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Advocates explain industrial hemp farming

By Staff | Nov 24, 2017

Learning about growing industrial hemp was part of a symposium that took place last week in Spencer. Here, a producer inquires as to whether or not industrial hemp has any feed value for his livestock.



SPENCER – Northwest Iowa farmers were introduced to the possibilities of producing industrial hemp as a commercial crop at a symposium Nov. 16 in Spencer.

Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp and owner of a clothing company that uses imported hemp-based fabrics, told producers they have a right to produce a commodity that could diversify their farming operations.

“We had trouble getting the fabric sourced and bringing it in, and knowing we had grown hemp here in the United States for decades, it didn’t make any sense to me that farmers here were denied the right to participate in something that has a global market,” he said, adding that hemp is produced in Canada, Russia, Europe, China and other developed countries.

The meeting was sponsored by Vote Hemp and the Iowa Hemp Association.

Vote Hemp is a non-profit organization seeking a free market for industrial hemp, and is actively seeking changes in current state and federal legislation to allow U.S. farmers to grow this non-drug commodity that can be used to produce anything from plastics to paper to food. They have been actively working on it since 2000.

What is industrial hemp?

Steenstra said hemp is the “distinct oilseed and fiber varieties of the plant species Cannabis sativa L.” He said industrial hemp cannot be used as a drug, saying hemp is “distinct from marijuana, just like the Chihuahua and St. Bernard are unique breeds of the same species.”

He said industrial hemp has no “recreational” value. Drug varieties of Cannabis contain higher levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC-which is also needed for recreational use) and CBD (the part of Cannabis used in medicine), while industrial hemp itself contains higher levels of CBD and almost no THC – less than one percent of it.

Steenstra said it can be grown without pesticides and its fibers are naturally UV resistant, and have anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties. He said the ‘woody core’ (called ‘hurd’) can be combined with lime to create hempcrete, a lightweight cement-like insulating material for homes.

Steenstra also said Cannabinoids have many therapeutic uses, including dietary supplements, food and medicine, and that shelled hemp seeds are rich in omega-3 and omega-6 essential fats, are high in fiber and amino acids. He also said hemp seeds are high in magnesium, which helps with relaxation, and controlling blood sugar blood pressure. He said it is a complete protein that is highly digestible.

Steenstra said the auto industry (Chrysler, BMW, Mercedes, Ford and others) is asking for hemp fiber composites for interior parts, such as door panels, saying it is lighter than fiberglass, more cost-effective, with better crash performance, and recyclable.

The Vote Hemp organization said hemp projects must be conducted under the authority of the state department of agriculture or an institute of higher learning. The Department of Agriculture must certify and register hemp projects and can receive hemp seed on behalf of applicants.

Information provided by Vote Hemp said there are 23,346 acres of hemp grown in 19 states, with Colorado leading the way at 7,500 acres. Oregon, North Dakota and Kentucky follow close behind, with at or just over 3,000 acres each. To date, 33 states have removed barriers to its production.

There is a $688 million hemp market, the organization states, with hemp foods making up 19 percent of it, personal care products coming in at 24 percent, textiles at 14 percent, supplements at 4 percent, hemp-derived Cannabidiol or CBD products (dietary supplements, etc.) at 19 percent-making it the fastest-growing product category in the hemp sector; hemp dairy supplements at 4 percent, industrial applications at 18 percent and other consumer products (paper, construction materials, etc.) at 2 percent of the market.

Basic agronomics

Steenstra said industrial hemp can be grown for seed or fiber. It is typically planted in rows 5-8 inches apart, and dual crops are possible. He said producers are currently receiving about $0.60 per pound (cleaned and dried) for conventional hemp grains, and up to $1.40 per pound (cleaned and dried) for organic hemp grains, making them able to compete with corn and soybeans.

John Strohfus, new industrial hemp producer from Hastings, Minn., told producers he began growing it in 2016 to get in on the ground floor because plant-based proteins are a quickly-growing industry, and because the U.S. is the number one importer of hemp.

He grows the crop for the seed, and said hemp offers natural weed suppression and can be grown without pesticides or herbicides. He likes the pollen isolation and soil improvements in the crop rotations, and that its deep roots are natural soil aerators. He said he never plants before June 1, and the crop is ready to harvest in September, with about 103 days to harvest.

His hemp crop sees test weights of about 44 pounds and 20 percent moisture. It needs to be dried to 8 or 9 percent for storage.

His fertilizer application costs in 2016 came to $73.93/acre, with AMS, UREA, pellet lime and nitrogen. His 2017 seed costs were $4 per pound, with a seeding rate of 25-30 pounds per acre ($120 per acre).

“Every call I take … the producer wants to know how much money they can make growing hemp, and I always say it depends,” he said, adding that soil types and farming practices matter with hemp production just as with any other crop. “If you have good ground and good yields on other crops-and good growing conditions-you should yield 1,000 to 1,200 pounds. If you have high-yielding ground and things go great, you could achieve higher.”

He said most Canadian producers set expectations of 800 pounds of dryland yields for rookie growers.

Strohfus said a net operating profit of $300 to $500 per acre is achievable with a yield of 1,200 pounds.

Strohfus said he had some trouble finding a market for his hemp grains, and it’s a process he continues to work on.


Dr. Christopher Disbro, CEO and founder of Heartland Hemp Company from Des Moines, is helping work on legislation to help make hemp production legal in Iowa. He said the bill is in the senate and cleared the ag committee unanimously. He said it will be introduced to the house of representatives in January.

“Hemp is a new rotational crop and can add biodiversity to Iowa farmland,” he said. “This is something that can raise the tide in Iowa across the board-the entire state will benefit from an added level of crop diversity.”

Disbro said he got involved with hemp production from the medical side, but as he looked into it further, said he knew it could be something that would be good for all people.

“We can be making plastics and cars and all kinds of things from regenerative, renewable Iowa-grown hemp,” he said, adding that The North Face and Patagonia are using it in their cold weather gear, and that he has a guitar made almost entirely from pressed hemp.

“Pretty much anything that can be made out of plastic can be made out of hemp,” he said. “We talked about the pile of bottles at the bottom of the ocean from all the plastic that has been dumped that should all be bio-degradable hemp that was sourced in Iowa.”

Disbro said as the industry grows, the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit will drive it to become a real and genuine commodity.

“The conversations I had about this six years ago when I got involved in this effort were fundamentally different than they are today,” said Disbro. “There were a lot of educational barriers early on. But persistence and education pays off.

“I run into a lot less resistance on both the ag and medical side these days. It will be interesting to see how the conversation develops.”

Disbro encouraged producers in attendance to contact their legislators regarding this issue, referring to Senate File Number 329.

“Call your state representatives,” he said. “People think their calls don’t make any difference, but every call absolutely does make a difference.”

More information about hemp legislation and the uses of industrial hemp can be found at www.votehemp.com.

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