Hemp farming faces a crossroads in United States
Hemp legalization set off a “gold rush” of hemp cultivation by enthusiastic growers across the country.
Four years later, a significant number of hemp growers have left the business. And the amount of planted hemp acreage has dropped considerably.
The Farm Bill of 2018 legalized the growing of hemp in the United States for the first time since the 1970’s. Hemp and hemp seeds were taken off the Drug Enforcement Administration's schedule of controlled substances.
But despite the legalization, hemp growers are facing many challenges.
Those who are still at it are always adapting as the government considers regulations and farmers struggle to find processors.
As a researcher and a commercial agriculture administrator with the University of Illinois Extension, Phil Alberti advises hemp growers across Illinois. He sympathizes with the growers as they try to navigate the emerging hemp market and the evolving regulations.
“We are in a very infant industry and we have a long way to go,” Alberti, an enthusiastic advocate for the fledgling hemp industry, told The Center Square.
Alberti compares growing hemp today to growing corn in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
“We’re figuring out the genetics. We’re figuring out best management practices,” Alberti said.
When a farmer grows corn today, the farmer knows where the elevator is to go to sell the corn, Alberti said. Prices are structured. Corn futures give farmers an idea of future prices.
“We don’t have that with hemp,” Alberti said. “There is not a repository for processing. It just hasn’t developed yet.”
There are not enough processing facilities where the hemp can be turned into crude oil and flour. Hemp growers are running into bottlenecks at harvest time if they don't have processing lined up before they start growing
“That is still shaking out to this day,” Alberti said.
Government regulation is another hurdle for hemp growers. In 2022, in-person field testing was mandated, much to the chagrin of growers. Hemp growers can no longer send samples of their hemp in for testing. Growers are now required to pay for the time and travel costs of getting testers to their farms to gather samples. Some growers are paying as much as $1,000 for required tests, Alberti said.
Needless to say, the change has hurt hemp growers' bottom lines.
Rules and regulations will continue to change, Alberti said. 2023 promises to bring new requirements. He is encouraged that state and federal government regulators are anxious to evaluate new research and are listening to growers' comments. But growers continue to pay the price for operating in a changing marketplace.
Hemp has a great deal of promise as animal feed, Alberti said. Hemp is a fast growing, nutritious crop with deep roots that can outcompete a lot of weeds. Hemp requires only half the amount of nitrogen fertilizer that corn does. Alberti gets a lot of inquiries from livestock farmers who are interested in growing it, he said.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is still wrestling with the safety of allowing animals destined for slaughter to eat hemp.
“What’s fascinating is that people can buy hemp hearts and hemp hulls and eat them and feed them to children, but right now it is illegal to feed them to animals that are raised for human consumption,” Alberti said.
The ability to grow hemp for livestock feed remains on hold until the FDA decides on guidelines, he said.