What’s Holding Hemp Back?

by | Apr 3, 2021

Written by Deborah Agboola

The farm bill officially separated hemp from the list of controlled substances. However, after the first year, the potential windfall thousands of American farmers hoped for with hemp cultivation wasn’t the financial savior they expected.

However, some believe it is not the current demand that will make hemp the “promised windfall,” but the new and diverse uses currently under research, and in some cases, in early development stages. Nevertheless, first things first: to advance to the next step, the industry needs to address a few hurdles.

Hemp Cultivation is Thriving, but the Market is Not

While the United States was steadily trailing towards the reintroduction of hemp production, other countries had introduced and transformed their global economy through hemp trade and cultivation.

Even while domestic production of hemp was illegal, the United States imported raw and processed hemp and hemp oil from various countries, becoming one of the largest importers of hemp products. With domestic cultivation of hemp now legalized, this becomes an issue for local growers because competing against an established market will take more than simply making a product available.

This situation became more glaring during the pandemic when the U.S. agriculture sector and economy took a hit. Wholesale prices slumped considerably due to an oversupply of hemp flower and biomass, and some farmers are yet to find buyers for their 2019 hemp crops.

Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, which promotes hemp as a U.S. crop, said, “There was quite a bit of speculative growing with no contracts or sales prospects prior to planting.” Due to the resultant effect of this, he noted, “…many pulled back and grew less as the market was simply not large enough to handle the amount produced…”

China is one of the U.S. largest sources for raw and processed hemp products, followed by Hungary and Romania. As most Asian countries have never had to deal with a lengthy hemp cultivation ban, they have a well-established supply chain, top-notch spinning facilities for hemp textiles, an expansive focus on selecting hemp varieties are ahead of the U.S. in this aspect.

Hence, to encourage our growers, the following are required: establish an infrastructure for the cultivation and processing of these crops, increase technical support to these growers, contract with the farmers to support their cultivation, processing, and use, and expand hemp products applications. These are requirements if U.S. farmers hope to attain a significant share of the anticipated market.

Unclear Agronomic Guidance

There are several benefits to cultivating hemp, aside from its commercial value. With the green revolution brewing and prospering, the hemp plant is appreciated as a soil and environmental benefit. With the proper techniques, hemp crops work well for crop rotation, cover cropping, and other soil management practices. Hemp plays a significant role in remediating contaminated soils through phytoremediation, converting high amounts of atmospheric CO2 to biomass through bio-sequestration, and a barrage of other benefits.

However, all of these benefits, including its economic value, remain largely untapped due to the lack of standard agricultural guidelines for the farmers. For an infant industry such as hemp, guidance is required to make proper headway. Sadly, these have been unavailable, and many risk-takers have paid the price.

The hemp pilot programs successfully restarted a crop that had not been cultivated in the United States for decades. However, due to the lack of basic production data, market data, and information regarding the best agronomic practices, many risky decisions were made.

On top of that, there is a shortage of top-quality hemp seeds. Depending on what the grower hopes to achieve, selecting the correct hemp seed is critical. Male seeds are typically used for fiber and seed production, while female seeds are necessary to obtain high-quality CBD.

Finally, farmers must factor in the issue of pollen drift issues and long-distance cross-pollination. This affects marijuana and hemp farmers alike, as research shows that female seeds produce more phytochemicals when they remain unfertilized. Sadly, when spores 10km away drift into a field of female hemp flowers, they affect output quantity and jeopardize quality. 

Therefore, if the industry hopes to progress, providing a market for produce is just a start. Growers need technologies and directives to help ameliorate situations like these and encourage their efforts. Thankfully, many technologies are brewing already while some are out there, ready to serve. And as for providing data on profitable cultivation, official data will come from the USDA and other advocacy organizations.

The Gold Rush Mentality

A “gold rush” mentality often creates misguided and misinformed attention. The many outlandish estimates projected on the hemp bloom brought hordes of farmers into the hemp business. Many of these growers were not armed with accurate information regarding what is required for profitable growth. So, although there was an output, there was little to no profit and an over-laden market.

The notion of “Volume is key” requires a large labor force at some stages of cultivation. In early stages, the plant requires gentle care, specific controlled actions, and skilled caretakers.

The Farm Bill is Expansive

The farm bill supporting hemp cultivation enacted in 2018 does more than just promoting hemp cultivation. The bill explicitly permits the free distribution of hemp-derived products trans-country for commercial and other purposes, as long as their production is consistent with the law.

However, the new farm bill does not present a completely free system in which farmers and businesses can grow hemp wherever and whenever they want. Many regulations and restrictions accompany hemp farming, with one of the most significant being shared state-federal regulatory power.

Nevertheless, while all of these regulations are created to ensure transparency and public health safety, with more research and information on hemp and hemp processes, these are sure to relax, with safety remaining a top priority.