Industrial hemp is a ‘go’ for Nebraska producers

Ismail Dweikat checks on growth of some industrial hemp plants in the greenhouse on UNL East Campus.

LINCOLN, Neb. — It may be easier to get marijuana on the street than to obtain seed, even basic information, for legalized industrial hemp.

That may change with passage of the Nebraska Hemp Farming Act by the Nebraska Legislature and signature by Gov. Pete Ricketts. The Nebraska Department of Agriculture will regulate the growing, harvesting and processing of hemp for research purposes until USDA takes further action.

“I’m able to grow it, but my hands have been tied,” said Ismail Dweikat, professor in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “The university said to keep it low-key until the state gave the green light. So we don’t have much research going out to the educators.”

To grow hemp legally in Nebraska, interested parties had to apply for and receive a signed license agreement from NDA. The deadline to apply was June 28.

“New York state last year had a field day for hemp,” Dweikat said. “They had 15 scientists for hemp and 40 different varieties. They’re already ahead of us five years, maybe 10, so it’ll take a while to catch up.

“Now it’s late in the season. If you tell everybody to go ahead and grow it, farmers wouldn’t know how. The training ground next year will be increasing.”

Approval for growing industrial hemp has been sporadic around the country. It was legalized during World War II for hemp fiber purposes, then stopped after the war. The 1970 Controlled Substance Act declared all Cannabis varieties as a schedule one controlled substance.

The 2014 farm bill allowed industrial hemp to be grown or cultivated for research purposes under agricultural pilot programs, and 39 states removed barriers to its production. The 2018 farm bill removed hemp from the controlled substances and restrictions on cultivation as long as it contained no more than three-tenths of 1 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Benefits of industrial hemp — for fiber, oil or cannabidiol (CBD) — are clear. If you can grow corn or soybeans, you can grow hemp, Dweikat said. It works well in a rotation with corn and beans, and can help break pest cycles and pesticide use.

If a corn or soybean crop fails early, hemp can be planted and be ready for harvest in about three months. Clones or seedlings can be planted, which would give the crop a head start toward maturity.

Dweikat said ideally hemp should be planted in Nebraska from April 15 to June 20 as seed with a regular planter. The planting dates are critical to avoid contamination later in the season by wild hemp. If growing for fiber, 200,000 to 300,000 seeds need to be planted per acre. Population drops to 75,000 to 100,000 if growing for seed. Irrigation wouldn’t be needed, although it would help in western Nebraska. Lack of moisture is why wild hemp doesn’t grow well in western Nebraska, he added.

A standard combine can be used if harvesting for seed. For fiber, special machinery is needed. There’s a special machine made in Canada that can harvest both.

Hemp grown for fiber can reach 10-12 feet tall, almost all stalk. The plant for CBD is shaped more like a Christmas tree, he said.

The list of uses for industrial hemp is quite lengthy: seed, oil, medicine, animal feed and bedding, plastics, paint and hempcrete (which is stronger than concrete). Oil extracted from seed can produce 100 to 200 gallons of biodiesel per acre, he said.

The higher the CBD in the crop, the more income for the farmer. But if the farmer holds off on harvest until the plant is 100 percent mature, much of the harvest will be lost because the seed will shatter and end up on the ground. He said about 70 percent mature is best.

Possibly the biggest hindrance — other than learning how the crop works — is getting seed that is affordable.

“The seed supply won’t increase as much as the demand,” Dweikat said from his office on UNL’s East Campus. “It’s going to take time for the seed price to come down.”

He held a tiny bag of seed that he said cost $50. Researchers, and eventually farmers, can buy seed from Canada, but UPS and FedEx won’t deliver it. He said you can pay $1,000 just to deliver $50 of seed.

But it’s not like hemp was just discovered. It’s been shown to exist 8,000 years ago in China. Ancient Egyptians used hemp stalks to construct stronger buildings. And it’s growing in more places these days around the country, especially Colorado, Kentucky, Utah and Montana.

“Everybody else is doing it,” he said. “We can’t wait.”

Terry Anderson can be reached at terry.anderson@lee.net.

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