Indiana farmers tackle historic hemp harvest

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New this fall, Indiana farmers are harvesting thousands of acres of hemp for the first time in several decades. With the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill and Indiana Senate Bill 516, a select group of licensed farmers were approved to grow and harvest a hemp crop in 2019 as part of a research trial.

Several Indiana Farm Bureau members were among the select group who used this season was an opportunity to learn about the crop and the different markets for hemp, such as fiber, grain and oil.

Mark Boyer, Miami County farmer and owner of Healthy Hoosier Oil, planted 50 acres of hemp this spring. Boyer owns an edible oil company, and is incorporating food-grade hemp oil, which his customers will use for cooking, into his existing lineup of products, such as sunflower and canola oil. Because of Boyer’s experience with oils, he felt uniquely prepared to try the new crop.

“We have a food-grade, cold-press oil extraction facility on our farm where we extract oil that goes directly into distribution,” said Boyer. “I’ve been doing that for six years, and I learned that the only way hemp seed oil can be extracted for food grade is through cold press, and that’s exactly what I am set up to do.”

While Boyer grows a grain variety of hemp which later becomes oil, Jay Berry, Grant County farmer and owner of IGNITE Racing Fuel, is growing a fiber variety this year, which can be used for clothing, home interior products and even automotive interior, such as the reinforcement of door panels and passenger rear decks. Berry is heavily involved in the automotive performance industry and is seeing a lot of interest in hemp from the industry.

“A lot of my connections are in the racing industry,” he explained. “Hemp fiber is cheaper and stronger than something like carbon fiber, so just in the performance world there is a massive market that is interested in it.”

Other Indiana farmers are growing hemp for CBD, a popular oil in the wellness industry. The end-use of the hemp dictates different growing, harvesting and processing requirements. Both Boyer and Berry use the majority of their farmland to grow more traditional Indiana row crops, like corn and soybeans. They say there are many differences in the way they grow and care for hemp.

“Growing hemp is a lot more labor intensive than expected,” said Berry. “I’ve been through the field twice as many times as corn and beans.”

“People have joked that it could grow on a rock, but that has not been my experience,” echoed Boyer. “It has been very challenging to grow and it requires a lot of conditioning at harvest because it has to be harvested very wet.”

Jamie Campbell Petty, founder and strategic advisor for Indiana Hemp Industries Association and co-founder and executive director for the Midwest Hemp Council – a communication hub for farmers, processors and retailers – said that many farmers were not adequately prepared for the intense labor involved with growing CBD.

“Growing for CBD is, generally speaking, horticulture,” Petty said. “Many would like to convince you that hemp is a weed, and it will grow anywhere. That’s not true. Hemp is photosensitive, so it grows best in well-drained soil. It does not like wet feet. And, until we are further down the road with genetics, seed instability is an issue.”

For many Indiana farmers, the possibility of diversifying their farms with the addition of hemp is intriguing during a down farm economy. INFB President Randy Kron said there are a lot of exciting possibilities for hemp in the near future, but it’s not going to be a miracle crop for every farmer.

“Our most innovative farmers are always evaluating opportunities to diversify their farms for additional stability,” said Kron. “For some farmers, hemp will become just that. It’s an individual decision for each farmer whether hemp will work for their business, but it’s great to have another option for a crop.”

As with any new crop, farmers are learning about the viability of new markets to determine if growing hemp is a wise business decision for the future of their operation.

“We need to be sure we establish the markets and see where this has the potential to go,” said Boyer. “Hemp is exciting as it has so many diverse uses, but how many of those uses are economically viable for us, we just don’t know because we haven’t had the time to test it out. The markets will develop and we will get there, but it takes time and plenty of work.”

Boyer has become somewhat of a resource to other Indiana farmers because he had the opportunity to grow hemp in 2018 as part of an early research trial with Purdue University. He says farmers are contacting him more and more to learn about his experiences.

“There is a tremendous amount of interest from farmers,” he said. “I get calls nearly every day.”

Despite early challenges, the select group of farmers growing hemp this year is generally excited about the economic possibilities.

“Hemp has a very bright future, we just have to go through some growing pains and learn,” said Berry. “The first people to grow will learn and be able to pass on notes to other farmers so we can all improve.”

“Indiana could be a leader in this industry, but we must all collaborate and work together, to take lessons learned from other states, other industries so that we don't overproduce and we don't invest in excessive infrastructure,” Petty added.

Commercial hemp production is expected to launch fully in 2020 pending the approval of national regulations by the USDA and approval of Indiana’s state program.

The office of the Indiana State Chemist recommends that farmers interested in producing hemp in 2020 begin preparing all necessary details now. They recommend creating a business plan, getting contacts in place, and identifying any process or processors needed or specific varieties needed to meet buyer specifications as soon as possible.

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