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growing hemp in illinois

Many Illinois farmers bet big on hemp, which makes CBD. Now those harvesting their first crops are ‘overwhelmed with trying to figure out what to do with it.’

When organic produce farmer Chad Wallace was a kid, hemp was considered a weed.

Back then, the wild remnants of the World War II-era crop were a nuisance. Smoke would rise from the fence rows and ditches around his family’s farm near downstate Ashland as workers burned it.

Now, Wallace is working tirelessly to make hemp his livelihood.

Illinois farmers bet big on hemp this season, the first in which it was legal to grow the crop. But growing hemp — a cousin of the marijuana plant known for its use in foods, fibers and the wildly popular CBD products — proved risky. Farmers had to learn on the fly about a crop that hadn’t been grown in Illinois soil for generations, and many with successful harvests are struggling to find a market for it.

Mother Nature was the main antagonist this year. Historic rains and flooding drowned many young plants. Some farmers lost all their hemp. So far, about 520 farmers have reported to the state that they have hemp to harvest. The state doesn’t keep data on the size of the crop or how the plants fared.

Nationally, it’s still too early in the harvest to know how well crops did and how CBD hemp prices will be affected, said Erica Stark, executive director of the National Hemp Association. CBD hemp prices vary, based on the amount of CBD, or cannabidiol, the plant contains, and it can be hard to predict at planting time what it will sell for, come harvest.

“There was a whole lot of talk about how much the market was going to flood this year because of so many new people and the expansion of acreage,” she said. “But I don’t think there were as many successful acres harvested as anticipated.”

Hemp growers now face the challenge of finding a buyer or figuring out how to process it themselves.

“The people I know would probably be more excited about their first crop if they weren’t so overwhelmed with trying to figure out what to do with it,” Wallace said recently, standing among a few remaining hemp plants in his field. “There’s a lot to worry about.”

Wallace’s hemp field in mid-October looked like a Christmas tree farm on Dec. 26. He was nearing the tail end of harvest and most of his crop was already hanging to dry in his shed and greenhouse.

He pulled a few bushy plants from the bed of his blue pickup and held them with one arm, showing off their density. Wallace, 50, estimates his crop will yield about 700 pounds of CBD hemp, and he is thrilled.

The crop’s prospects weren’t always so rosy. Typically, hemp would be planted in June and harvested in October, Wallace said. Days of rain and little sun stressed the seedlings he planted in May.

Then the ground dried up in early July, and a batch of seedlings he planted surprised him. They were the size of a cigarette lighter when Wallace planted them, and by the two-week mark, they were the size of bushel barrels.

Before the season started, he had aspirations to plant 7,000 plants. Today, that number makes him laugh. He’s learned how much his operation can handle. Ultimately, Wallace harvested about 800 plants.

He declined to speculate how much he might make off the hemp. But he isn’t worried about the cantaloupe, watermelon and pumpkins he skipped this year because he was watering hemp instead.

“I missed that,” he said. “But this should replace it.”

The best flowers from a CBD hemp plant, which resemble marijuana buds, can be dried and smoked like marijuana, but without the high. In other states, those dried flowers have brought in between $25 and $200 per pound, according to a 2018 report from Hemp Industry Daily.

The other flowers, leaves and small branches of the plant, sold for between $10 and $25 a pound, are typically dried and sold to processors, who extract the CBD and infuse it into bath bombs, caramels and other products. People use those products or smoke CBD flower for the therapeutic benefits, such as relaxation or to help sleeping.

Hemp with higher CBD content often has more THC, a cannabis compound that gets users high, and that’s risky.

If the plants “run hot,” as farmers say, and contain more than CBD’s legal limit of 0.3% THC, they must be destroyed. So far in Illinois this year, no hemp crops have tested too high, said Krista Lisser, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture.

In Paris, Ill., Eli Wiley planted 6 acres of CBD hemp and about half of it survived.

It wasn’t Wiley’s first time growing the crop. The 25-year-old worked on a CBD hemp farm in Colorado, and moved back to Illinois to try the crop here this year.

Getting used to the humid and wet Midwestern climate was an adjustment, and paired with the excessive rain, Wiley’s crop didn’t turn out as well as he’d hoped. He should have gotten 3,000 pounds of hemp from the 3 acres that survived. Instead, he expects less than one-third of that.

