So, You Want to Be a Hemp Farmer?
Industrial hemp is now being grown legally on 26,000 acres in 19 states. We dug into the details what's involved in raising the crop.
On a recent road trip through eastern North Carolina, a land of giant soybean fields and industrial hog farms, I passed the time by reading the nearly constant stream of billboards along the highway. “God Bless the Farmer, He Blesses You Three Times a Day,” read one, as I whizzed down I-40 toward Wilmington. “Repent and Believe in Jesus and You Will Be Saved,” encouraged another.
Amid the religious exhortations and pork-themed advertising—one billboard with a giant image of grilled sausages declared pork “The Heart and Soul of Our Communities”—was a marketing message I never expected to see: a giant billboard that said, simply, “Hemp Farmers Wanted.” Driving by at 70 miles-per-hour, I did a quick double take to make sure I’d read that right.
Hemp, which refers to strains of Cannabis that lack enough THC to get you high, but have a long history of use in products ranging from food and cosmetics to textiles and building materials, is one of the oldest cultivated crops on Earth, and featured prominently on colonial era farms in the U.S. But it was effectively banned from commercial cultivation by the federal government in 1957 amid a period of anti-marijuana hysteria.
North Carolina is one of a handful of states where hemp cultivation has recently resumed. There is a steady demand for hemp as a raw material for industrial uses (making things with hemp was never outlawed, but manufacturers have been required to import it from places like Canada and Europe for the last seven decades). As the American hemp industry grows, manufacturers are hoping to get their hemp locally—hence the signs encouraging North Carolina farmers to plant it.
Is It Legal to Grow Hemp?
In the nineties, as the marijuana legalization movement gained traction, a number of states began to introduce legislation to allow hemp cultivation to begin anew, contradicting the federal ban. A variety of legal and practical roadblocks prevented farmers from actually planting hemp on any meaningful scale until recently, however.
Now, 36 states have legalized hemp cultivation to varying degrees (some for research purposes only). The first commercial planting happened in 2013, when Colorado farmer Ryan Loflin harvested a 55-acre crop, the first in the nation since 1957.
The 2014 Farm Bill included a provision that allowed states to initiate research programs on hemp cultivation. Though the federal ban on commercial cultivation remained intact, this the new policy was taken as a sign that federal rules would eventually be loosened further, sparking a new wave of activity at the state level to legalize hemp and promote it as a viable crop. Since then, hemp has been planted in 19 states.
In raw numbers, hemp is still a very minor crop, but it is rapidly expanding: in 2016, less than 10,000 acres were grown nationwide; in 2017, nearly 26,000 acres—more than double the prior year—were produced by about 1,500 farmers.
Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has introduced an amendment to the 2018 Farm Bill that would lift the federal ban on hemp cultivation, which has fairly broad bipartisan support. If it passes, the American hemp industry will likely balloon in short order, creating a massive demand for farmers to plant the crop.
If you’re interested in growing hemp, step one is to make sure it’s legal in your area. The National Conference of State Legislatures maintains a comprehensive, up-to-date list of state-level hemp statutes.
Why Grow Hemp?
Hemp grows more vigorously than corn, but requires less water, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer, earning it a reputation as a sustainable crop. The plant has over 25,000 known uses and is potentially an eco-friendly alternative for other crops commonly produced on an industrial scale.
The voluminous quantities of biomass hemp produces are a potential raw material for livestock feed, biofuel production, paper and textiles. The seeds, and the oil produced from them, have many uses, both culinary and industrial. It’s even possible to make alternative building materials with the stalks, such as hempcrete, which sequesters more carbon from the atmosphere than the carbon emissions required to produce it.
One of the most lucrative industries that hemp farmers are tapping into is the production of CBD oil, a medicinal compound in cannabis plants that contains no THC and is thus legal to consume in all 50 states.
What Are the Ideal Growing Conditions for Hemp?
Hemp is an annual plant that grows well in most parts of the country, other than in extreme desert conditions and high mountain areas.
It thrives in warm weather and grows best in well-drained soils that are high in organic matter. Hemp seeds are generally sown in directly where the plants are to grow, rather than in pots for transplanting. They should be planted after the average date of last frost has passed. Established hemp plants are fairly drought tolerant, but the seedlings require irrigation for the first six weeks whenever the soil is dry.
What Are the Biggest Obstacles When Growing Hemp?
Hemp is often attributed with miraculous potential for sequestering carbon, reducing agricultural pollution, and allowing farmers to make large profits on marginal land. But the reality is not so simple. Here are some things to keep in mind before deciding if hemp is the right crop for you.
You need a lot of land: This is a crop suited for industrial applications, not farmer’s market sales. As with most grains, it’s tough to be profitable growing hemp without planting at least 50 acres or so.
The “red-tape quotient” is high: Because of its legal limbo, hemp growers need special licenses from their state, which means fees and paperwork. Growers may also be subject to a criminal background check. In states where it is legal, farmers must have their hemp plants tested to ensure they are below a certain threshold of THC content. If your plants are found to have too much THC, they may be destroyed.
Suitable seed can be hard to find: Hemp growers are generally required to plant seed that has been certified for low THC content, but the seed industry lags behind the demand and there are potential complications with the feds when shipping cannabis seeds across state lines.
Most commercially available farm equipment will do double duty for hemp cultivation, though custom modifications are often needed to prevent the bush plants from clogging machinery. The special machinery needed to process hemp stalks for fiber is not readily available throughout the U.S., though it is increasingly found in the larger hemp-producing states, like Colorado. To avoid making costly new equipment purchases, growers may be able to contract with companies who accept the raw plant material and do processing at a regional level.
Is Hemp Well-Suited to Organic Cultivation?
Hemp is an ideal plant for organic farmers because it requires minimal inputs, is fairly resistant to pests and diseases, and grow so fast and tall that it outcompetes weeds, minimizing the need for hand cultivation— a major labor cost for most other organic crops.
The USDA does not allow marijuana to be certified organic in the states where it is legally grown, but the agency has made an exemption for hemp. The market for certified organic hemp seeds, a popular health food, is especially strong.
Is It Growing Hemp Profitable?
This remains to be seen, as the hemp market is still in its tenuous early stages. A recent Cornell University analysis found that profits ranged from roughly $130 to $730 per acre — comparable to most grain crops on the lower end and approaching high-value vegetable crops on the upper end.