The final U.S. Department of Agriculture rules on hemp farming appear positive for farmers of the alternative crop, but the industry is still looking at a few years before it finds some stability.
Hemp faced fierce opposition for decades because of its relation to marijuana, even though the plant carries a fraction of the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of cannabis that gives a high.
Last year, about a dozen states, including Illinois and Missouri, allowed for farming of industrial hemp, and the USDA recently approved rules for the 2021 growing season.
The USDA changed three parts of the rules after public comment last year and before publishing the guidelines.
It increased the threshold of THC allowed before a grower would be cited with a negligent violation, eased rules on disposal of crops that exceed THC limits and increased the amount of time farmers have to harvest crops after inspection from 15 to 30 days.
“All three of those changes make it a little easier for hemp farmers,” said Dale Ludwig of the Missouri based Midwest Hemp Association.
The rules come after a difficult start for hemp farming in Missouri and Illinois in 2020.
Most of the market for hemp is currently in cannabidiol (CBD) that is made into supplements that claim to have medicinal properties that can help anxiety, cognition, movement disorders and pain.
But the supply of hemp far outpaced demand. Prices fell, and hemp farmers didn’t do well. But Ludwig said that isn’t all bad for the industry.
“A lot of people who weren’t very serious about it aren’t going to stay in the industry. And that gets the legitimate producers a better opportunity to profit,” Ludwig said.
Hemp advocates are still trying to expand the market for hemp to other product lines, specifically fiber that can be used to make fabric.
“There are five additional steps you have to take before you can turn hemp into fabric and then into clothing,” Ludwig said. “All those steps aren’t in place yet, and all of them have to happen at the same time to make it viable.”
The Midwest Hemp Association and other advocates are working to find a way to make that business model work and come together quickly.
“Hemp fiber, if it catches on, would be the kind of thing you could grow on hundreds of acres, instead of CBD-based hemp, which is how we grow tomatoes where a couple acres would be a lot.”
Ludwig predicted that it will still be years before the hemp market is developed and stable, but that it will become a viable crop in the Midwest.
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