Nebraska farmers are anxious to get into the hemp business.

A month after LB657 passed, which authorized a state hemp research program, the NDA received 176 applications for the 2019 growing season. In August, about 200 producers attended the Northeast Nebraska Hemp Farmers Forum held in Pilger, Neb., hosted by Midwest Hemp Exchange and CV Sciences. Those in attendance wanted to know where the hemp industry in Nebraska was headed and how they could get involved.

“The potential for hemp growers in nearly unlimited,” said Bryan Boganowski of the Midwest Hemp Exchange. “We’ve seen what the prospective market looks like by watching places like Kentucky, where hemp has been grown as a crop for more than 20 years.”

Not to be confused with marijuana, which has also been a cash crop in Kentucky for some time, hemp actually refers to the industrial, non-drug variant that is cultivated for its fiber, hurd and seeds. Farmers can also grow hemp for grain or CBD (cannabidiol) oil.

“Grain and fiber will be the mainstays in the long run,” Boganowski said. “Right now, CBD is the driving economic factor.”

New hemp horizons

The hemp plant is a renewable resource that can be produced domestically. It grows quickly, naturally resists plant diseases, requires little weeding, thrives in most climates and enriches the soil it grows in, Boganowski said.

Every part of the hemp plant can be used. The leaves, grain, fiber, hurd, roots and flower each have separate ways of being utilized.

“It’s one plant with multiple uses,” said Joseph Kelly, farmer and owner of Kelly Farms in western Kentucky – one of the largest hemp farms in the country. “There are way more advantages to growing hemp than growing corn and soybeans.”

The leaves can be used for juice, butter, tea or composted. The grain (or seeds) can be pressed for oil to make personal care products (such as soap and lotion), cooking oil or biofuel. The seeds can be crushed to make seed cake for food, beer or animal feed, or hulled and made into food and dairy-like products. The hulls themselves can be used to make flour and baking goods.

“Hempseeds and hemp oil are highly nutritious and delicious,” Kelly said. “Hemp is the only plant that contains all of the essential fatty acids and amino acids required by the human body.”

These essential nutrients affect a variety of body functions, including metabolism, mood, behavior, the skin, brain and the heart, said JoAnn Fisher, of Young Living, a hemp-based product company.

“Due to its high content of beneficial oils and natural emollient properties, hemp is becoming a common ingredient in lotions and many other skin, hair and cosmetic products,” she said. “It is a good alternative to the toxic chemicals present in many petroleum-based lotions and cosmetics.”

Fiber from the sheath of the stem can be used in textiles, insulation and cordage. The hurd, or woody interior of the stem, can be used to make fiber board, paper or absorbent animal bedding.

Hemp-based building materials can replace wood and other materials for foundations, walls, shingles, paneling, pipes and paint. The modern hemp building materials Hempcrete and Isochanvre are lightweight, waterproof, fireproof, self-insulating and resistant to pests.

It can also be broken down for bioplastics.

“Standard plastic is made from fossil fuels using toxic chemicals,” Boganowski said. “Almost everything we buy is wrapped in cellophane and our landfills are full of it. A variety of alternatives to plastic can be made from hemp.”

In 1941, Henry Ford held a media event where he swung an axe at a prototype car body made of hemp fiber (the strongest natural fiber known) to prove its strength. The technology was never put into mass production; cars continued to be made of steel and plastics made from petrochemicals.

Fortunately, the number of available products made from hemp plastics is on the increase as awareness of the importance of developing sustainable alternatives grows. Today, Mercedes is using hemp fiber panels in their car doors. Lotus has replaced fiberglass with hemp fiber in the bodies of their cars.

Hemp can be used to make a variety of fabrics similar to, but more durable than, cotton. Hemp is also excellent for making carpeting. The oldest known woven fabric was made from hemp, as were Levi Strauss’ original denim jeans and the first American flag.

“Hemp is an ideal material for making paper,” Boganowski said. “It regenerates in the field in months, unlike trees which can take 30 years or more to become harvestable after planting.”

The hemp roots conduct phytoremediation. They absorb heavy metals and man-made pollutants from the soil. Tests at Chernobyl have even shown they can remove some radiation from the soil. Besides benefitting soil health, hemp roots can be used in medicinal products.

The flower contains the much sought after CBD oil.

