Industrial hemp is making a comeback as a multi-functional cash crop. That comeback will be explored in “Prospects for American Hemp,” a presentation that will be made at the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service Organic Farming Conference

While industrial hemp is of the same plant species as marijuana, it’s genetically and chemically different. Hemp contains 0.3 percent or less THC – delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol – marijuana’s narcotic chemical.

“Fiber can be used for textiles and manufacturing,” said Kevin Gibson, a professor of botany and plant pathology at Purdue University.

Gibson will co-present “Prospects for American Hemp,” with George Weiblen, professor of plant and microbial biology at the University of Minnesota.

The current U.S. hemp market is more than $600 million, according to the National Hemp Association. But those sales are based on imported hemp, primarily from Canada, because the United States is lacking in infrastructure.

“We need supply chains to link farmers with consumers,” Gibson said. “The agronomics of what is essentially a new crop can be worked out but we will need a system to transport, store and process hemp products.”

John Strohfus, president of Minnesota Hemp Farms, said the absence of a federal law to allow industrial hemp farming is holding back development of necessary infrastructure. The Hastings farmer is currently raising industrial hemp and shipping it to Canada for processing. He will be exhibiting his Field Theory of hemp-food products at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference.

“Some senators and representatives say they’re supportive of industrial hemp but they’re not charging any hills,” Strohfus said.

Vote Hemp is working to change state and federal laws to allow commercial hemp farming. Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, said many states already have implemented hemp-farming laws. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, for example, signed in November 2017 a bill that allows Wisconsin farmers to grow industrial hemp.

Steenstra said, “It’s imperative that we pass the Industrial Hemp Farming Act in Congress so that we can grant farmers federally legal rights to commercially cultivate hemp to supply the growing global market for hemp products.”

But Strohfus said there is a current glut in the market. China is the world’s largest industrial hemp producer, and Canada also is a large player.

“We don’t need a lot more production until we have more consumer awareness,” Strohfus said.

Weiblen said industrial hemp can be sold as grain or fiber, or pressed into oil. The crop’s grain is a complete protein – meaning it contains all 10 essential amino acids. Oil is used in various foods and in cosmetics such as skin cream.

“Its Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio is good,” Weiblen said.

Excessive amounts of Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids and a very high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio promotes the pathogenesis of many diseases, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Hemp fiber has traditionally been used to make rope and canvas. Now it’s being blended into cotton and synthetic fibers. It also is being used in the manufacture of composite building materials such as light concrete.

State pilot programs growing

Because of the market potential, many states have capitalized on a provision of the 2014 Farm Bill allowing them to administer industrial-hemp research and development projects. The Kentucky Department of Agriculture started a pilot project in 2014. In 2017, it worked with more than 200 growers and about 50 processors. Production and cultivation research was approved in 2017 for more than 12,800 acres throughout the state.

The Minnesota Industrial Hemp Development Act became law in 2015. That allowed the department to create a pilot program to study growth, cultivation and marketing of industrial hemp. The law also directed the commissioner of agriculture to develop program rules and a fee structure, and perform testing and other regulatory activities.

Vote Hemp has identified state pilot programs. State licenses to cultivate hemp were issued to 1,424 farmers, and 32 universities conducted research on the crop in 2017.

The University of Minnesota began in 2016 conducting field trials in five locations. Researchers compared 12 industrial-hemp varieties, sowing between 30 and 40 pounds of seed per acre.

“Seeding rate is critical,” Weiblen said.

Some of the varieties had average yield of 1,300 pounds per acre and others averaged 1,000 pounds per acre. Those were respectable yields compared to average yields in Canada, he said.

Meanwhile more than 50 varieties of hemp from more than a dozen countries have been planted in the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s pilot program. Researchers there are seeking answers to planting depth, row width, fertilizer requirements, cultivation methods, harvesting methods, and control of insects and weeds.

Visit VoteHemp.com/cropreport for more information.

The Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service Organic Farming Conference will be held Feb. 22-24 in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Visit mosesorganic.org for more information.

Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin. Email lgrooms@madison.com to contact her.