Some people hope industrial hemp can be the next big thing for farmers while others are convinced it’s “fool’s gold.” Somewhere in between are researchers who will be looking for facts to better inform production.

The John C. Pair Horticulture Center in Haysville, Kansas, will be growing and harvesting plots of industrial hemp. Some farmers question whether hemp is an agronomic or a specialty crop. It’s both — depending on where it’s grown.

Industrial hemp is different from marijuana plants that are used for the chemical tetrahydrocannabinol – THC. Industrial hemp contains only small levels of the chemical. Hemp can be used to make paper, clothing, industrial textiles, insulation and body-care products.

A well-known use of hemp is for cannabidiol – CBD – oil, which is touted as a possible treatment for various health issues. Most of those claims are unsubstantiated because, until recently, it was illegal to conduct research.

The 2018 farm bill loosens regulations on industrial-hemp research and production, removing it from the Controlled Substances Act. Enforcement has been shifted from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But to be legal hemp plants must contain less than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol content. Any crop grown with a level of more than that limit must be destroyed.

Questions about hemp production abound.

  • Which of the many seed varieties grows well in different areas?
  • How much water is needed?
  • What business opportunities are there for growers? Should they grow for fiber, seed or oil?
  • Where can hemp be taken for processing?
  • Where can farmers access certified seed?
  • If a crop goes “hot” – or has too much tetrahydrocannabinol – would it be covered by crop insurance? Who would sell such crop insurance?

Kansas State University Research and Extension is in the early stages of trying to answer those questions. The University of Kentucky and Cornell University are the current research leaders in the United States, but will only be starting in 2019 their fifth year of growing test plots.

Kansas State University is looking at growing eight to 12 varieties in 8-foot by 20-foot plots, following Kentucky’s example. Researchers expect the unexpected; varieties grown at Cornell University didn’t fare well in either Kentucky or Ohio.

And 10 percent of test plots in North Carolina went “hot” and needed to be destroyed. Stress can cause plants to go hot. The thought of some farmers investing tens of thousands of dollars just to destroy their crops is concerning.

Questions remain about the types of growing practices that will offer the best return on investment. Crops grown for horticultural uses are more labor-intensive – pruning and harvesting by hand – but have greater cannabidiol content. Crops grown for agronomic uses have lesser cannabidiol content but also have less labor costs because they can be grown and harvested in large fields.

Because so many things can go wrong, Extension agents should caution farmers to enter industrial-hemp production with their eyes wide open. They should tell them if anybody is promising them that they’re going to become rich, to just walk away.

Jason Griffin is the director of the John C. Pair Horticulture Center in Haysville, Kansas.