“This means all parts of the plant can be used or returned to the earth,” Boganowski said. “Anything made from cotton, timber or petroleum can be made from hemp.”

Crop challenges

As exciting an opportunity as hemp farming seems, there may be some drawbacks.

According to the USDA, potential yields and processing methods, along with farmer costs and returns, are important considerations when evaluating industrial hemp as a potential U.S. crop.

Early in this century, U.S. dry-stem yields ranged from 2 to 12.5 tons per acre, but averaged 5 tons per acre under good conditions. Research trials in Europe during the last four decades had dry-matter yields that ranged from 3.6 to 8.7 tons per acre.

In addition to the uncertainty about yields, there is some question as to whether hemp fibers can be profitably processed in the United States. This could limit the ability of U.S. hemp producers to compete against major suppliers such as China, Hungary, Poland and Romania.

Then, of course, comes the subject of THC. Tetrahydrocannabinol is the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis. While it is one of more than 113 cannabinoids identified in cannabis, it is the one active constituent that can cause a problem for farmers.

A balanced average of THC to CBD is about 15 percent. Levels can range up to 30 percent. For a hemp plant to be considered illegal in Nebraska it cannot exceed .3 percent. If tests show that a plant in a hemp field is higher than .3 percent, the entire crop could be destroyed.

Using certified seed can alleviate most of that concern. Certified seed is more likely to produce a crop that meets the THC limit, and many markets demand hemp grown from certified seed. Hemp seeds are classified by generation.

“Breeder” seed must be planted to produce “foundation” seed, foundation seed must be planted to produce “registered” seed and “registered” seed must be planted to produce certified seed.

Profit margins

Still, there is obviously profit to be made. Compare hemp to traditional Nebraska crops.

According to the USDA, wheat costs about $222 per acre to produce. Grain sorghum costs $288 per acre, while corn planted on southwestern, dryland, no-till farms costs $377 per acre and irrigated soybeans costs about $419 per acre. Corn planted on eastern non-irrigated, no-till acres costs $480 per acre, and if it was irrigated it costs about $658 per acre.

These totals include property taxes.

Using USDA averages, farmers harvest 55 bushels of wheat per acre, 60 bushels of soybeans per acre, 105 bushels of grain sorghum, 110 bushels of southwestern corn, 185 bushels of non-irrigated and 240 bushels of irrigated eastern corn per acre.

Prices were listed at $3.35/bushel for grain sorghum, $3.55 for all three types of corn, $4.60 for wheat and $7.70 per bushel for soybeans.

This yielded a return of $13.50 per acre for southwestern corn, $31 per acre for wheat, $43 for soybeans, $63.35 for sorghum, $176.75 for non-irrigated and $194.25 for irrigated eastern corn.

Now, hemp planted for seed costs about $257 per acre, hemp planted to harvest certified seed costs $294 per acre and hemp planted for fiber costs about $364 per acre; with a USDA reported harvest of 3.4 tons per acre of hemp fiber, 1,069 pounds per acre of hemp seed and 700 pounds per acre of certified seed. These costs also include property tax.

Colorado and Nevada are averaging 10 cents per pound for hemp fiber. That comes to $200 per ton. This would yielded a return of $316.45 per acre for hemp fiber.

Minnesota farmers are getting about 50 cents per pound for seeds, with farmers in Colorado getting $9 per pound. Even at 39 cents per pound for hemp seeds, farmers would see a profit of $220.15 per acre. Certified seeds would fetch $1.20 per pound for a return of $605.91 per acre for certified seed.

For the flower (dried for CBD oil extraction), prices range from $28 per pound in Colorado to $200 per pound in Nevada. Minnesota producers have reported an array of harvest weights for floral material. They ranged from 50 pounds per acre to 500 pounds per acre.

The estimates do not include costs for monitoring, licensing or regulating hemp production. These external expenses would be part of the cost of producing industrial hemp. This could cost more than $50.

Depending on the state, circumstances and cultivation method; cultivating hemp for CBD can generate anywhere between $2,500 and $75,000 per acre.

“Some of us, if we make $30 or $40 an acre, we’re just happy we didn’t go in the hole,” said Joe Hickey, a traditional farmer from Haigler, Neb. “But hemp is a completely different ballgame. We haven’t even scratched the surface yet.”

Jon Burleson can be reached at jon.burleson@lee.net.

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