Michigan Farm News
High time for hemp?
January 27, 2015 Category: Crops
by Paul W. Jackson
To the advocate, hemp is a cure-all. Health, economics, self-sufficiency. It’s all there. Like the monster in a child’s closet, there’s nothing to fear when the door opens and its stigma is exposed to light.
Hemp, advocates say, is a long-suffering victim of federal conspiracies and failed drug policy, much like asparagus, but closer to home. Hemp’s medicinal properties, agriculture advantages and potential for numerous high-quality products have been either ignored or actively opposed, again, due to federal policies that began with government favors to influential millionaires 60 years ago.
To the opponent, it’s just pot, a weed society can do without. And since stereotypes allow most of society to dismiss so-called potheads as lazy ne’er-do-wells, hemp, too, can readily be dismissed.
Somewhere in the middle lies the truth, and after decades of misinformation and myth, it might soon be up to farmers to discover for themselves what hemp — grown by George Washington and other leaders when it was legal — can do for agriculture and the general public.
Opening the door
The door is open now, after Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law bills that allow the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) or colleges and universities in Michigan to grow and research industrial hemp.
Besides that, the American Farm Bureau Federation recently changed its policy, and now opposes “the classification of industrial hemp as a controlled substance.”
That’s a minor, but necessary shift from drug policy to agronomic policy, and more in line with long-standing Michigan policy which supports, pending federal approval, “an effort by the state of Michigan to facilitate the legal permitting process of agricultural production of industrial hemp for industrial and food uses, as a sound rotational crop with established and emerging markets.”
For advocates, hemp’s stigma has not been satisfactorily lifted, but recent events are a good start. A bill was expected to be introduced in Congress in mid-January to remove industrial hemp from the controlled substance list on the federal level.
That’s a logical first step, said Everett Swift, executive director of the Michigan Industrial Hemp Education and Marketing Project (MIHEMP), since industrial hemp and smokable marijuana have little in common except their appearance.
“I certainly would not want high-THC (the active ingredient in marijuana that lends the mild “high” to the user) plants in my industrial hemp field,” Swift said. “High-THC cannabis doesn’t work well for producing fiber, and industrial hemp lowers the THC level in the marijuana. Growing them together ruins both crops.”
The facts show, Swift said, that smokers cannot get high from industrial hemp, and there is high potential for a viable commercial crop in Michigan that can be used for building material, insulation, soap, paper, clothing, plastics and much more. For the farmer, it’s known as a good cover crop that, when plowed under, lends organic matter to the soil, suppresses weeds because of its fast growth and may be better at producing ethanol than corn.
Of course, such claims will be investigated by university researchers after Snyder opened that door, but it will take time, said Doug Buhler, director of MSU’s ag bio research and associate dean for research within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
“Part of the problem is getting state and federal law all aligned,” he said. “We rely heavily on federal funding, so we’re going to be cautious. Once we get clear guidance, we’ll treat it just like any other research crop. I think there is potential there for agriculture, and now that it’s legal to move forward in Michigan, we have to wait for the regulations to come out, and our legal staff will make sure that we’re on the straight and narrow.”
Hemp was once a widely farmed commercial crop in the United States, and while it’s been illegal since the 1930s to cultivate it, imports continue. According to a National Law Center report from June 2014, the total U.S. retail value of hemp products in 2013 was $581 million.
Despite such numbers, a University of Wisconsin-Madison study, cited in the report, said: “… hemp production is not likely to generate sizeable profits” and although hemp may be “slightly more profitable than traditional row crops” it is likely “less profitable than other specialty crops” due to the “current state of harvesting and processing technologies, which are quite labor intensive, and result in relatively high per unit costs.”
The study highlights that “U.S. hemp growers could be affected by competition from other world producers as well as by certain production limitations…
“The study further claims that most estimates of profitability from hemp production are highly speculative, and often do not include additional costs of growing hemp in a regulated market, such as the cost associated with ‘licensing, monitoring, and verification of commercial hemp.'”
All that seems logical, since hemp’s illegality has thwarted investment, processing and production for most of 60 years. Will that change as universities begin research?
“Right now there is a market, but the supply chain is not right,” said Kyle Cline, national policy advisor with the Indiana Farm Bureau, which led the charge to change American Farm Bureau Federation policy at this year’s national convention. “We don’t know if this will end up as a niche market or something bigger, but we didn’t want the train to leave the station, and that’s why we wanted a change in national policy. Hemp won’t be a cash cow, but it does hold additional opportunities. In Michigan, which is more diversified, there may be real potential. But first we have to get test plots going at MSU and Purdue, and then disseminate the information from those plots to farmers through Extension.”
Obviously, there is a long way to go before hemp is restored to its former glory as a viable cash crop in Michigan and the United States.
“There’s not as much pushback as there used to be,” Swift said. “I was pleasantly surprised by the Department of Agriculture’s testimony during hearings (last year), and I was very happy to see Farm Bureau’s support.”
With hemp’s revival seemingly taking its first step after 60 years of government-imposed impediments, perhaps farmers can open the door to a viable crop.
“We need to have local markets, processors, a place to ship and sell,” Cline said. While that may take some time, Swift said farmers will likely take care of production when the time comes.
“If farmers can make a profit from it, they’ll grow it,” he said. “The only thing holding it back is the stigma, and maybe that’s beginning to change.”