By Evan Jones
Capital News Service
As the first year of hemp farming in Michigan ends, industry leaders say they hope to make plastics and wood from the plant’s fiber — once they hurdle the obstacles to market expansion.
“Every part of it has uses, but the infrastructure isn’t in place to make use of those parts,” said Dave Crabill, communications director for iHemp Michigan, the recently founded association of local industrial hemp farmers.
The state’s pilot program allowed farmers to grow industrial hemp if they signed a research agreement. The state agriculture department is currently accepting 2020 applications from farmers for a second year in the program.
An estimated 15,000 to 30,000 acres of Michigan hemp were grown under that agreement, but the number fluctuates regularly based upon when license applications come in to the state government’s system, said Jennifer Holton, director of communications for the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development in an email.
Hemp had been illegal primarily because it is part of the cannabis family, just like marijuana. The 2018 federal farm bill removed hemp from the list of controlled substances and the 2014 farm bill permitted universities and state agriculture departments to study the crop.
Hemp fibers are traditionally used in fiber-based products, including rope, clothing and mattress-tops, said Theresa Sisung, associate field crops specialist for the Michigan Farm Bureau.
But processing hemp into cannabidiol, or CBD oil used in wellness programs, boosted the plant’s popularity.
An estimated 285,000 acres of industrial hemp were planted in the U.S. in 2019, up from 78,000 acres in 2018, according to research conducted by Brightfield Group, a market intelligence firm for legal cannabis industries.
The firm expects an annual growth rate of 75% per year through 2023.
Michigan’s pilot program was permitted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture when it lifted the ban on hemp plants in 2018.
New federal hemp rules were announced last month, including provisions for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to approve hemp production plans, if the plants don’t test positive for excessive concentration of psychoactive chemicals.
As a member of the cannabis family, hemp can have THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana, and CBD, marketed as a wellness product to treat anxiety and minor pain relief. Hemp is legally used for CBD.
USDA regulations require hemp to maintain a THC content below .3%, and states must collect the samples to ensure compliance with them. As the industry matures, it could change Michigan’s manufacturing practices, Cabrill said.
Sunstrand, a Kentucky hemp processing company, is using hemp to create sustainable manufacturing materials like wood and oil-based plastic.
“There is a significant lack of processing in the state,” Sisung at the Michigan Farm Bureau said. “There are a lot of shady people involved in the hemp industry right now because it is so new.”
Some Michigan farmers agreed to send hemp crops to a processing company, only to never hear from the processor again, she said.
Crabill said that for sustainable materials to gain traction, a purchase order from a plastics company that needs hemp fibers is necessary.
But the interest in hemp continues to surge. A breakthrough in making hemp products a cost-competitive plastic substitute could come within three years, Crabill said.
It’s not that Michigan can’t grow the crop, Sisung said.
“We’re seeing it grown all over the state,” she said. “We do have some good soil here”
But before Michigan can revolutionize the hemp product market, farmers have to follow government standards, Crabill said.
Farmers are concerned about unintentionally cross-pollinating with marijuana plants, causing their hemp crops to violate federal law. This is a bigger concern since Michigan’s legalization of recreational marijauna
“A hemp plant is like a horny teenager,” Crabill said. “The pollen of a male plant can travel as far as 20 miles away — the standard is at least 7 miles.”
Crabill said the pollen also increases the concentration of the chemicals near the top of a cannabis plant, which is the portion of the plant that regulators test for THC.
The testing for THC needs improvement, said Brandon Canfield, an associate professor of chemistry at Northern Michigan University.
Hemp is a new commodity, and the history of cannabis criminalization has prevented a robust quality test, Canfield said
Canfield runs the university’s medicinal plant chemistry program. He said the amount of THC in hemp varies depending on when and how you test for it.
Complicating things further, Sisung said, some states have tested for total THC as opposed to a specific kind of THC with a lower concentration.
Any plant that tests above .3% of THC concentration has to be destroyed and any individual with a hemp plant that tests above half a percent is criminally negligent, Crabill said.