I recently ordered a drink at my local smoothie place and it had hemp seed protein powder in it. That made me curious about the agricultural crop of hemp. I was confused and thought others might misunderstand it as well. Here’s what I learned.
Isn’t it just marijuana?
No, hemp is most notably grown for use as a fiber crop. The long stalks have stringy interiors that can be processed into things like cloth and rope. Most natural fibers that we use for things like clothing come from cotton (a plant) or wool from sheep (an animal). Bamboo has become a popular alternative fiber crop. But cotton and bamboo can’t be grown in the Iowa climate. Sheep are raised in Iowa and while wool has a lot of advantages as a fiber, wool and sheep aren’t as popular as their plant alternatives. Corn and soybeans can also be used to make fibers and cloth, but they take more processing and therefore can be more expensive. Hemp can be grow in the Iowa climate and offers an interesting option for Iowa farmers to get into the fiber industry. But hemp offers a lot of other options too and can be raised as feed ingredient for livestock or for other purposes.
When you hear the word “hemp,” I know for many marijuana is the first thing that crosses your mind. Hemp and marijuana do come from the same cannabis genus. However, hemp has a Delta-9 THC of less than 0.3%, and marijuana has a THC level of more than 0.3%. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the psychoactive compound in cannabis that creates euphoric effects when consumed. The 0.3% of THC in hemp is so low that it would take 2,500 lbs. of the commodity to equal the same amount of THC in one joint typically used recreationally. So there is no chance anyone will be able to use hemp as a recreational drug.
Is it legal?
In 2014, the Farm Bill passed, allowing pilot programs and research to start on the hemp commodity. This farm bill started the discussion on whether hemp farming would continue in the United States and if it was beneficial to everyone.
Four years later, the Hemp Act of 2018 passed. This act moved hemp, with a THC concentration of less than 0.3%, from a controlled substance category to an agricultural commodity. In addition to how hemp was categorized, the act also introduced that hemp producers could receive federal crop insurance. Each state would oversee its laws regarding the production of hemp.
Specifically, the Iowa law allows the production, processing and marketing of hemp products. It does not include using marijuana recreationally, smoking hemp and using or selling hemp for animals.
To farm hemp in Iowa, farmers must first obtain a hemp license. The licensing requires applicants to submit official fingerprints, pass a background check, and have no drug-related felony for the previous ten years. Once the farmer is adequately licensed, they must grow 40 acres or less of hemp and record all farmed hemp. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach offers a number of different resources for farmers interested in trying to grow this fiber crop.
Farming hemp is not for everyone. Seeds are germinated in a greenhouse and the seedlings have to be transplanted into fields – either by hand or with small scale equipment. Some farmers are refurbishing old machinery previously used to plant things like strawberries to plant the seedlings. Hemp allows for interested farmers to start small and scale up as they become familiar with the agronomics of unfamiliar crop.
Why farm hemp?
Food, building supplies, textiles and oils are just a few of the thousands of different uses from hemp. Hemp is a versatile commodity; the plant’s seeds, stalks, roots, leaves and plant can all be used in one way or another. I personally have tried hemp seed protein in my smoothies. It was a plant-based alternative to my typical whey protein that I purchased because it was cheaper. New products like this are now on the market because of the growing industry. With these new products coming on the market, hemp farming is a place for farmers to invest their money and a portion of their land.
This up-and-coming specialty crop can be grown as either a fiber, grain or for CBD. Out of these niches, CBD or cannabidiol has the most profit potential. CBD is a non-intoxicating phytochemical that has potential health benefits for things like pain, nausea, addiction, and depression. Farmers can usually profit around $1,000 per acre of corn. In contrast, hemp farmers can gain up to $40,000 per acre when their hemp is grown specifically for CBD.
Hemp can be grown in many different regions and climates, making it very easy to grow. However, hemp does prefer certain soils over others. Aerated and loose loam soil can best produce hemp. This kind of soil has mainly sand and silt with a little bit of clay and has enough room for oxygen to flow through the soil. Iowa offers ideal soils.
Hemp also has a short growing season. This fast-growing season means that farmers who live in cooler climates (like Iowa) can fit hemp into their season when they might not be able to with other crops. Farmers with warmer climates may have multiple harvests in one year.
Because hemp only became legal to grow in 2014 and 2018, everyone is still learning how to farm it. There are always opportunities and challenges in growing new crops and some Iowa farmers are embracing this new crop.