Hemp now can be grown in Iowa - but what's next?

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It’s now legal to grow hemp in Iowa. What to do with the crop remains an open question.

“I’ve gotten phone calls and inquiries about potentially growing hemp,” Rebecca Vittetoe, Iowa State University Extension field agronomist based in Washington, Iowa, wrote in an email. “However, the biggest drawback or hang-up right now is the lack of markets. If we grow it, what do we do with it?”

“It’s nothing like a year ago,” said Angie Rieck-Hinz, an Extension field specialist in charge of its hemp production program. “In January and February of 2019 my phone was ringing off the hook. Right now I couldn’t tell you when I’ve last had a hemp phone call.”

“A couple people asked questions about it” in February at a meeting for people interested in growing hops, said Andy Kraber, Marion County’s Extension director.

“There was a lot of concerns about how you’re going to market it,” Kraber said. “That’s about all I’ve heard about it.”

“It’s kinds of a hit and miss thing,” said Rick Hopkins. “If the market would open up a bit more, everyone would take it.”

After a final public hearing April 6 – held online due to coronavirus precautions – Iowa’s rules for hemp production were officially published April 8, clearing the way for growers to get their state license to plant up to 40 acres of the crop.

Hopkins, owner of the Drakesville Main Street Greenhouse in Unionville, Iowa, is one of about three dozen licensed hemp-seed distributors in the state.

“I haven’t got any (seed) right now, this quick in the game,” he said.

Hopkins plans to bring seed from out of state, and much of his first crop will produce seed for next season.

“I can start growing my own here, then that would be Iowa seed,” he said. “That takes four months to do. I’m going to do some oil hemp again and I’m going to do some seed.”

He and some partners grew hemp on about 9 rented acres in Minnesota last year. That crop went to a processor there, where he also plans to sell some of his first Iowa crop.

“There’s no (oil) extractors in Iowa as of now,” he said. “There could be some pop up before harvest. They’re in Minnesota, Wisconsin – all around us.”

That’s because those states legalized commercial hemp production in 2016 (Minnesota) and 2017 (Wisconsin). Iowa’s rules were written under the 2018 federal Farm Bill and approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in late March.

“We’re receiving applications right now,” said Robin Pruisner, state entomologist and administrator of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s hemp program. “People fully intend to plant this year, but the excitement has been tempered a bit. We’re in a substantial oversupply situation with the 2019 crop. People are taking a close look at what they’re able to do.”

Hemp backers argue its merits for a wide range of uses. Its tough fibers can be used to make rope, fiberboard, plastics, paper, and composite materials. Its protein-rich seeds can go into tofu, veggie burgers, butter, cheese, salad oils, and milk substitutes. Seed can also be ground into flour for pasta and baked goods or pressed into oils for diesel fuel, paint, detergent, ink and lubricating oil.

But none of that’s happening in Iowa yet, and the expansion of hemp production – only four states continue to ban it – has driven prices down.

“We’re in a substantial oversupply situation with the 2019 crop,” Pruisner said. “The processing ability has not kept up with that, and we haven’t built what I would call consistent reliable consumer demand for the product.”

“With all the other states that have come in ahead of Iowa, the market has pretty well crashed,” said Rieck-Hinz. “There’s a lot of people who have entered this market.”

Pruisner said she’s heard some talk of new processing plants in Iowa, but no more than talk.

“I think there are people out there who are toying with the idea,” she said. “I haven’t seen anybody that’s willing to put their money where their mouths are.”

Hopkins hopes enough Iowans give hemp a try to lead to investments in processing plants.

“It’s not to be scared of it, but it’s just having your ducks in a row” for the first growing season, he said. “They need to find a buyer.”

With such a wide range of uses, growers must identify an end user for their crop, then plant and manage it for that specific product.

“For fiber, you’re going to have to plant that differently than you would a crop for oil,” Rieck-Hinz said. “Purchasing seed can be a big challenge. You really want to do your homework before you plant.”

Hopkins said his Minnesota crop last year “turned out pretty good. It’s a lot of labor. We did 9 acres, the three of us. That’s a pretty good chunk.”

Now that growing hemp is legal after decades of lobbying by its supporters, it’s up to those backers to develop markets for its legal products.

“I do think there’s opportunities for that market to grow or mature quite substantially,” Rieck-Hinz said. “There is potential for that market to grow so, what we need to see happen is the development of processing plants.”

“In order for any commodity to thrive you need a consistent consumer demand at a price that works for the producer,” Pruisner said. “Everybody needs to get the price they need to do this in a profitable manner.”

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