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Illinois, Iowa farmers betting on the future of hemp
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Illinois, Iowa farmers betting on the future of hemp

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Students at Muscatine Community College had their crop delayed.

It wasn’t rain, but a campus shutdown of one week because of COVID-19 that caused a delay planting their hemp crop. The difference in the weather in that lost week will likely affect the crop’s yield.

“That just teaches the students why timing is so critical, and they’ll know that on the first day of class they’ve got to start everything,” said Shane Mairet, the college's industrial hemp instructor.

Mairet is the only license holder from Scott and Muscatine counties who planted hemp this year. He leads the one-year degree in industrial hemp production, a new offering for the college. The first semester is growing and harvest, second semester is processing and then there's an internship.

Hemp, a cannabis plant, has a lower level of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, capped at 0.3%) — the psychoactive ingredient that creates a high — than marijuana and is used in CBD products, clothing, paper, animal feed, plastics and textiles.

“I started looking at it as a fiber industry and what was made in the 1940s was cloth and rope and sails and then you look at the products that are made today,” he said.

Hemp farmers and companies from all over the country talk to his students.

“We just had a speaker who is making cloth, and we spoke to a company making a wood composite out of hemp, so they’ve been talking to students trying to get their brains thinking about what potential is out there for the hemp industry … it’s just so endless,” he said.

The degree is part of a growing field sprouted when hemp became legal to grow again in the 2018 Farm Bill. But there is risk. If a crop exceeds 0.3% THC in a test, it is destroyed by the state Department of Agriculture.

Phillip Alberti, an extension educator with the University of Illinois Extension, works with Illinois farmers venturing into the crop. Illinois added 150 growers in its second year, for a total of about 798. Production has remained steady.

“I think it’s more just growers figuring out what that sweet spot is for production, which is probably lower than what they were anticipating,” he said.

Alberti helped get the Midwestern Hemp Database, a collaboration between participating growers, going. About 140 growers joined in its first year, along with Michigan State University, University of Illinois, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Purdue.

Growers share information on varieties they grow and row spacing, and are given a discount to get their hemp tested on its THC level. The network will help drive research at the participating universities, Alberti said.

That is where the focus is, assisting growers to know how to have a successful crop with this new option. And for some growers, there is a general curiosity and interest in a new crop, in addition to potentially diversifying operations.

“I think they see the ability of this crop to potentially be used as animal feed or used in other products, but it’s also introducing something new to the world of farming where we don’t get many new, exciting things coming in,” he said.

One issue facing growers is the lack of consistency among state regulations.

“We should see in the next three to five years some definitive FDA regulation of hemp products and a clear pathway for how hemp and CBD would be regulated in food and dietary supplements, and I think that will bring a lot of certainty and stability to the marketplace and bring a lot of bigger companies in that are not entering the space because of the FDA issue and the regulatory uncertainty,” said Shawn Hauser, a lawyer and partner at Vicente Sederberg in Colorado. He leads the firm's hemp and cannabinoid practice group.

Federal regulation would create “more of a seamless, thriving hemp farming industry, rather than the fragmented state of affairs we see today," Hauser said. “I think there’s just an enormous amount of potential there, but we’re at such early stages."

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