Although CBD production has stolen the spotlight up to now, industrial hemp for fiber and textiles is making a comeback. As the consumables market levels out, industrial hemp could be the better long-term approach to hemp farming.
We recently spoke with Greg Wilson at HempWood about the process of turning the hemp plant into beautiful, useful hardwoods for a wide variety of products. This week, in honor of the NoCo Hemp Expo happening in Denver, we’re going to review the various types of equipment necessary for processing fiber and seed.
Is Processed Hemp Viable in 2022?
Because of its versatility, the profit from hemp is often only limited by imagination. Through creative business ventures, hemp cultivators are capable of bringing bioplastics, hempcrete, clothing, and much more to the world. While some hemp products have yet to catch on, others have swelled into successful businesses.
However, it's important to note that not all hemp is created equal. The genetics required to produce CBD-rich hemp is not the same as those necessary for hemp hurd and fiber harvested from industrial hemp. Research out of the University of Minnesota shows that most CBD-rich hemp varieties are more genetically linked to THC-rich cannabis. The seeds are feminized to produce cannabinoid-producing flowers.
On the other hand, industrial hemp is produced from male seeds, grows tall and stringy, and produces little to no cannabinoid potency. Industrial hemp is grown differently, harvested differently, and processed differently. Regardless of the end product, it takes a significant amount of processing and specialized equipment to create a usable material from hemp biomass.
Hemp processing facilities help streamline the supply chain from cultivator to manufacturer. To access such hemp processing equipment, most farmers rely on industrial hemp processing plants, such as Panda Biotech in Wichita, Texas.
Machinery Required to Process Hemp Fiber
Hemp manufacturing begins with harvesting. Industrial hemp is typically harvested with specialized combines and tractors. After that, the hemp must go through the retting process, then decortication and the farmer is left with usable or salable material.
The process of retting hemp softens the hemp fibers to make them easier to process. Depending on how the process is done, retting can take between 48 hours or as long as several weeks.
After decortication, the material is broken and scutched, where the waste material such as long fibers, short fibers, and shives are removed. Machine rollers break the plant material, and modern-day scutchers save time. Additionally, a byproduct of scutching is used to make hemp paper.
Once separated into fibers, that material is spinnable, similar to yarn. Spinning fibers is the first step in producing rope, clothing, and various consumer goods. However, systems like the R-2 Hemp Stalk Processing System by CannaSystems allow processors to take raw hemp stalks to finished, textile-grade fiber in days.
Hemp processing equipment can be listed between $500,000 and millions of dollars, depending on the size of the operation. Larger industrial-scale machines process tons of hemp per hour. In contrast, smaller operations may benefit from purchasing smaller units, such as the micro-decorticator HurdMaster MD1000. To date, the necessary infrastructure for adequate industrial hemp processing in the United States is severely lacking, giving way to mobile options, rentable equipment, and service partnerships.
Machines Required to Process Hemp Seeds
Farmers use combines to harvest fields as this equipment minimizes the amount of fiber mixed in with the seeds and flowers. After this process, the plant material is moved with a tubular drag conveyor, limiting the points of contact with the hemp seeds to decrease the potential for the seeds to burst and become rancid.
From the combine, the hemp is processed through an input hopper, spiral elevator, dehulling, and separating unit. Bucking machines separate flowers and seeds from stems. After separation from the rest of the plant, seeds, like fiber, must be dehulled or removed from their tough coating. Hemp seeds can turn into various products, from oils to ethanol.
With prohibition still in the rearview mirror, we have only begun to scratch the surface regarding the possibilities for industrial hemp production in the United States. The lack of infrastructure today is the biggest opportunity for tomorrow. Increased hemp farming, processing, and production could reinvigorate manufacturing repurpose empty factories and other lifeless facilities.
Follow Cannabis Tech’s new monthly podcast, Herbonomics, with Tony Solano of iHemp Manufacturing to learn how the industrial hemp industry is advancing, hear from industry experts, and stay informed of all the latest hemp technology.