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The return of hemp

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Farmers fill fields with CBD for health

Farmers in Maryland are once again growing hemp, a crop outlawed for decades in the United States because of its close genetic relationship with marijuana.

Getting to this point has been a slow process. The federal Farm Bill of 2014 allowed institutions of higher education and state agriculture departments to grow hemp, and the Farm Bill of 2018 removed it from the list of Schedule 1 Controlled Substances.

In line with those laws, new Maryland legislation decriminalized hemp effective June 1 this year with narrow restrictions: delta-9 THC content, the intoxicating chemical in cannabis, cannot exceed 0.3 percent; farmers must pass a criminal background investigation; and growers must establish a research program partnership with an institute of higher education.

Dave Liker, owner of Gorman Farms in Highland and Laurel, was among the first farmers to apply when the Maryland Department of Agriculture established its Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program in June.

His nine-acre hemp field in Highland serves as a testing ground for a probiotic bacterium developed by Salisbury University. By comparing plants grown from seeds inoculated with the bacterium to plants grown from untreated seeds, researchers will gather data to determine the probiotic’s effect on growth, disease resistance, and yield.

David Liker examines the hemp crop at his farm in Laurel.

Versatile Plant

The hemp strain grown by Gorman Farms is used to produce cannabidiol (CBD), a chemical compound purported to assist people suffering from anxiety, movement disorders, and chronic pain. Liker said he became a believer in its properties after he found it beneficial in treating his own pain.

“I’m fairly passionate about what this plant can do for society in the big picture,” he said. “It’s going to be a huge advantage in textiles, construction resources, grain production and paper products, and it can be used to produce plastic alternatives and fuels. It’s phenomenal.”

Liker expects to harvest his first crop before October and sell it to a CBD processor.

Anna Chaney, owner of Honey’s Harvest Farm in Lothian, is working with Morgan State University to determine which of the three CBD strains she is growing works best with the permaculture methods she uses. The locally sourced natural fertilizers and composts she creates help maintain the naturally occurring microorganisms in her boutique farm’s soil, she explained.

“We want to provide products to the community that are in high demand and grow more naturally [under these conditions],” Chaney said. “We grow native fruits, nuts and herbs and make natural medicines from them. We’re looking to complement our rotation with hemp … to see if we want to continue growing it as an herbal medicinal.”

New Industry

The CBD market is fairly well established with room for growth, but industry focused on the plant’s fibers and seeds doesn’t yet exist, presenting wide-open opportunity for investors and entrepreneurs.

Taylor Martin, national director of Industrial Processing for Colorado-based Universal Hemp, is currently searching for a site on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to build a decertification facility that will help build out the business’s fiber processing line.

The facility, targeted for opening in 2020, will pulverize hemp stems to separate the outer bast fiber from the inner hurd fiber and locate markets for each raw resource.

“Hemp is an industrial revolution in and of itself,” Taylor said. “We have a couple thousand acres this year, we’ll have tens of thousands next year, and hundreds of thousands in a few years. The challenge is scaling up the processing side.”

An additional challenge, he said, will be tweaking current equipment and technology that’s not designed to handle the strength of hemp stems without sustaining damage.

Martin is currently touring Maryland, talking to each of the 54 farmers involved in the state’s pilot program to gauge interest in moving beyond the CBD market into fiber and grain production.

“We’re trying to get as much infrastructure in all three business models as possible,” he said. “My job is to do it in a way that makes hemp work.”

Untapped Potential

Hemp’s relatively untapped economic potential could make a difference for a lot of farmers who are struggling, particularly tobacco farmers, but it will take years for plant genetics to become consistent and for the industry to fully develop, Liker said.

“Guys like me farming nine acres for CBD with a pile of stems left over aren’t going to move the needle, but in Canada they’re triple cropping this and moving mountains with it,” he observed. “I think it will eventually take off here and deliver economic benefits, but I think the economics are going to be elusive for a while.”

There’s also a big question of whether federal and state restrictions will loosen up enough to entice more farmers into the arena, and how quickly that might happen.

At present, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is still working to draft hemp regulations for publication in the Federal Register and public comment, with the goal of having regulations in effect this fall to accommodate the 2020 planting season.

As required by the 2018 Farm Bill, USDA is developing a system for states to submit plans to USDA for approval to administer hemp production in their areas. USDA will provide a plan for individual producers in States that do not wish to submit their own plan.

“Until they have formalized those options and what they mean to the states, we need to operate under the 2014 Farm Bill and work with an institution of higher education in a research program,” Chaney said. “Were in a holding pattern to find out what’s going to happen.”

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