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Hemp is naturally tough; the stalks are woody and nearly impossible to break down with traditional equipment used for most common grain products. It’s this very characteristic that makes hemp extremely applicable for a virtually unlimited number of commercial and industrial applications.
Hemp Processing: First Steps
[Editors note: As of 2023 Power Zone Agriculture is no longer in business]
The first step towards any high-value hemp product is decortication. Depending on the decortication equipment, the stalks can be either wet or dry. The decorticated process for hemp removes the tough woody interior (the hurd material), from the softer, fibrous exterior of the stalk. Decortication generates both hurd as well as bast materials, which are cellulosic fibers found in the phloem of the stem. Each is useful, but with different applications.
Some farms rely on third-party processors, with large facilities, like Pure Hemp Technology in Colorado. Others, remove the middleman and use small-scale mobile machines built by companies such as Power Zone Agriculture.
Understandably, considering the massive variety of end products, there is also an enormous number of possible processor configurations. For example, not only do farmers need to weigh the benefits of processing onsite, or moving to a third party decorticator, they also must consider the benefits of various input models. Is it better to feed machines manually? What about baled hemp; round or square? There is also the possibility of conventional dry processing versus the new push towards wet processing. Every farm needs to make specific financial and logistical calculations about its hemp processing setup.
Wet Hemp Processing
As hemp technology evolves, so too does its adaptability. Although the vast majority of hemp is processed only once dried and retted in the field, wet processing technology is making waves. It avoids the many weather dependent variables around harvest time, and might even improve the properties of the end product.
Wet processing requires specialized equipment, but according to a recent article published in the Journal of Natural Fibers, it may have many benefits that deserve attention. According to the authors, harvest and onsite, field-processing no longer must rely entirely on the weather. Wet preservation of hemp is not only feasible but perhaps preferable. Through these novel wet processing technologies, the integrity of the whole plant is preserved.
Wet hemp processing is the novel new technology studied in large part by agricultural research centers. Given time, wet processing could revolutionize aspects of the hemp industry. Not only does wet processing avoiding some of the inherent pitfalls of weather-dependent harvests, but if the studies are correct, it may also improve the strength and durability of the final product.
As many farmers have discovered, sourcing hemp processing equipment is not always easy. Small-scale Chinese built hand-fed processors, which are mobile, are slow and reliant on extensive manual labor. On the other end of the spectrum, large-scale hemp processing plants require many millions of dollars to establish a full processing plant.
For those farms seeking a middle ground of efficiency and affordability, hemp technology is starting to catch up to the demand. Innovative companies like Power Zone Agriculture are introducing mid-range processing options. Not only are mid-range options more affordable than relying on third-party processors, but the machinery is also mobile with improved automation.
A Final Thought on Hemp Processing
Hemp’s versatile nature presents both challenges and opportunities for processing. Decortication, the primary step in hemp processing, varies in methods and equipment, with choices ranging from third-party processors to on-farm, mobile machines.
The hemp industry is now also exploring wet processing, which offers potential benefits over traditional dry processing, including weather independence and possibly enhanced end-product qualities.
While equipment availability and cost remain concerns, technological advancements are gradually providing more efficient and affordable processing solutions, bridging the gap between small-scale manual machines and large, costly processing plants. This landscape of hemp processing technology holds the promise of further unlocking hemp’s vast commercial potential.