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Searching for the Green in Hemp

Four years after the 2018 Farm Bill, the U.S. hemp industry is still working out the kinks.

Since first applying for a permit to grow hemp in August 2016—the Agricultural Act of 2014 allowed the cultivation of agricultural hemp on an experimental basis—Gary Sikes has personally experienced many of the myriad ways a hemp crop can veer off course.

In 2018, the North Carolina farmer couldn’t find a processor to take the “little bit” of crop he managed to salvage following the “double whammy” of Hurricanes Florence and Michael. Another year, the crop flowered at knee height—since hemp plants flower according to the daylight they receive, seeds taken from northern latitudes will stop growing earlier than further south. A different variation, meanwhile, grew to more than 16 feet. “Beautiful plants if that’s what you’re looking for,” Sikes said, but not ideal for textile use.

Sikes was one of more than a dozen hemp experts on hand to discuss the hopes and challenges of the United States’ nascent hemp industry at North Carolina State University’s Evolving Textiles Conference this spring.

Finding the right strain

Like Sikes, David Suchoff, an alternative crops extension specialist and assistant professor in NC State’s department of crop and soil sciences, has spent years trying to figure out how to best grow hemp in the Southeast.

“Probably one of the largest limitations,” he said, is a lack of regionally appropriate varieties. A daylight sensitive crop, hemp will continue to grow so long as it receives a certain amount of light.  Once it drops below that threshold, its stem—the part of the plant relevant to textile fiber—stops growing and it shifts into its reproductive phase and flowers. For farmers in the Southeast using hemp strains adapted to northern latitudes, this means the crop will flower early, at a less-than-ideal height.

Both Suchoff and Larry Smart, a professor with Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, highlighted Chinese hemp varieties for their ability to grow late into the season. In New York, Smart noted, they can continue growing until they’re killed by frost, with some yielding 17 to 20 metric tons per hectare. “That’s probably what we need for this industry to be profitable,” Smart said.

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The two professors identified a same central problem with these Chinese strains: they tend to “go hot.” Though the 2018 Farm Bill technically legalized hemp production, it set a stringent limit on how much THC any crop can contain. The exact consequences for surpassing the federal THC concentration limit—0.3 percent—vary from state to state. North Carolina, for example, has not adopted its own rules and so operates under those set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Sikes said.

“They’re very lenient for fiber in that we can actually just remove [the flower and] leave that in the field,” he added. “So, we can harvest the fiber part of it and leave that flower in the field.”

If a crop surpasses 1 percent THC concentration, however, the farmer can receive a negligence violation, Suchoff warned. Should they receive three violations in a five-year period, the farmer could lose their license to grow for the next five years.

Researchers like Smart are currently working on ways to weed out seeds that are more likely to produce too much THC. One of his students, he said, has even developed a means of screening hemp seedlings to see which ones are likely to only produce CBD and not THC. Using this technique, Smart said his team, with the help of International Hemp, has been working to scale up the seed of these low-THC plants for commercialization.

Suchoff noted another problem he has observed with the Chinese strains. “Many,” he said, did not have good germination rates, including some as low as 40 or 50 percent. “If you’re buying a pound of seed, half that seed isn’t going to germ, which is unacceptable,” Suchoff said. For most crops, he noted, germination rates are “anywhere from mid- to upper 80s to the 90s.”

Overcoming logistical farming challenges

Farming a crop that has been out of rotation for decades brings with it its own difficulties.

Take herbicides for example. In the Southeast, where the warm and wet growing season translates to “very aggressive” weed growth, the lack of label herbicides for hemp exacerbates the matter, Suchoff said. On top of that, he added, the narrow spacing between rows—“about seven and a half inches”—means the farmer can’t come in with equipment to suppress weeds as they sprout. “It doesn’t take long for weeds to either reduce yields in our crops or render yields completely unharvestable,” Suchoff noted.

“Really all they can do is select fields that have a low weed seed bank, but that’s very challenging to find, or they can hope that they get good canopy closure and good growth from their crop,” he said. “Now, we can absolutely get good canopy closure from fiber hemp and kind of shade out the weeds, but we need a lot of help early on in those first few weeks in the season, when there’s still a lot of bare ground… where weeds can start to pop up.”

Another aspect of weed prevention, crop rotation, presents added complications. Farmers have relied on rotation plans that have long excluded hemp. Those who are interested in growing the crop will now need to determine where exactly hemp might fit in.

“Researchers and farmers have developed crop rotation plans for three, five, 10 years,” Suchoff said. “We do this for a number of reasons. Oftentimes, we want to avoid issues such as buildup of pathogens or diseases in fields that have many susceptible crops. We also want to ensure that we are kind of buffering ourselves from downturns in markets for specific crops or if there are crop failures. The last thing we want is to see is a farmer growing hemp after hemp after hemp.”

Finding the right machines to harvest hemp poses its own challenge. “We need better harvesting equipment, especially for textiles,” Sikes said.  The farmer noted that such machines are in development in Europe and other countries currently. “I’m looking forward to getting my hands on that and… being able to better manage the harvest,” he added.

Sikes also highlighted the need to make hemp price competitive with commodity crops. “We have got to make this attractive for the farmer because if he doesn’t grow it, there is no industry,” he said.

“Prices now are prices we’ve never seen before for the farmer and why is he going to grow a new crop and take that risk, when he can plant corn and soybeans and make more money than he’s ever made?” Sikes asked. “So that is going to be a difficult hurdle to overcome.”

Building the infrastructure

Even if hemp farmers can find the right strain and grow the perfect crop, they will then face the challenge of finding a processor close enough that they won’t lose all their profit on transportation.

“More processing infrastructure has got to take place,” Sikes said. “And that is dependent upon industry funding…. We’re starting to see that come through…. I think we have a good opportunity with hemp to recognize that it’s got to be grown close to where it’s going to be processed. It’s not going to be something we grow here and ship somewhere out in the Midwest or around the country. That’s not feasible. So, hopefully that relationship will lead to share profits from the end of the supply chain back to the farmer.”

Suchoff also called for building out hemp processing infrastructure, noting that North Carolina has just “a few” decorticators and degumming facilities. “We need more,” he said.

“We need this system to be a lot more regional in the sense that we need to be able to have processors in terms of decorticators and degumming facilities nearby, so that farmers aren’t having to haul their raw stem material halfway across the state,” he added. “In having to do that, they’re going to quickly eat away at any profit associated with that crop just through the trucking and gas fees.”

Suchoff acknowledged that building out the infrastructure for hemp farming can be a “chicken-and-egg issue,” where farmers on one side and processors and manufacturers on the other are both hesitant to set up shop absent the other. Ultimately, however, he said he tends to think processors, manufacturers and “end users” will have to “step forward” and invest.

“We can’t expect a farmer to grow a crop if they don’t know where they can process it and absolutely if they don’t know that they can profit from it.” — David Suchoff. North Carolina State

“I can guarantee you that if a processor is nearby, and there’s profit to be made, farmers will grow the crop,” Suchoff said “But we can’t expect a farmer to grow a crop if they don’t know where they can process it and absolutely if they don’t know that they can profit from it.”