash crops with water shortages and steady rises in energy costs,” Taylor says. “Hemp production, if we start moving down the right path, could really make a tremendous impact on U.S. agriculture in the next five to 10 years. Consider the savings in energy, water and input costs and the decrease in carbon footprint hemp brings. If Americans can divorce industrial hemp from its cousin marijuana, then the economics rule, and the free market takes over.”
Hemp is a summer season crop, grown over a 120-day range. Planting doesn’t require specialized equipment and can be done by drilling or broadcasting.
“If you’re planting canola or wheat, then you can easily plant industrial hemp, treating it as just another grain crop,” notes Anndrea Hermann, Hemp Industries Association president. “Hemp seed should be planted at a 1" depth with good seed-to-soil contact.”
For many farmers, hemp’s biggest pull might be low input costs. Compared with most other crops, hemp uses significantly less fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and water. “For fertilizer, it should get 100 lb. of nitrogen per acre in the same manner as high-yielding wheat,” Hermann says. “There are no registered pesticides for hemp production. It is susceptible to European corn borer, but that pest can be controlled with proper rotation.”
Hemp springs up quickly, forming a shade canopy in just four weeks that chokes weed growth and eliminates the need for herbicides. But hemp’s strong resistance to pests, disease and weeds might take a backseat to its drought-tolerance. It features a long taproot and copes well on dryland.
“Cotton yields 500 lb. of lint per acre give-or-take, but for hemp, it’s 1,300 lb.of base fiber per acre. Based on yield alone, you can create 200 pairs of jeans on an acre-basis for cotton compared with 540 pairs of jeans on an acre-basis with hemp,” Taylor says. “The water requirement on cotton for one pair of jeans is about 1,800 liters compared with 400 liters on hemp. Arguably hemp is not as comfortable as cotton, but look how much work the agriculture industry has done on hybridization of cotton. I see hemp and cotton as mixing and matching.”
Industrial hemp already has some sway with other industries. The timber industry is keeping a close watch on legislation because hemp can be made into paper and construction materials.
“Hemp has the potential not only to compete with those industries but even replace them in some aspects,” says Lauren Stansbury, public affairs and media relations associate, Hemp Industries Association.
The textile industry and health food stores get the lion’s share of attention regarding hemp potential, but a number of car manufacturers in Europe, including BMW, are using hemp plastic for interior paneling due to environmental concerns and its lighter weight.
“America’s automotive industry is showing interest in this same hemp biocomposite technology,” Stansbury explains, “but it’s too expensive to import the bulk hemp fiber.”
The same import and cost problem applies to housing materials. There is a booming green housing movement with an increasing demand for sustainable, energy-efficient homes, but builders who want to use hemp materials have to contend with import fees.
While hemp does have major advantages in water use and chemical tonnage, it lacks infrastructure and offers no opportunity for immediate turnover. Taylor believes the framework for hemp success is already in place, however, and sees the absence of infrastructure as a clean slate and the chance for local economies to plug into a coming hemp boom.