In 1967, Mr. Robinson—husband of the more famous Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate—said plastics were the future.
More than 50 years later, Erica Stark, executive director of the National Hemp Association, has said to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry that hemp is the future.
Rising demand for hemp products could soon make it an important cash crop for America but both industry and regulators must change to meet evolving demands and challenges, she told a committee hearing this summer.
The industry must be prepared to move from currently focusing on seeds as a food item, to CBD, to eventually also looking at other uses such as fiber. Regulators need to coordinate among themselves and work with the industry to address specific pressing issues.
These include a lack of standardized testing for THC levels, and no authorized pesticides, herbicides or fungicides for hemp; this has coincidentally created something of a default organic industry, but will likely be a major issue in the near future. Also, stakeholders under tribal jurisdictions are at a competitive disadvantage by being left out of the 2014 Farm Bill, according to other stakeholders speaking at the hearing on hemp production and the 2018 Farm Bill.
“Right now CBD is where the demand is, where the money is right now. [But] … processing seed is where all the investment has been so far,” Stark said. “The future depends on how the [US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)] handles this and what kind of regulatory framework we have to move forward.
“The longer-term vision for hemp, looking five to ten years down the road, will be the fiber markets,” she added. “That is where we will have the opportunity to create manufacturing jobs. We will have the need to grow hemp on a massive scale when we talk about supplying the auto industry, looking to replace single-use plastics and replacing some of the paper bulk we use. CBD will be popular for the foreseeable future.”
It should be noted that the promised potential of hemp for uses such as paper and plastic alternatives has been widely touted for some time now without ever fulfilling that potential. However, changing legislation linked with changing attitudes towards hemp—plus advances in technology and production—may make a difference.
When Senator Sherrod Brown (Democrat, Ohio) asked Greg Ibach (undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs at the US Department of Agriculture, USDA) how big the market is, Ibach shared 2018 data such as the number of state licenses issued and the number of acres hemp was grown on.
Vote Hemp’s 2018 US Hemp Crop Report said that in 2018, there were 78,176 acres of hemp grown across 23 states, compared to 25,713 acres of hemp across 19 states in 2017. In addition, there were 40 university-conducted research studies, and 3546 state hemp licenses issued in 2018, compared to 32 studies and 1456 state licenses in 2017. This was in line with Ibach’s statement.
Meanwhile, Kentucky farmer Brian Furnish’s testimony provided more granular information, providing an insight into how the raw material for CBD products starts life and what it actually means to farmers.
He and his brothers, all former tobacco growers, plant about 50 pounds of seed per acre at the most—depending on the purpose for which it is being grown. Fiber fields are planted at the maximum rate and can see plants grow as much as 20 feet tall. From that they would expect 3-4 US tons (2700kg-3600kg) per acre each year, generating about $185 per ton, Furnish said.
For hemp seeds, the amount planted per acre drops to about 30 pounds. This would hopefully yield 0.4-0.5 US tons per acre, which would be sold for $1700 per US ton. And for CBD the amount planted would fall further still, with only about 3200 plants per acre—planted one small plant at a time, in a similar way to tobacco in terms of spacing, Furnish added. Yields and sale prices for CBD were not given by Furnish.
However other sources say farmers should expect to see about 1 lb of 10% CBD content per plant, which should fetch $25-$35.
But to truly grow the industry in the USA, lawmakers and regulators need to work together to take immediate action in addressing several crucial problems facing the hemp sector. For example, standardized lab testing methodologies for THC are essential, he said.
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