A look at the total number of hemp growing licenses issued this year gives us an important glimpse into the rapidly growing hemp industry.
More people than ever are interested in growing hemp now that the crop is legal. An amendment to the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp after decades of prohibition. Even though the Department of Agriculture didn’t issue formal hemp growing guidelines until late October, interest in the crop is already booming.
We’ll have a closer look at the new USDA hemp farming guidelines in an upcoming article. First we wanted to take a look at the past year of hemp growing, as reflected in the number of hemp growing licenses issued.
According to a report by Vote Hemp, U.S. states issued 16,877 hemp growing licenses in 2019, across 34 states, for a total of 511,442 licensed acres. From these numbers, we can learn a lot about the state of hemp in America, and what’s going right or wrong.
Hemp growing licenses up over 400% since 2018
The increase in hemp growing licenses reflects a massive increase in the number of hemp farmers and a growing awareness that hemp could be a profitable commodity crop. Vote Hemp reported a 455% increase over 2018 in the amount of acres licensed for legal hemp growing.
The requirements for hemp licensing vary a great deal from state to state. Many still follow guidelines established under provisional hemp growing programs that began in 2014. Vermont hemp growing licenses are available to anyone that can pay a $25.00 fee, while other states require would-be farmers to jump through many more bureaucratic hoops. 13 states legalized hemp growing in 2019. These new states helped increase the number of hemp growing licenses.
Of course, not every licensed acre gets planted with hemp, and not all of that hemp will make it to harvest. Some farmers will license more acres than they need. The best laid plans often go awry, and some people may have jumped in without a fully formed plan.
“I never want to see anyone lose money but a lot of people didn’t do their homework” said Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp. “The people that rushed in without a clear plan, there’s going to be a lot of them that don’t succeed.”
Vote Hemp estimates that only 230,000 acres of hemp will actually get planted in 2019. Only about 50-60% of that will end up harvested. In the end, we could see 125,000 acres or more harvested. That’s significant growth from 2018, when farmers harvested under 80,000 acres of hemp, but still far less hemp than the number of hemp growing licenses might suggest.
From bad seeds to hot hemp, problems abound for hemp farmers
Montana alone issued hemp growing licenses for over 100,000 acres in 2019.
“Thank god they did not grow that much,” said Geoff Whaling, chairman of the National Hemp Association. Farmers planted about a tenth of that total, only to have almost all of it destroyed by an early frost.
Other problems started even earlier.
“I never want to see anyone lose money but a lot of people didn’t do their homework.”Eric Steenstra, President of Vote Hemp
“Many farmers are reporting bad seed germination percentages, and it all starts with the seed,” wrote Jane Pinto, founder of First Crop, in an email. First Crop is a public benefit company dedicated to building communities and global health through hemp.
Pinto elaborated that farmers and the industry as a whole lack access to the right seeds and the right knowledge to successfully grow and use hemp after decades of prohibition.
Even when farmers successfully grow their hemp, they can have difficulty harvesting or selling their products. Processing facilities and equipment may not be available in every area. Some varieties of hemp can grow in tall, bamboo-like stalks that are taller than any human, which makes harvest time into a unique challenge.
Another factor can be the amount of THC in the hemp. Recreational or medical forms of psychoactive cannabis contain levels of 15% and up. Legal industrial hemp contains 0.3% THC, or less. Under the new USDA guidelines, farmers must destroy plants that test higher, known as hot hemp. If farmers’ plants test at 0.5% or higher, they could even be banned from growing hemp or face more serious consequences.
Looking beyond CBD hemp
One thing we can’t tell from hemp growing licenses are what kinds of hemp are being grown. Different strains of hemp can have different uses. Some are grown for seed, others for CBD, for fiber (which can be made into textiles), or for the woody core, also known as the hurd.
Currently, almost all the hemp in the U.S. is grown for CBD, and much of it is difficult to use for other purposes. According to Steenstra, there are probably less than 10,000 acres of hemp grown in the U.S. for anything other than cannabidiol extraction.
While CBD is likely to become a billion dollar industry this year, it’s not likely that every farmer’s CBD hemp will find a buyer. In fact, there’s still unsold CBD from the 2018 growing season. This hurts farmers. It also forces hemp producers to import raw materials, from hemp seeds for food to hurds for hempcrete. That keeps prices prohibitively high for many consumers.
Experts like Joy Beckerman, president of the Hemp Industries Association, are recommending farmers “pivot” towards growing other strains as a way of dealing with overproduction.
She believes the CBD market will inevitably become saturated. “Do some little variety trials for grain and fiber, away from your extract hemp.”
Supporting smaller hemp farmers
The disparity between hemp growing licenses and the actual amount of hemp grown shows a worrying instability in the new hemp industry.
One major factor is the growth of larger, corporate-dominated farmers and producers. As the market grows, it’s inevitable some farmers, producers, and brands will fall.
“The farmers are the heroes here, because without them putting the plants in the ground we don’t have anything.”Joy Beckerman, President of the Hemp Industries Association
“The people that rushed in without a clear plan, there’s going to be a lot of them that don’t succeed,” said Steenstra.
Even so, all the experts we spoke with suggested there’s a place for smaller producers that create quality products from the best available soil, using sustainable, regenerative agriculture.
“I see it as an ideal rotational crop for small and medium sized farmers,” Whaling said.
Large or small, it’s important for farmers to recognize that the U.S. is rediscovering the best ways to grow hemp. Bringing this ancient crop into the modern world will take time.
“We [are] still in a transition period and a research phase,” Whaling told us, “and we should be in that phase for the next four or five years.”
“Together, we are all walking through the first year of the rebirth of hemp,” Pinto wrote, praising in particular the bravery of these early farmers.
Beckerman agreed. “The farmers are the heroes here, because without them putting the plants in the ground we don’t have anything, and they’re really the ones taking all the risks.”
The future of hemp growing in the U.S.
Building a healthy, sustainable hemp industry will depend on supporting the farmers. They need help learning to grow and harvest, and support to find buyers who offer fair prices for their crops.
“Farmers also need to be able to trust that the hemp industry will continue to invest in the infrastructure needed to produce products from all parts of this incredible plant,” wrote Pinto.
Companies like First Crop, which emphasize building a secure marketplace for growers, will be vital. We’ll also likely see more farmers forming into cooperatives. That will enable more new farmers to enter the market, allow farmers and producers to pool their resources, and ensure better opportunities to bring all forms of hemp to market.
“I would really like to see a model where family farmers are able to produce half an acre or an acre of this and do it efficiently and get help,” said Steenstra.