Hemp's Fiber Ceiling Shatters

July 23, 2016 02:03 AM

Is a reintroduction in the cards for this contentious crop?

Ryan Loflin bet the farm in 2013 and did what no U.S. producer had done for 70 years.

The Springfield, Colo., farmer ordered hemp seed by mail from Europe and stockpiled his supply bit by precious bit. When the cache climbed to 1,500 lb., Loflin dotted 60 acres of flat ground with hemp seed. Then he waited for Uncle Sam to come knocking.

No cease and desist letter. No phone call from the feds. No Drug Enforcement Agency raid. Loflin became the first U.S. farmer since the 1940s to plant and harvest industrial hemp. 

Particularly in an ag economy with low commodity prices, hemp is beckoning U.S. farmers. Federal prohibition remains in place, but some states are moving forward with legalization. 

Despite a storied history until 1937 (hemp briefly returned to U.S. fields during World War II), industrial hemp production was banned due to marijuana association. Both are in the Cannabis sativa family, yet hemp is marijuana’s non-intoxicating cousin—distinct in chemical and genetic makeup.

Hemp and hypocrisy are tight bedfellows of U.S. policy: Process, buy, manufacture, even eat hemp products but don’t dare to grow. More than 30 countries benefit from the U.S.’s position as the world’s top consumer of hemp goods. Yet, U.S. farmers watch from the sidelines as the hemp void is filled by Canada, China and Europe.

As a child of the 1980s, Loflin had a bitter taste from a decade of dire farm economics. He left farming for construction, but he began researching hemp after reading about big returns for Canadian producers. “We made $40 per acre off wheat, but I saw Canadian farmers pulling in $300 per acre from hemp, and it blew me away,” he says. “I learned all I could.”

Loflin was pulled back to the farm by hemp’s potential and went straight to work on the state and federal level as a hemp farming advocate. Colorado legalized recreational marijuana use by passing Amendment 64 in 2013, and although cultivation of industrial hemp was included in the last line of the bill, regulatory rules were absent. In essence, hemp farming was almost legal in Colorado but still illegal at a federal level. Regardless, the door was opened wide enough for Loflin.

From his initial 60 acres, he kept the seed for stock and sold some of the cannabinoids for medicine. He believes the pharmaceutical market will become a major income generator for hemp production. In 2016, Loflin ramped up to 520 acres: 120 for seed and 400 for medicine. He hopes for 600 lb. to 1,000 lb. of seed per acre, contingent on cultivar. 

“Farmers are very curious and want to know the returns from hemp. There’s good money in seed. You can pull $300 per acre right now at a minimum, but the potential is there for $1,800 per acre and even higher,” he says.

From the hemp base to the tip of the leaves, all of the plant has harvest purposes due to its fibrous nature. The seeds can be eaten or pressed for oil extraction. The stalk fiber is used in paper, textiles, clothing, construction and health products. Even the root can be processed into a lotion ingredient. In addition, hemp is an excellent phytoremediation crop—helping clean polluted soils. 

“Hemp makes a great rotational crop and may be a great fit between corn and wheat,” he adds. “It also grows tremendously well behind alfalfa from all the nitrogen in the soil.”

Twenty-nine states have passed legislation allowing hemp cultivation for research or pilot programs. However, political wheels invariably turn slowly, and hemp lacks a federal green light. Eric Steenstra, executive director of the Hemp Industries Association, believes once hemp receives the full legal nod, it will emerge as a niche crop and mature into a major earner for producers. 

 In 2013, Ryan Loflin, Springfield, Colo.,  became the first U.S. farmer since the  1940s to plant and harvest industrial  hemp.

“The hemp seed industry already has momentum. The food and body care markets have grown to several hundred million dollars, entirely based on imports,” Steenstra says. “Manufacturing potential will jump when growers can supply domestic hemp and bypass imports. Add the fiber component and the potential leaps to millions of acres in just 20 years.”

Producers consistently ask Steenstra why hemp cultivation is still illegal in so many states. “It makes no sense to farmers and I tell them to call or send emails to their senators and reps. Online, they can go to www.votehemp.com and get involved,” he says. 

In the majority of states with legalized hemp production, farmers order seed through state departments of agriculture. State officials purchase, import and sell the seed to farmers, says Zev Paiss, executive director of the National Hemp Association.

Most varieties are under license and typically can’t be saved for replanting. “We have a petition urging congressional action at www.hemp4everyone.org to pass the Industrial Funding Act, which will put hemp in the same category as any other commodity,” Paiss says. “That will give farmers unrestricted access to hemp seed.”

Hemp potential covers the entire corn and soybean region. As a summer annual, it fits well with corn-soybean rotations for hemp purposes, or with corn-soy-wheat as a grain crop, says David Williams, professor of agronomy, University of Kentucky. 

 Farmers in states moving forward with  hemp legalization can purchase seed  from their state departments of  agriculture.

Producers choose hemp for one of three purposes: seed, fiber or medicine. With fiber, hemp should bring a minimum yield of 6,000 lb. per acre, but Williams shoots for 5 tons per acre. He says 5 tons per acre of hemp fiber yield will definitely compete with corn and soybean profits. 

“Hemp is a great rotation alternative, and a producer won’t lose money. For seed and fiber, it’s always going to be competitive with other crops,” he says.

Hemp produces cannabinoid molecules (nicotine from tobacco; cannabinoids from hemp), with potential for pharmaceutical or nutraceutical applications. The economics of fiber and seed are relatively firm with established industries in Europe and Canada. On the flip side, the economics of cannabinoids are poorly understood, Williams says. “Regulation is under evaluation by the federal government. Lots of companies want to market cannabinoids, but that potential market is hanging,” he says.

In addition to hemp, Loflin farms alfalfa, triticale and grain sorghum. He calls hemp an “open-door” crop, with multiple avenues of opportunity. “It’s a complete economic and agronomic hand-in-hand crop,” he says. “When farmers have a place to go with their hemp, it’s going to make a difference. It sounds cliché, but it’s the perfect agriculture time for hemp to arrive.

“Hemp is a solution to many long-term problems we face in farming’s future,” he adds. “With time, hemp will be a driving force in agribusiness.”

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