In the 2018 Farm Bill, one of the major changes was allowing the production of industrial hemp. The number of uses for the crop numbers in the thousands and early estimates say the market could be worth up to $10 billion by the year 2025.
During the snowy days of winter, Grand Forks, North Dakota farmer Chris Adams has plenty of time to reflect on last year's harvest that included not just corn or soybeans but hemp.
"My my theory was, if you're in on the ground floor of something new then you have quite the advantage," says Adams.
He now has hemp in bins and plants stacked in barns waiting on a trip to a processor.
"I would be lying if I said money had nothing to do with it because the financial part of it is huge," says Adams.
Adams, like many in agriculture, is looking at continuing to add hemp acres as a path to better profits.
Michael Bowman, with the North American Industrial Hemp Council, believes American farmers are poised to capitalize on this burgeoning market.
"I think if there's anything that agriculture is good at, we're good at innovating, creating and executing," says Bowman
And while acreage isn't huge it has the potential to grow.
Tyler Mark is an Assistant Professor at the University of Kentucky with the Ag Economics Department.
"I hear [nationwide] numbers are anywhere from 77,000 acres to 100,000 acres could very well be possible," says Mark.
He says the state of Kentucky is expecting 25,000 to 30,000 acres of hemp this growing season since the removal of industrial hemp from the schedule 1 narcotics list.
"It's going to really open the door for hemp to see if it's actually going to play a role in the U.S. economy and the US farm sector," says Mark. "It puts another tool in the tool belt, so to speak, for producers around the country."
Currently, there are three paths of possibility for farmers considering planting hemp.
1: Grow the plants for fiber. Farmers are paid on tonnage.
"Plant 50 pounds per acre you get 175 to 200 plants per square meter, and then grow that for fiber," says Bowman. "You're going to drill it in, you're going to air seed it, then you're going to harvest it with a dual head combine and equipment that's available today that the world uses."
2: Grow Hemp Seed to used as a food grain.
For grain growers, existing equipment will likely get you started but there may other issues like storage to think about.
"It's probably going into the food system," says Mark. "So you have to think about how you rotate this crop through the bin to keep mold issues and issues inside the bin down."
As far as profit potential goes Bowman says it depends on how much of the plant farmers want to harvest.
"They're seeing returns in the $300 an acre range but keep in mind that's only being able to capture the value of just the seed," says Bowman. "The value of the stalk and the hurd and if there are investments made to take those products and do something with them then [returns] are estimated to be in the in the $3,000 to $5,000 range."
That doesn't compare to option 3: Growing hemp plants for oil.
The Cannabidiol Oil, also known as CBD, is credited with helping treat a host of medical problems from epileptic seizures to anxiety to inflammation. It's extracted from the flowers and buds of hemp plants.
"CBD production is going to be a female plant that is planted individually," says Bowman. "It looks like a small Christmas tree farm if you are driving by."
The work is labor intensive often requiring hand harvesting and weeding but the profit potential is high.
"So there you're probably looking at somewhere between $10,000 to $15,000 of per acre return," says Mark.
"The seed production is kind of a break-even deal right now the CBD production, assuming everything goes well, is quite a bit more lucrative," says Adams.
Adams is trying his hand at a small plot of CBD production this year. Last year he ran into problems including having plants with the greater than .3 percent THC, the psychoactive compound found marijuana, which meant the crop couldn't be sold. He blames a bad batch of seed.
" I would just remind everybody that the 0.3 THC is a global standard and it's one that didn't have any science behind it," says Bowman. "It was a political move back in the 1930s when Western Europe was wrangling Eastern Europe for who got to own the seed production."
Bowman thinks as research improves, the industry will see more discussion on where those standards will go.
As with any new industry, experts expect challenges to growth. The largest seeming to be infrastructure or having a place to take that crop once it's grown.
"There's a lot of interest from the private sector right now and with the descheduling of hemp we now have opened the door to USDA funding for value-added grants and infrastructure grants," says Bowman. "Those are things that any other crop has enjoyed."
Experts recommend having a contract before planting and as acreage increases supply, demand will need to go with it.
"One of my biggest fears is are we going to overproduce so fast that we completely swamp the demand for these products and drop prices down to really low levels," worries Mark.
But for farmers like Chris Adams, hemp holds potential and for now, that's enough.
"If the market maintains the dollars that it's showing right now I can see more people jumping into it just because nothing else is really making any money," says Adams.
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