Cultivating hemp for fiber, food, getting close to legal

8 years ago

Cultivating hemp for fiber, food, getting close to legal

CARIBOU, Maine Maine farmers who want to grow industrial hemp, like their counterparts in Canada and Europe, should start writing letters to their representatives in Congress, suggests John Jemison.
Jemison, an agricultural specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, is among several researchers in New England investigating hemp as a crop that could be grown for everything from fishing ropes to insulation and seeds rich in nutrients and protein.

“It has the potential to be a really good rotation crop,” Jemison told farmers at the Maine Potato Conference in Caribou.
The trouble is, even though Americans can buy hemp jeans or hemp granola, the plant can’t legally be grown commercially in the U.S. and must be imported. As part of the prohibition on marijuana, the varieties of cannabis used as a recreational drug and medicine in some states, federal law still prevents cultivation of hemp. Hemp looks similar to marijuana but has different genetics and physical traits: thicker stalks, smaller flowers and virtually no tetrahydrocannabinol or THC.
The 2014 U.S. Farm Bill allowed hemp cultivation for research purposes and a 2015 Maine law permitted commercial cultivation, though only when the feds allow it in some form. Jemison thinks it’s going to take an act of Congress to allow the crop to grow — along with new hemp industries.
“I can get a (Drug Enforcement Agency) license, working hand-in-hand with a farm on a research basis. I don’t think you could get a permit,” Jemison told the crowd of mostly potato and grain farmers
Hemp and marijuana are both descended from the cannabis plant, which has “been domesticated about as long as we’ve had agriculture,” Jemison said. The plant is thought to have first been used medicinally in China “for pain relief, neuralgia and, interestingly enough, absent-mindedness. I’m not sure if they were trying to reduce that or increase that,” he joked.
Cannabis, as hemp, was grown in the United States as early as the 1600s to make everything from ship sails to paper, and then in the 1800s, new-found varieties of cannabis were used in various concoctions sold as a medicine, Jemison said.
Hemp and marijuana do appear similar as they grow, with the characteristic slender leaves, but they have been bred for different things — marijuana for its seedless flowers full of THC and other compounds, and hemp for its thick stalks and hearty seeds. (For those interested in cannabis’ natural history, Jemison recommended Michael Pollan’s book “The Botany of Desire,” which details how agronomists bred shorter, high-THC marijuana varieties to help illegal growers over the last 50 years.)
The hemp plant has a trifecta of product lines in fiber, “shivs” and seed, according to Michael Carus, director at the European Industrial Hemp Association, based in Huerth, Germany. Hemp fibers are used for papers, insulation and biocomposite materials, while the shivs, the silica-rich woody core of the stem, can be used for animal bedding and construction infill as “hempcrete.” The nutty hemp seeds have a balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and a range of beneficial nutrients for both people and animals.
Canadian farmers have been growing hemp mostly for food products for more than a decade, after their prohibition was lifted in 1998. More than 84,000 acres are licensed from Health Canada for hemp cultivation across the provinces, and retail sales of Canadian hemp seed products range between $20 and $40 million annually, according to the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance. Europe’s niche hemp industry relies on about 25,000 acres in production focused on fiber uses, including BMW hemp reinforced door panel and building insulation.
For Maine potato farmers, who have a range of rotational crops to choose from, hemp would pose some benefits as well as drawbacks, Jemison said. It doesn’t require too much fertilizer or pest management, although it does use a lot of carbon from the soil and it’s pretty rough on the machines that harvest them.
“That being said, if you have marginal land and you wanted to do some of this, there may be a place for that,” Jemison said.
Research in Quebec, which has a growing season like Aroostook County, has shown strong hemp yields, if less than those in western Canada. “It’s a decent crop,” Jemison said.
The markets for fiber currently are small, but hemp seed and hemp seed oil would be similar to growing other seed oils and with a premium price, Jemison said. “Back of the envelope,” he estimates that Maine farmers could grow 35-50 gallons of hemp seed oil per acre, compared to 75-100 gallons of canola oil per acre, with hemp oil selling for about 20 times as much per ounce.
While farmers think about whether they’d grow hemp if and when the federal government gives the okay, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry is working on getting a licensing and THC-testing system ready, Jemison said.
But for Congress to pass a law allowing hemp cultivation — which among other things could mean a new competitor to the cotton industry — lawmakers need to hear from their constituents, he said. “If you all push on it I think we could get some progress on the national level.”