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Major tobacco player sees its future in hemp production

Vitalij Sova/Getty Images Closeup of industrial hemp in field
EXPLORING HEMP: Pyxus International is funding hemp research at Cornell with the goal of developing cultivars specific for East Coast CBD growing.
Pyxus International is funding agronomic hemp research at NC State and Cornell.

To hear people call the industrial hemp sector “the wild, wild West” isn’t unusual. With its wide mix of growers, buyers and processors, the sector is constantly changing as players line up to try to meet the demand for hemp-made products.

Now, a big player in the leaf tobacco business is getting its skin in the hemp game.  

In the past year, Pyxus International Inc., formerly Alliance One International, has reached agreements with two big ag universities — North Carolina State and Cornell University — to fund agronomic hemp research for its growing network of farmers.

At NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the company is funding research to determine the effects of using different fertility rates on hemp grown in a greenhouse environment.

At Cornell, the company is funding research to evaluate cannabidiol hemp cultivars and cannabinoid production. 

Joshua Mays, agronomy services manager at Pyxus, says the goal of the NC State research is to see how fertilizer rates can affect a hemp plant’s overall growth.

At Cornell, research is focused on identifying cultivars that can generate decent levels of CBD — over 10% — while staying below the 0.3% threshold for THC, the primary psychoactive chemical found in marijuana. Researchers are also looking at the effects of water and drought stress on CBD development.

“I think the end goal for the company is to be thought leaders within the hemp industry to move the entire crop and industry forward,” Mays says. “If they [farmers] grow a better crop, that in turn gives us a better raw material” to produce a better product.

He says the company works with around 200 mostly ex-tobacco growers in the Carolinas, Virginia and Colorado.

The average-size farm varies depending on local infrastructure. But for tobacco growers, Mays says the infrastructure is already there to easily transition to growing hemp.

Larry Smart, professor of horticulture at Cornell, says he and other researchers evaluated 37 hemp cultivars for fiber and grain production this year, evaluating yield and quality, and looking at pests and diseases. An additional 30 CBD cultivars were tested for biomass yield, pests and diseases, flowering time, and CBD accumulation.

Smart says growers and companies are looking for cultivars that offer good uniformity and yield, as well as disease resistance. But it could take years before the cultivars being evaluated by Smart reach the market.

“For breeding, proper selection will require four to five years of breeding and then regional testing at a minimum,” Smart says.

Much of the hemp being grown on the East Coast comes from Colorado, California or other states on the West Coast where growing hemp has been legalized for several years. Consequently, there hasn’t been much work done on breeding varieties for East Coast growing conditions.

In the case of the Harnish brothers of Pequea, Pa., — American Agriculturist followed the Harnish brothers all growing season in their first attempt at growing hemp — they were provided hemp cultivars by the company they agreed to grow for, but they also found hemp varieties online from a vendor in California.

The CBD hemp market is growing with potential sales of over $22 billion by 2022, according to Pyxus.

From tobacco to hemp

As Alliance One International, the company — created in 2005 by the merger of Dimon Inc. and Standard Commercial Corp. — was one of the largest contractors, processors and suppliers of flue-cured, burley, sun-cured and dark fire-cured tobacco in the world. But the decline of the tobacco industry has led the company to venture into other businesses and in 2018 the company changed its name to Pyxus.

A 2018 press release on the company’s name change states, “the company is actively pursuing new business lines focused on agricultural products that are value-added or require some degree of processing, with higher margin and growth potential than its leaf tobacco business and that play well to its strengths.”

The tobacco side of the business is still known as Alliance One International. The company purchases tobacco grown in more than 35 countries and serves manufacturers of cigarettes and other consumer tobacco products in more than 90 countries.

According to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention, the number of farms growing tobacco in the U.S. has plummeted from as many as 180,000 farms in the 1980s to just over 10,000 in 2012. Most tobacco farms are in North Carolina and Kentucky with smaller numbers of farms in Maryland, Pennsylvania and other states.

The U.S. is the fourth-largest tobacco-producing country in the world, behind China, India and Brazil. More than 533 million pounds of tobacco were produced in 2018.

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