With the passage of LB657 during a recent legislative session, Nebraskans will be able to legally grow industrial hemp in the state. Questions remain regarding markets and seed supplies, but first, what exactly does LB657 allow?
With the 2018 Farm Bill, Congress legalized the cultivation and sale of hemp, removing it from the federal Controlled Substances Act. LB657, introduced by state Sen. Justin Wayne, requires the Nebraska Department of Agriculture to establish, operate and administer a program to license and regulate the production and processing of industrial hemp.
For the first year, however, NDA is approving a limited number of applicants on a lottery-based system for licenses to grow hemp. Many expect Nebraskans to truly dive into hemp production in 2020.
At recent forums hosted by Midwest Hemp Exchange in Nebraska, industry experts and interested growers gathered to discuss the path forward.
Although Nebraska isn't one of the first states to authorize industrial hemp production, Bryan Boganowski, Midwest Hep Exchange senior representative, notes, "Just because we're behind, it shouldn't put us behind on the learning curve. We have some of the best soil conditions in the country for this, and our climate is perfect."
One of the first things to keep in mind is hemp grown for industrial uses in the U.S. must be kept below the legal limit of 0.3% THC (tetrahydrocannabinol).
"The one thing you do not want to hear is, 'Your field is running hot," Boganowski says. "Running hot means your field is high in THC, and the state is going to make you destroy that crop."
The best way to keep THC levels down is to plant varieties that reliably test below 0.3%. However, growers also can manage for low THC by limiting stress on the plant — certain environmental stressors can cause the plant to produce more THC.
Right equipment for the job
There are several kinds of industrial hemp production, and before you plant it on your property, it's a good idea to know what end use you're growing it for. Long term, most hemp production in Nebraska will likely be for fiber and grain — which lends itself more to Nebraska agriculture than CBD (cannabidiol) oil production, which is more similar to vegetable production.
CBD production typically involves growing seedlings in greenhouses before transplanting into fields. It's often done on a smaller scale and requires more labor.
For fiber and grain production, the most common method for planting hemp is drilling on 7.5-inch rows at populations of about 25 to 30 pounds of seed per acre for a high-density stand. How the hemp is harvested also depends on the variety.
Andrew Bish, chief operating officer of Bish Enterprises, has worked with industrial hemp growers in states such as Colorado. In addition to combine headers for corn and sorghum, Bish Enterprises manufactures specialized equipment for hemp harvest. He notes when harvesting for grain or fiber, combines with straw walkers tend to work better than rotary-style separators, resulting in less binding of the fiber in the combine and mitigating risk of combine fires.
"Anytime the fiber could wrap, you'll run into an issue,” Bish says. “Any areas of spinning activity need to be shielded. When you run too much fibrous material into a rotary-style combine, now you've got a lot of fiber in spinning areas, and you're liable to burn out a bearing."
NEW AND LEGAL: With the passage of LB657, Nebraskans now will be able to legally grow industrial hemp commercially in the state.
When harvesting solely for fiber, hemp is typically swathed, windrowed and baled.
"We've created one attachment that allows you to use a Claas Orbis header and forage harvester to harvest fiber without running it through the harvester — it windrows it," says Jacob Bish, Andrew's younger brother, who manages public relations with Bish Enterprises. "For grain, we've used our SuperCrop header. With the cutting unit we use, we eliminate a lot of wrapping. A lot of equipment is available and can be retrofitted for grain or fiber hemp. CBD hemp is more delicate."
Andrew Bish also helped designed the Hemp Handler to harvest CBD hemp. Based on an upgraded burley tobacco harvester, this machine mounts to a three-point hitch on a tractor. While traveling in the Southeast, Andrew worked with the inventor of the harvester and the tobacco company that owned the rights to the machine's design, and they agreed to make changes to their machine for hemp production.
This machine is designed to cut plants at the bottom, and carefully carry the hemp down the side of the machine to a trailer to be hauled away and put into storage.
After harvest, the most important thing is getting hemp — especially for CBD production — stored as soon as possible before it starts decaying and breaking down.
For those harvesting for grain, it's as simple as cooling it and storing it in a grain bin. If growing for fiber, it's typically left in the field to dry for several weeks, allowing the fiber to separate from the stalk naturally — a process called retting.
For those harvesting for CBD, however, there aren't many solutions known yet — it takes a lot of capacity to cool and dry the entire plant just for the flower, and the Midwest doesn't have tobacco barns readily available, like in the Southeast. One option for storing hemp is hemp sacks that protect it from ultraviolet rays.
One of the big questions among growers is how profitable is hemp?
Hemp research firm New Frontier Data says profits are anywhere from $2,500 to $75,000 per acre, although this depends on the state and access to established processors and markets.
In addition, Jacob Bish notes one grower in North Dakota, who raises grain for hemp oilseed, had profits of about $1,200 per acre on dryland acres. On his organic acres, he's earned up to $6,000 per acre. For fiber, he's produced about one or two bales per acre, at about $600 to $700 per bale. On irrigated acres, that would increase to two or 2.5 bales per acre.
"Those are reasonable prices — it's not CBD prices, but it's given people a little more hope than what they're seeing in other commodities," Jacob Bish says.
Another big question is where to market the crop. While there are no processors established in Nebraska, Andrew Bish notes several people have shown interest in establishing the necessary infrastructure for hemp fiber processing — including Omaha-based hemp processor John Lupien, former CEO of BastCore, a hemp processing company that recently moved out of the state.
"Constantly, I'm talking to people that want to put processing in this state,” Andrew Bish says. “There are people right now working on the infrastructure you need to market. There's no elevator right now that you can just go dump it on if you need to."
Interested growers can learn more about applying for a license to grow hemp by visiting nda.nebraska.gov/hemp or by calling 402-471-2351.