“Next year’s going to be better,” Wiley said.

Seventy miles south, Kurt Holscher had luck with a different kind of hemp.

After harvesting a green bean crop in July, he planted 70 acres of hemp for fiber in the same Lawrence County field. Holscher plans to take the seeds off of the plants first to be sold to a seed company, then chop down the 6-foot-tall stalks, let them dry for a few weeks in the field and bale them.

The type of hemp Holscher grew can be used to make rope, clothing and more. Farmers can use equipment they already have to plant and harvest it, and many look to that type of hemp as a way to diversify from corn and beans.

But the market is still developing in Illinois, and that’s a problem for farmers like Holscher. Illinois mills turned hemp into rope during World War II, but no one in the state currently processes hemp for fiber.

Holscher contracted with a processor in Kentucky, about 160 miles from his farm. Hemp is heavy, and that distance may be too far for the crop to be economically viable, depending on how the harvest turns out.

“That’s a lot of trucking,” he said. “To be full-scale, large-scale, we’re going to have to have somewhere closer.”

Les Dart, a farmer in the neighboring county, didn’t get to harvest with his crop.

He planted 75 acres of hemp for fiber on his 3,700-acre corn and soybean farm in Oblong, a central Illinois community less than 20 miles from the Indiana state line. He lost the crop to rain shortly after planting, and replanted the field with soybeans.

“It was not an ideal year to try something new,” said Dart, who plans to try again next year.

He’s confident that eventually, there will be a robust market for the crop. Farmers need something besides corn and soybeans, he said.

“It’s building an industry over which we have a little more control, rather than relying on politicians and foreign political concerns to dictate, to a great extent, the prices that we are going to receive,” Dart said. “Hemp might give us another avenue to achieve profit.”

Illinois ranks No. 1 nationally for soybean production and No. 2 for corn, both of which were either socked with or threatened by tariffs this year.

Drawn by visions of high profits and the possibility of diversifying crops, Illinois farmers bet big on hemp this year. But growing the new crop proved risky, and Mother Nature was the main antagonist.

Hemp And The Challenges Of Farming’s Frontier

Logan Bird waters about 90,000 hemp seedlings on Andy Huston’s farm in western Illinois.

There’s millions of dollars to be made from growing hemp, which for years was lumped in and vilified with its sister plant, marijuana. With the government loosening laws around growing hemp for the first time in more than 80 years, some states are charging ahead and letting farmers plant it — even before federal regulations are in place.

Those states aren’t just getting a head start, though. They’re seeing significant challenges that hemp farmers will face for years to come, things like seed fraud, weather and a lack of machinery.

“I’ve done pretty much everything to really immerse myself in (hemp) because I started getting questions like crazy,” Phillip Alberti, a commercial agriculture educator with the University of Illinois Extension.

Over the last several months, Alberti has become somewhat of a hemp expert so he can help Illinois farmers — more than 500 of which are licensed to farm the crop this year. Of course, some things he can’t do much about, like the torrential rainfall that delayed planting across the Midwest.

“Hemp likes water, but it doesn’t like wet feet,” he said.

Besides that, Alberti said he’s heard a lot about seed fraud. People around the U.S. have reported getting either different seeds than they ordered, ones that have low germination rates or male seeds mixed in with female seeds.

That’s an issue because, while hemp can be used as a fiber or food, most new U.S. hemp farmers are looking to grow it for CBD oil, or cannabidiol oil, which requires female seeds only.

“I think it’s safe to assume north of 90-95% of (Illinois hemp grower) applications were with the intent of doing it for CBD,” Alberti said.

Hemp grows at a farm in Lafayette, Colorado.

Seed fraud can cost people dearly, as a pound of seed easily eclipses $10,000. Many farmers who were burned by bad seed orders have turned to HempLogic, a hemp company in Washington state. Its business is booming.

“Unbelievable, unbelievable,” John Tucci, vice president of sales, said about the influx of calls and business. “We went from two guys trying to get together a blog to hey, we need to get a president and we need to do this the right way. We have big clients now.”

HempLogic even started selling hemp consulting packages because there was such a hunger for advice. Tucci said he’s constantly cautioning farmers to be conservative with their first crop of hemp.

