Amid Trade War, Farmers Lean on a New Crop-Hemp
Surrounded by waist-high hemp plants, Andy Huston, a sixth-generation farmer in Illinois, stopped to admire one of the ridged green leaves.
“I could just spend all day in my hemp field pulling weeds,” Mr. Huston said.
Mr. Huston planted corn and soybeans this year, about 1,100 acres of each, just as he has for decades. But he is depending on a far smaller 17-acre plot of hemp, newly legalized for cultivation in Illinois, to spare his struggling bottom line.
The alternative crop, he says, may be especially important this harvest. Flooding in the Midwest kept some fields wet late into the planting season. And farmers are struggling with the effects of a trade fight with China, which has crippled exports of American agricultural commodities like soybeans.
Some states had already allowed farmers to grow hemp, interpreting earlier federal provisions to allow commercial production. Other states responded with legislation allowing hemp.
The farm bill expanded cultivation: Illinois is one of 13 states planting hemp for the first time this year, according to Vote Hemp, an advocacy group. An estimated 285,000 acres of hemp were planted nationwide compared with about 78,000 acres in 2018, according to the Brightfield Group, a Chicago-based market research firm for the cannabis industry. About 87 percent of hemp grown this year will be used for CBD, according to Brightfield.
“It went from a trickle to a flood,” said Tyler Mark, an agricultural economist at the University of Kentucky who studies hemp.
Hemp and marijuana are varieties of cannabis sativa that differ in how much psychoactive chemical they produce. Marijuana is rich in THC, the psychoactive component, and hemp is richer in CBD. That can confuse lawmakers and law enforcement officials, in part because hemp looks (and smells) like marijuana.
“People just don’t understand what hemp is,” said Jeffrey Cox, the head of Illinois’s bureau of medicinal plants, who oversaw a small hemp field at this summer’s state fair to introduce the new crop. “I had to explain that it’s not marijuana to hundreds and hundreds of people.”
Hemp was grown in American fields until the 1930s, when it was included in federal legislation restricting marijuana. Even then, it was not eradicated: Wild hemp is often called “ditch weed.”
This year, about 1,000 farmers in Illinois applied to grow fewer than 23,000 acres of hemp, according to John Sullivan, the director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture. That is minuscule compared with the acres of corn (11 million) and soybeans (10.8 million) planted last year. But some see it as a necessary alternative.
“Our corn and soybean farmers have lost customers,” Governor J.B. Pritzker of Illinois said. “And when you have a large customer and you lose them in a given year, it’s very hard to get them back.”
Mr. Huston, who voted for President Trump and intends to do so again, said he believed that the president had good intentions in his trade standoff, although like other farmers, Mr. Huston said he was frustrated and had suffered from its effects.
“It’s a bad way to do business,” he said. “If we end up with better markets at the end of this, it will have been worth it. But I don’t know if that’s likely.”
Among farmers, Mr. Huston is seen as a cheerleader and expert on hemp. Last year, he was the only person in Illinois to grow hemp as part of a research project with Western Illinois University.
Growing hemp for CBD can be tricky. The federal government has not approved any pesticides for hemp, so labor costs are high because fields need to be tended by hand. Male plants have to be culled because a pollinated female will stop producing CBD. (Hermaphrodite plants, which develop both male and female flowers, self-pollinate and also need to be removed.)
Ann Knowles and Will Terrill, who own Prairie Smoke Herb, a hemp farm in Colchester, Ill., said they were struggling with their first crop.
“It’s frustrating,” Mr. Terrill said as he ripped out a pollinating male. “I’d love for hemp to become what tobacco used to be, enough for folks to just pay their taxes, even if it’s just a couple grand a year.”
Ms. Knowles and Mr. Terrill bought hemp seeds that were cheaper but included both male and female DNA. Roughly half came up useless.
Andrew Smith, another farmer, had the same problem. Yellow flags dotted his two-acre field in Monmouth, Ill., marking male plants that needed to be ripped out. The flags ended halfway down a row. He had used so many the day before that he ran out.
“Hemp is a wild card,” he said. “If you were going to spend $20,000, you had to be willing to lose $20,000.”
Some farmers are growing hemp for grain and fiber, which many consider a better long-term investment. But the vast majority of Illinois’s hemp will be used for CBD, which can be sold for more but requires more involved processing. That comes with its own challenges: In Illinois, hemp must be destroyed if it “tests hot,” meaning it contains more than 0.3 percent THC. As scientific officials study the safety and effectiveness of CBD products, industry experts expressed uncertainty about its future popularity.
“Anyone should be skeptical of a single crop that is marketed as the future saving grace of the American agricultural sector,” said John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Marijuana: A Short History.”
Once farmers make it to harvest, there can be more complications: Processing can require outside machinery and expertise to dry, trim and grind the raw hemp.
Mr. Huston has his own processor, but he is one of the lucky ones. Experts described the race to find a processor as “the Wild West” and “utter chaos.” Some questioned the profits a farmer actually stands to make.
Mr. Huston has predicted that he could sell his hemp, which he is growing for CBD, for as much as $65,000 an acre. But closer to harvest he said, “It’s all still tentative.” Experts, academics and industry officials predict a range of far lower returns — from $14,000 to $40,000 an acre to as low as $6,000 an acre.
“We’re in a bit of a green rush here,” said Kevin Pilarski, the chief commercial officer of Revolution Enterprises, a cannabis company. “There’s overenthusiasm and I don’t think it’s sustainable.”
Still, farmers like Mr. Huston are hopeful.
“You don’t want to be the one that lost your family’s farm,” he said, driving past the house built by his great-great-grandfather that now stands across the street from his hemp field. “I guess that’s my incentive.”