Farmers say hemp could be ‘huge’ industry for Michigan

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Hemp, the once-derided and still-stigmatized cannabis cousin of marijuana, could become Michigan’s next big cash crop.

Cannibidol, known as CBD, is a compound found in hemp that is in high demand as the market for CBD oil grows. Since it doesn’t contain the high-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that’s found in marijuana, CBD is legal and widely sold -- even at Family Video

Even though marijuana and hemp are the same species of plant, the federal government regulates them differently.

Hemp, used throughout history for its strong fibers that made it a good source of paper and rope, is defined as having .3% or less of THC, an amount too insignificant to cause intoxication if ingested.

Family Video now carries CBD products

While it’s not been FDA approved or extensively tested, CBD oil is accepted by many as a safe alternative to pharmaceuticals and used to treat anxiety, pain and other health symptoms.

Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), after learning in 2018 that federal regulators were legalizing the farming of hemp -- which since 1970 had been listed as a Schedule 1 controlled substance and banned alongside heroin and LSD -- launched its inaugural hemp farming program in early 2019.

The program licensed 580 farmers to grow hemp on more than 15,000 acres of Michigan land this year, Gina Allessandri, the state’s industrial hemp program director, told members of the state House Appropriations subcommittee on Agriculture and Rural Development during an information session in Lansing Tuesday, Nov. 5.

The session was meant for legislators to learn about the burgeoning industry.

“One of the big selling points for us when we entered the hemp industry was the projected profit margins," said Keith Hagen, who runs Hempure in Ubly with his brothers, Brad and Clint Hagen.

The trio of brothers ventured into uncharted agricultural territory this year when they planted hemp on nearly 400 acres of their family’s legacy farm in Michigan’s Huron County that has traditionally grown wheat, beans and sugar beets.

Keith Hagen, with brother Brad Hagen, appeared before legislators to discuss their optimism for hemp growth in Michigan, as well as concerns.

We are “a firm believer that hemp could be and should be the stabilizing commodity that gives the farmers of Michigan a shot in the arm,” Keith Hagen said. "With a strong legislative commitment to the industry, could be the future of the state.

“In our first year it has become very apparent that hemp is tailor-made for Michigan ... We plan to make our own little part of the country not only a major player within the industry but the location for growing premium organic hemp."

Keith Hagen expressed worries regarding cross-pollination, which can degrade hemps’ valuable CBD, issues with unscrupulous seed sellers and consultants duping Michigan farmers and strict testing rules that hamper the farmer’s ability to optimize their harvest

State and federal rules allow a farmer 15 days to harvest their crop after it passes THC testing. In order to qualify as hemp, the plants can’t contain greater than .3% of THC. Otherwise, it may have to be destroyed under federal rules.

“Fifteen days is tough when you’re talking about a farm of scale,” Keith Hagen said. “We’ve got 1.8 million plants ... You’ve got different varieties starting to come on about the same time. That gets tricky."

He’d like to see the harvest window and THC threshold increased.

The harvesting deadline is in place because THC levels can increase the longer the plant remains rooted. While that’s true, if a plant is harvested too early, the CBD levels can’t be fully optimized, Keith Hagen said.

During Michigan’s first hemp harvest, farmers were allowed to collect and submit their own testing samples. That may change under the new federal rules that require someone in law enforcement or someone designated by the state collect testing samples.

The new federal rules also require labs that conduct THC testing be DEA certified.

Michigan is expected to continue operating under a pilot program for the next couple years while federal rules are solidified. At that time, MDARD spokeswoman Jennifer Holton said Michigan may submit its own hemp farming guidelines to the USDA for approval.

Hemp farming data for the pilot program is being collected by MDARD and is expected to be compiled in a report for release early next year, Holton said.

Keith Hagen and his brothers with Hempure plan to continue farming hemp in 2020.

“We made it to the end, we were able to have a successful crop, we were able to produced about 1,200,000 pounds of dried biomass, which we’re pretty pleased with,” Keith Hagen said. "We’re now excited to get our product into CBD manufacturers’ hands.

“It’s an amazing product ... I think this could be a huge industry for Michigan.”

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