“Don’t get caught under the ether,” he said. “Don’t get caught under the gold rush. It’s not ‘go big or go home’ right now. It’s ‘go small and learn and scale up.’”

New industry, missing links

From 1937 through December 2018, federal regulations largely kept hemp from growing because it was lumped in with marijuana. Hemp for clothing, building materials and other things were outsourced from China, Canada or Europe.

National Hemp Association Chairman Geoff Whaling helped convince Congress to fully legalize hemp. But he also recognizes that it’ll take years before all the infrastructure and processors are in place to support budding hemp farms.

“I know that every single penny that they invest into their farming crop is so that they can generate a revenue and stay on the family farm,” said Whaling, who is part of several groups in Pennsylvania that represents small and large farmers. “I would hate to see farmers wanting to jump into hemp and there not be a marketplace. So you know, be cautiou(s), buyer beware are words that I use continuously as we move forward.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s regulations are expected next year, and Whaling said he hopes those account for the issues hemp farmers may run into. For example, if one farmer grows hemp for CBD while a neighbor grows for fiber only, the male plants on the fiber farm could pollinate the plants growing for CBD and ruin the crop.

“The pollen from hemp can drift as far as seven, 10, some say as far as 20 miles,” he said.

Whaling said the hemp industry, while legal, will take years to fully build out. He’s concerned farmers are putting a lot of money into hemp without even having equipment to process the entire plant.

“There is no harvesting equipment, there isn’t a huge seed supply, there is no decordification facilities, which are necessary components to tear this crop apart into its raw components,” he said.

Andy Huston said he’s planting some of his hemp this year with equipment that was designed for vegetables. The plastic helps combat weeds, which can be an issue with a crop that has to be grow organically.

There are many processing facilities planned in the Midwest, including small decordication outfits. In Illinois alone, more than 100 processors are already licensed to start turning the crop into a product.

In Omaha, Nebraska, John Lupien is working on efficient decordication with his new company Hemp Technology Innovations, or HTI. He’s worked in a few similar companies before, basing his designs on old U.S. hemp manufacturing techniques — before it was heavily taxed in the 1930s — or modifying designs of processors for other crops.

He said the market is out there, but there’s just a gap between farmers hoping to grow hemp and companies wanting a processed product.

“There’s a lotta, lotta companies out there that wants this material. Whether it’s in a non-woven form for something like tampons or whether it’s in a plastic form for all sorts of composite applications,” he said.

Hemp in the field

The hemp industry is up against trade and banking challenges beyond weather and seeds, but some have still found a way to make it work. People like Andy Huston near Roseville, Illinois.

He has about 90,000 cannabis sativa seedlings sprouting in a greenhouse, with even more planted in a nearby field. Huston is one of the few in the state who got a jump-start on growing hemp last year through a research test pilot and his business American Hemp Research.

And the first thing he wants people to know: “Hemp is not marijuana … they’re both cannabis, but there’s a big difference between them.”

Congress defines industrial hemp as a cannabis sativa plant with less than 0.3% THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol. That’s the compound in marijuana that makes people high.

Andy Huston stands between two rows of hemp growing in a field near Roseville, Illinois. He co-runs American Hemp Research and is one of the few people in Illinois who grew hemp legally last year.

Huston touts the health benefits of CBD oil, which is what he largely aims to produce with this crop. He even bought his own CBD extraction machine so he can process hemp right there on his farm.

“With the acres that we have, it should keep our oil extractor going for 12 months,” he said.

Because he grew hemp last year, he has seeds to sell this year, as well as his experience with the crop to share with his customers.

He’s had to change how he does things. Like many others, he had to harvest by hand last year. But he’s trying a disc mower this year, something used for hay.

Huston is also trying to limit weeds. There aren’t any pesticides approved for hemp yet, so it’s grown organically, which Huston said is what consumers are asking for anyway.

“They’re leaning more towards the less pesticides the better,” he said.

So, Huston’s hemp has been doing well, but he’s still farming corn and soybeans and said he still has a lot to figure out.

“I think I will probably be learning about hemp for the rest of my life,” he said, “but that’s what makes it pretty interesting.”

There’s millions of dollars to be made from growing hemp, which for years was lumped in and vilified with its sister plant, marijuana.