Growing Hemp for CBD and Fiber
The cannabis plant is outstanding in its applicability. Though the plant is best known for producing mind-altering marijuana, cannabis was originally domesticated for its nutritious seeds and practical fibers. Today, non-psychoactive cannabis is quickly becoming an incredibly valuable cure for all sorts of medical conditions, from epilepsy to aches and pains. These non-psychoactive applications tend to come from a type of cannabis called hemp, which is distinct from marijuana that gets users high.
Thanks to the Farm Bill passed in 2018, growing hemp is now permitted across the U.S. (except in Idaho, South Dakota and Mississippi), and it promises to be incredibly lucrative for farmers. However, farmers need to determine the purpose for their hemp crop before sowing their fields because different hemp uses require vastly different growing conditions. The following are the three dominant reasons a farmer might choose to fill their fields with hemp — and how they might do so to gain a successful harvest.
Hemp for Fiber
Believed to be the first reason humans domesticated the cannabis plant, hemp fibers are strong, durable, water-resistant, sun-resistant and remarkably lightweight. Until the 20th century, hemp fiber made up over 90 percent of the world’s clothing and has long been invaluable in the manufacturing of rope, sail canvas, home linens and even paper products. In the search for sustainable materials, the world is just now rediscovering the value of hemp, and the demand for hemp fiber is on the rise.
Fortunately, fiber hemp is by far the easiest of hemp crops. Hemp fibers, called bast, surround the stalks of the hemp plants, which means that fiber crop is ready to harvest as soon as the stalks grow large enough. All cannabis plants like dry air and dry, neutral-pH soil, and they thrive in the bright light and heat of summer, and given the right weather conditions, fiber hemp crop is ready for harvest about 60 days after planting. One ton of fiber sells for about $260; an acre of hemp can yield about 3 tons of fiber, so farmers can earn around $500 per acre, after expenses.
Hemp for Seed
Slightly more difficult to raise is a hemp crop for seed. Called variously hemp seeds and hemp hearts, the seeds the grow from a fertilized hemp plant are exceedingly nutritious, boasting a high protein content as well as an abundance of healthy fats. Potentially the next superfood craze, hemp seeds, like hemp fibers, are seeing a boost to demand of late.
However, growing hemp for seed is a bit more difficult than growing hemp for fiber. First, farmers can only collect seeds from female plants that have been fertilized; this requires some male plants to produce pollen for their fields, but a dominant number of female plants to grow the valuable hearts. Next, it takes much longer for hemp crops to mature and produce seeds, as many as four months — but farmers need to be careful not to wait too long, or their plants might start dropping their seeds, making them impossible to harvest. Finally, seeds need to be stored in a dry environment, or they will mold and rot. The current going rate for hemp seed is between $.60 and $.65 per pound; a well-planted acre produces about 1,000 pounds, giving farmers profits of between $250 and $300 per acre.
Hemp for CBD
Cannabidiol, or CBD, is by far the most pervasive reason that farmers are opting to cultivate a cannabis crop. CBD is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid that is currently enjoying status as a cure-all — and that status is not entirely unfounded. Studies have found CBD to have wide-ranging health effects, from reducing seizures in those with epilepsy to reducing pain and inflammation and even to reducing clinical anxiety and PTSD. Though there is only one FDA-approved medication utilizing CBD (Epidiolex, for treating seizures associated with childhood epilepsy), there is a huge number of CBD products available for purchase around the U.S. Because CBD is not psychoactive, it is legal for sale and consumption everywhere and in almost every form, from oils to capsules to lotions to gummies and much, much more. The especially high demand for CBD makes it a profitable crop for farmers, providing revenues of more than $100,000 per acre.
Unfortunately, CBD is by far the most resource-intensive hemp product. First, CBD can only be harvested from female cannabis plants, meaning farmers need to source and purchase feminized seed. Yet, much of the seed currently advertised as female-only has been found to contain male plants, which soak up resources like soil nutrients and water without contributing to a farmer’s bottom line. Some farmers opt to start with clones, which are more likely to be female but also more expensive to procure.
Farming hemp in 2020 feels a bit like settling the Wild West: Everyone is doing it differently, and everyone is experiencing varying levels of success. As more farmers find efficient cultivation strategies, and as hemp products grow in popularity, hemp farming should become a staple of the modern agricultural landscape.