Illinois Hemp Symposium

Farmers interested in growing industrial hemp attended the Illinois Hemp Symposium March 7.

MORTON, Ill. — Some of the 100 farmers attending an informational day about growing hemp in Illinois believe it might be a plausible addition to their corn-soybean rotations. Others ruled it out as an option after hearing more details at the Illinois Hemp Symposium March 7.

Scott Burroughs, owner of BottomLine Solutions, who hosted the event at his business in Morton, Illinois, said there are a lot of unknowns about hemp and a lot of interest. It has received more attention since Congress legalized the production of hemp — a cousin of marijuana containing less than 0.3 percent THC, the chemical that makes recreational marijuana users high — in the 2018 Farm Bill.

Farmers want to know more about regulatory issues as well as production.

“I didn’t know hemp was used so widely for so many different things,” said Brent Yordy of Morton, a corn, soybean and turkey producer.

Experts explained that hemp is used in textiles, paper, building materials, food and body care products.

Eric Pollitt, of Peoria, president of Global Hemp, said he would like to develop products that use hemp such as plastics for automotive parts.

But he said he could see hemp grown as a specialty crop in central Illinois before it reaches commodity status.

“Here in Morton, we are familiar with specialty crops,” he said, pointing out that Morton is a pumpkin producing leader in the U.S.

Growing hemp sounds more profitable than growing corn and soybeans right now, said Ron Weigand, a Congerville farmer.

However, Kevin PIlarski, chief commercial officer of Revolution Cannabis, explained that growing hemp is very labor intensive. He cautioned that hemp “is not a row crop.”

It is more like growing strawberries, he said. There has to be particular attention to pollination and placement. Certified seed is required. There needs to be more research to know which variety grows best on which soils, he said.

Planting, raising and harvesting the crop isn’t the end of it. Drying, trimming and extraction are required after harvest. Farmers need processing options once they grow the crops, he said.

One of the biggest problems for growth for the industry is that there is no industrial supply chain, Pilarski said. He said he’s not sure if policy is far enough ahead to get a crop growing this year, “but if there is, that’s what we’ll do.”

His expertise is in growing indoors for the pharmaceutical industry, he said, so he doesn’t have the production answers for farmers who would be growing outdoors. Very few acres are being grown outdoors at this point.

Weigand said that the labor intensive nature of the crop would discourage some from growing it, but not all.

“Illinois farmers are very inventive. They would find mechanical alternatives and save on labor costs,” he said.

Ryan Zimmerman, a fifth-generation farmer in East Peoria who grows seed beans, also wasn’t aware of how labor intensive the crop is. He has fabricated some of his own tillage equipment, so he agreed farmers could make some adaptations.

“You have to challenge yourself,” he said.

Still, he said he wouldn’t grow hemp without knowing that he had an outlet to buy it.

Larry Tombaugh a nutrient management specialist, didn’t attend the meeting with interest in growing hemp, but rather interest in providing some of the inputs farmers would need, he said.

“It’s the wild, wild West,” he said of how early it is in the development of industrial hemp as a commodity here. “It’s in the early days that those who take a risk might be rewarded. Like everything, it will evolve.”

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.