Although it was outlawed for nearly 50 years, industrial hemp has historically been a versatile and valuable agricultural commodity.
The 2018 U.S. Farm Bill cleared the way for the widespread cultivation of industrial hemp, but states across the nation, including Michigan, are operating under pilot programs until the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) finalizes its formal regulatory framework.
That means a lot of unknowns for growers and processors trying to get into this growing industry.
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In spring of 2019, the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development (MDARD) announced it would operate a pilot program under guidelines outlined in the 2014 federal Farm Bill, which allows universities or MDARD to grow industrial hemp for research purposes.
“It’s been met with a lot of enthusiasm and interest,” says Gina Alessandri, MDARD’s industrial hemp program director.
Michigan’s Pilot Program
The goal is to expand the pilot program into a formal, regulated industry in the state of Michigan. Once the USDA releases formal guidelines, MDARD will recommend changes to state law, develop a statewide hemp plan and submit it to the USDA for approval.
MDARD issued 603 grower licenses and 483 processor/handler licenses for the 2019 growing season.
“Regardless of what the federal rules are, every grower, processor or handler is fully prepared that there will be some regulation that comes along with it,” Alessandri says. “It’s not going to be the same as growing corn or soybeans.”
Hemp comes from the Cannabis sativa L. plant and has been unfairly regulated for a long time, Alessandri says. One obvious challenge is it looks like marijuana, which remains a Schedule I narcotic at the federal level and has the same genetic makeup. Under the law, industrial hemp must contain less than .3% of the psychoactive compound delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
There is a wide variety of uses for industrial hemp, including natural health products, lotions and balms, food, grain, fiber, plastics, textiles, ethanol, industrial materials and more.
“My goal is that more and more people will learn about this crop and learn what it is and what it isn’t,” Alessandri says. “It’s a valuable plant that we should allow growers to grow and not be afraid of it.”
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Educating Farmers and the Public
Currently, one of the most popular and lucrative markets is CBD oil, but fiber- and plant-based plastics could drive demand in years to come, says Dave Crabill, vice president of iHemp Michigan. iHemp Michigan is a member organization that has hosted conferences around the state to educate farmers about growing hemp.
Crabill foresees Michigan becoming a leading producer for biomass.
“Our vision is for an enormous fiber crop to be used in injection-molded plastics,” Crabill says. “We are encouraging farmers to grow both. They can harvest the fiber crop early, before it would pollinate their CBD plants.”
Crabill and his business partner Jeff Dennings are growing 1 acre of industrial hemp on Dennings Family Farm near Swartz Creek to learn more about the plant.
These plants have real water, nutrient and pruning needs to maximize the harvest, and finding reliable seed or plants is a critical first step, according to Crabill.
“This farming community is a great community,” Crabill says. “They are excited and optimistic about hemp, but there is a steep learning curve – it’s not a simple crop.”
On the legal side of things, iHemp is working with legislators to make improvements to laws regulating the industry and challenges facing growers. iHemp also hosted the Midwest iHemp Expo in January to bring the industry together for a successful 2020 growing season.
“There are many jobs being created now as the industry gets underway,” Crabill says. “We need a huge supply chain from seed to sale. This is a great opportunity for farmers who have struggled for years, but they must work smart and safe to succeed.”