Innovations in Hemp Processing and Production

by | Apr 14, 2021

Written by Jessica McKeil

Jessica McKeil is a cannabis writer and B2B content marketer living in British Columbia, Canada. Her focus on cannabis tech, scientific breakthroughs, and extraction has led to bylines with Cannabis & Tech Today, Terpenes and Testing, Analytical Cannabis, and Grow Mag among others. She is the owner and lead-writer of Sea to Sky Content, which provides content and strategy to the industry’s biggest brands.

The new era of hemp is upon us, heralded in by a trendy medicinal cannabinoid known as cannabidiol (CBD). But now, with a surplus of hemp flooding markets, experts are advising farmers to focus on “Anything but CBD.”

Recent market analysis suggests that the modern hemp industry's real, long-term moneymaker will be fibers and grains. Commercial and industrial applications (cloth and building materials) will rely increasingly on hemp fibers, while health foods will incorporate more hemp grain (oils, seeds, and proteins).

Still, the CBD industry isn't going anywhere. While the price per pound may be reaching rock bottom, CBD phenotypes will still make up 20 percent of the total planted acreage in the future. 

As hemp pivots into new territories, today's production and processing innovations are focused on ramping up production and cutting costs. 

Cutting Costs by Dialing in Cultivation

Right now, hemp farmers are playing a game of catch up with other industrialized crops, like corn, soy, and wheat, which have a century of innovation and technological experimentation behind them. Dialing in production and cultivation techniques is still an ongoing process.

One way hemp cultivators are perfecting their crop management is by applying the latest in field data management. FieldAlytics, based in Canada, is one such agricultural software company helping farmers reduce costs and maintain a competitive edge.

FieldAlytics helps farmers plan around problematic areas in their fields (i.e., low-lying or wet areas) with a Spatial Data and Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) Layers. It crunches current climate conditions and historical climate data to provide detailed insights into the field environment.

Blue Sky Hemp, a processor in Canada, is one of the companies applying the insights from FieldAlytics into their cultivation plan. Devin Dubois co-founded both FieldAlytics and Blue Sky Hemp.

A Transition Towards Row Crop Hemp for CBD

Row cropping, a technique used across the agricultural sector for corn, wheat, and other grains, has only recently been adopted by hemp cultivators working with CBD cultivars. Grain and fiber hemp farmers had experience with row cropping (with access to the necessary equipment to support this method), but CBD hemp is an entirely new and different protocol.

Normally, CBD cultivators work with feminized seeds (or labor-intensive and expensive clone planting). Feminized seeds are not always homogeneous in phenotype expression. Yet, in row crops, homogeneity is the key element. All plants have to mature at the same rate, and at the same time, to work within a row cropping methodology.

As Marguerite Bolt detailed for Hemp Grower, “Homogeneity in plant size and date to maturity are two traits that are standard in row crops, but not in hemp.” Unlike in conventional CBD hemp production, row cropping does not use feminized seeds. Instead, it is non-feminized dioecious.

While this decreases CBD production at the plant level, on a field level, more plants are possible. The potential of increased yield balances out the CBD losses of non-feminized seeds.

Harvesting Hemp Destined for the CBD Market

According to Bolt, row cropping can drastically reduce production costs on a per-acre basis, including labor investment required for planting and addressing rogue males and weeding requirements. But the equipment needed to harvest row-cropped CBD properly is just coming on board.

Under the row cropping methodology, farmers need combines that cut each plant's upper portion (the flowers) as gently as possible. The remainder of the plant, especially the stalk, is suitable for a second round of harvesting and baling up for fiber.

Bish Enterprises is possibly the first equipment manufacturer to launch several hemp-specific headers for row-cropped hemp, specifically the SuperCrop LP, which Bish claims is the “World's First Row Crop Header for CBD Production.”

It has uniquely designed components that lift branches to cut the flower and leave the stalk behind. Bish also supplies seed, fiber/stalk, and flower harvesters explicitly designed for row-cropped hemp.

Innovations in Hemp Processing Addressing Current Growing Pains

Following the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized hemp production, US farmers rushed to plant the first commercial hemp fields in decades. Now the young industry is going through challenging growing pains as regulations evolve, and supply surpasses demand.

Not only is there a surplus of hemp from 2020, but prices have also plummeted from $40 per pound to $2.50. The main innovations in hemp processing these days have sought to help farmers scratch out a living from a hemp market whose bottom has fallen out.

New approaches to CBD hemp cultivation, including row cropping and specialized combine equipment, seek to improve per-acre returns for cultivators. Farmers growing CBD chemotypes are also experimenting with separating seeds and fibers as a source of secondary returns following flower harvest.

Across the spectrum of hemp cultivators, from grain to fiber to CBD, producers are also working on dialing in field management using software and AI-assisted data crunching. Squeezing the most profit out of each acre will be increasingly important as the market stabilizes.