Alternative crop for farmers

Donald Chafin - Guest columnist

The new buzz in farming — growing hemp — has gone mainstream.

Farm Journal, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, and University of Kentucky recently convened Hemp College in Lexington., where 500 curious and interested people from Florida to Colorado, and Texas to New York were attracted to the event.

The focus on industrial hemp in Kentucky is to find an alternative farm crop to replace tobacco.

Tobacco sales have declined from $1 billion to $300 million. Small farmers have lost a major portion of their income source.

Hemp is seen as a suitable, intensive, high value, small acreage, high labor alternative crop. In 2014 Kentuckians cultivated 13 acres of licensed hemp production; in 2019 approved legal cultivation will reach 70,000 acres. Sales should approach $100 million.

The opening theme of the conference was “Think Rope, Not Dope”. Their analogy stated that “corn ain’t corn, corn ain’t corn, corn ain’t corn”.

Although botanically corn is zea maize, the corn family includes popcorn, sweet corn, and pig and cow corn. Cannabis sativa is more than marijuana. The family includes industrial hemp, medical cannabis, and recreational marijuana.

Industrial hemp has three major uses — grain, fiber, and CBD oil products, along with other minor uses.

Shelled hemp grains are currently on the shelves at Walmart and Kroger along with quinoa and flaxseed as snack food.

CDB oils, salves, and capsules are available at health food stores. Hemp rope and cloth is available from fiber manufacturers and Lowe’s.

Most of the products are imported from Canada and Europe. It has been illegal to grow and possess cannabis in the U.S.

The Controlled Substance Act of 1970 made the possession and use of cannabis illegal. Industrial hemp was therefore illegal also.

However, the agricultural Farm Bill of 2018 included a provision that removed industrial hemp from the list of banned substances. With this change, hemp production was seen as a legally viable alternative agricultural crop.

The Farm Bill continued to maintain hemp production unlawful if produced without a USDA or State Department of Agriculture license. To date most states have approved strict licensing, regulation, and control procedures to guide farmer producers.

There is a firm distinction between industrial hemp and marijuana. Hemp can contain a maximum level of three-tenths of one percent (.003, or .3%) of THC, tetrahrocannabinol, the intoxicating compound of cannabis.

By comparison, medical cannabis products typically contain 5-7% THC and recreational marijuana 20-35% THC. At the low THC level, industrial hemp products can supply the flavonoids and naturally beneficial characteristics of the plant without creating the intoxication.

Kentucky has become a leading state for implementing licensing and inspection of industrial hemp as an agricultural crop.

Over the past five years, the Department of Agriculture developed policies and procedures for growers, processors, and handlers. The Ohio Legislature is in the process of considering legislation to authorize a program.

The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture has initiated research on growing, tending, harvesting, processing and marketing of hemp.

Production can be similar to other commodity crops. Seed can be planted with conventional drills, fiber can be harvested with forage harvesters, and grains harvested with combines.

There are many production challenges however. Seeds cost 80 cents to $1 per seed and must have low THC genetics. The seeding rate is 1,600 plants per acre.

There are no weed, pesticide, nor fungicide products labeled for use on hemp. Thus the crop requires cultivation and hand weeding, or plastic planting. Fertility requirements of N, P, K, and lime are similar to corn. Markets for products are evolving but not fully established or available. Growers should have marketing agreements with reputable, established processors before planting seed.

With all the challenges, initial production will probably be limited to small acreage with considerable hand labor available, as is typical of tobacco production.

There was obviously lots of interest and excitement about growing hemp and processing hemp products.

However, the unknowns of the production process and the true (if any) value of the CBD extracts for consumers makes it a risky business to initiate. Agricultural fads touting emus and Jerusalem artichokes as farm enterprises in recent years have proven to be duds.

Will industrial hemp be a flash in the pan or highly successful?

Time will tell.

Donald Chafin is a retired Professor of Agriculture at Wiimington College.

Donald Chafin

Guest columnist