Ohio is the 47th state to re-legalize hemp production, so farmers in other states have a head start in re-establishing hemp production. Even so, the hemp industry still has potential for new growers, says Craig Schluttenhofer, a research assistant and professor of natural products at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. “It’s not too late for Ohio to get in this game,” he says. He’s cautiously optimistic about the prospects for hemp production in Ohio. “It has lots of potential benefits. There’s a lot that can be done with it.”
Hemp previously had been lumped in with marijuana as a controlled substance under state and federal laws, because the two crops come from the same species, Cannabis sativa. The difference is marijuana cannabis varieties are bred for higher levels of the psychoactive compound delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
To qualify as hemp, cannabis varieties can’t contain more than 0.3% THC, so smoking it might give someone a cough, but won’t make anyone high. Hemp varieties are bred for other qualities such as fibers in the stems, seeds or cannabidiol (CBD), a nonpsychoactive compound used as a dietary supplement. It is extracted from the plant’s flowers.
Legislative changes to legalize the crop began with the 2014 Farm Bill, which defined industrial hemp and set up a pilot program allowing universities and state departments of agriculture to grow hemp for research. Then, the 2018 Farm Bill removed industrial hemp from the federal government’s list of controlled substances, legalized it as an agricultural crop and outlined the procedure for states to set up regulatory programs.
In 2018, about 80,000 acres of hemp were grown in the United States — most of it for CBD, says Erica Stark, National Hemp Association executive director. Numbers for 2019 haven’t been tallied, but she estimates that the acreage has tripled. How the rapid growth in acreage will affect prices for growers is one of many unknowns in the industry, she says. However, demand for CBD has been growing, and much of what is now sold in the U.S. is imported from China or Canada.
“CBD is going to get into the billions of dollars very quickly,” she says. American production can help fill the growing demand and could also replace imports. The National Hemp Association would like to see a moratorium on CBD imports, while the Food and Drug Administration determines how CBD should be regulated, she explains. “We’re not even sure how we’re going to be regulating what’s grown here,” she points out.
Early production stages
While most of the hemp currently being grown in the U.S. is used for CBD, other varieties of the plant can be used to produce seed, which could be processed using existing small-grain infrastructure, explains Stark. The seeds can be cold-pressed to extract hemp oil, which can be used in soap, lotion and shampoo. The seeds or solids remaining after oil extraction can also be used for human consumption as flour or protein powder. However, hemp seed can’t be used for animal feed at this point because that use does not yet have FDA approval, even though hemp seed is approved for human consumption.
Historically hemp was valued as a fiber crop. It was widely grown in the U.S. until the 1930s and was used to make rope, cloth, canvas and paper. The fiber can also be used to make building materials, animal bedding and a composite material similar to fiberglass. While those uses have great potential, the U.S. has no commercial-scale facilities for processing hemp fiber, Stark explains. Processing capacity will have to be developed to grow the market demand for the fiber, she says. “That remains the bottleneck.”
The Ohio Legislature passed a bill decriminalizing hemp this past summer, and Gov. Mike DeWine signed it into law July 30. As the bill moved through the legislative process, it had little testimony offered in opposition. The Ohio Farm Bureau testified in favor, and the Ohio Farmers Union testified as an interested party. Witnesses testifying as opponents of the bill were concerned with the details of regulation plans, not legalization itself.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture is now in the process of setting up a licensing structure for hemp growers and processors, with the goal of having a program in place in time for planting in 2020. The Ohio plan will need federal approval before it can be enacted. Details of the program will be posted online as they become available at agri.ohio.gov. Prospective producers can also sign up on the ODA website for email updates.
Farmers are impatient to see the details of the ODA hemp program so they can purchase inputs and plan for their crops, says Julie Doran, who has been lobbying for hemp legalization in Ohio for several years. She’s enthusiastic about the many uses for cannabis, whether it’s grown for fiber, CBD, food or medicine. “I think it’s God’s greatest creation. It can feed you, it can shelter you, it can clothe you and it can heal you.”
Doran comes from a large family of 13 brothers and sisters, and family members farm several thousand acres in central Ohio. They plan to be among the first to raise hemp in the state, Doran says. How much they plant depends on the details and limitations of the state program.
In anticipation of hemp legalization in Ohio, Doran helped coordinate a hemp summit last fall to provide information for prospective growers, and about 250 people attended. A second summit is scheduled for Sept. 28 this year, and attendance is expected to exceed last year’s. Tickets are available at Eventbrite online, eventbrite.com.
In addition to educating potential growers about the crop at the summits, Doran is working to organize a cooperative for hemp growers in the state to help with leasing of equipment, purchasing of inputs and marketing of products. “We’re just trying to help everybody get into the industry,” she explains.
Central State University is launching a research initiative to explore hemp as an alternative crop to help farmers diversify their crops. “One of our goals is improving 21st century agriculture,” explains Schluttenhofer, who will be leading the research effort. He came to CSU from the University of Kentucky, where he’d been working on hemp research since 2014. That work focused mostly on producing hemp for grain and reducing yield losses from shattering. He’ll continue that work at CSU and also work on identifying germplasm that’s adapted to Ohio growing conditions. He’ll be looking at how cannabis plants regulate compounds and researching uses for the fiber as well. In addition, research on CBD production will be part of the university’s program. “That’s a major market right now,” he notes.
The production practices for hemp vary depending on the intended use, Schluttenhofer explains. For instance, when the crop is grown for grain or fiber, production methods are similar to what Ohio farmers use for corn, soybeans and wheat. Although, he adds, “It can wrap up the gears of a combine pretty well.”
Production of hemp intended for CBD is done mostly by hand, although some mechanization is being developed. The gross revenue per acre may be higher, but so are the production costs and labor demands, Schluttenhofer explains. “It’s very similar to growing and managing tobacco.”
For farmers interested in trying hemp, Schluttenhofer recommends starting small. “Learn the plant and understand the plant, and then scale up production.”
Doran offers similar advice. “If a farmer wants to get into it, just do an acre,” she suggests.
Raising a field of hemp might seem like the perfect cover for a plot of illegal recreational marijuana, but Schluttenhofer doesn’t expect that will be a problem. Federal regulations require state departments of agriculture to register GPS coordinates of each hemp field, and to monitor those fields. Even one marijuana plant of recreational quality would likely cause a field to test too high for THC, he explains. At first, a few growers in Kentucky tried slipping in marijuana plants, but they were caught, their hemp fields were destroyed, they lost their growing licenses and they faced legal repercussions. “The system works,” he says.
The National Hemp Association isn’t seeing a problem with illegal marijuana, either. A hemp field would actually be a risky place to grow illegal marijuana because of the danger of cross-pollination, and the required monitoring and testing, Stark points out. “What farmer is going to risk their livelihood by sneaking a marijuana plant in there, especially when CBD is so lucrative?”