Hemp: It is not Pot! An Introduction to Hemp as a Crop
By Brooke Moore, New Windsor Senior Master Gardener Volunteer and Madelene Knaggs, New Windsor Master Gardener Volunteer
This article appeared in the October / November 2019 Issue of Gardening in Orange County. Click here to subscribe!
Hemp may not be a familiar crop to you, but it has had a long history in this country and is poised to make a comeback in the Hudson Valley and throughout New York State. In the last five years, changes to federal and state laws have allowed for the growing of hemp. As a result, hemp has the potential to create an incredible economic boom for our region.
As demand for dairy and other traditional crops has declined, farmers are looking for alternative crops to provide a long-term base for staying in agriculture. Hemp may also be a means to keep younger farmers interested and involved in family farms. Some estimates for the return on investment in growing hemp for cannabidiol (CBD) are as high as 40%. This high return on investment is unheard of in agriculture, but as we are still in the earlier days of growing hemp in our region, it could turn out to be much less. Research is ongoing and there are many facets of hemp where little is known or where conflicting information exists.
Hemp can be grown for use as fiber, grain, oil and CBD. In the Hudson Valley most hemp in 2019 is being grown for CBD not for fiber, grain, or oil. CBD is a compound that is extracted from the female hemp flower and can be used for medicinal purposes. Unlike its cousin marijuana, CBD do not produce a “high” when ingested. There is a lot to learn about hemp and its potential impact on the agricultural economy of our region, but before we explore all the options lets answer some basic questions and introduce the crop.
What is hemp?
Both hemp and marijuana are varieties of Canabis sativa. Each is produced through selective breeding. Hemp is bred to produce fiber, grain, oil and/or CBD, while marijuana is bred to produce delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which is a psychoactive compound.
Genetically the two plants are very similar. Research shows that even though different genes produce CBD and THC, these genes are linked. This link between the genes creates a ratio of CBD to THC that influences the total amount of each compound in a particular plant.
Hemp can be useful in many ways that may surprise you. Historically hemp was grown to produce fiber for use in rope and textiles. Today hemp fiber is used for insulation, animal bedding, particle board, hempcrete (a mixture of hemp and lime used in construction), and some plastics. When synthetic fibers became more common in the mid-twentieth century, hemp and other natural fibers fell out of favor. Now as we look at the impact of plastic products in all forms, a renewed interest in natural fiber production, including hemp, has taken hold.
Hemp seeds are a good source of protein and can used like other seed to enhance a large variety of foods. They can also be pressed to produce a food grade oil that is high in omegas, vitamins, and minerals. As hemp oil has a low smoking temperature, the oil is best used for low temperature cooking. Hemp oil can also be used in cosmetics.
The medical side of hemp comes from using CBD extracts from the female flowers. (More about this will be in another article.)
Is it legal to grow hemp?
Yes, with the proper approval from the state it is now legal to grow hemp. Following the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, which legitimized industrial hemp research, New York State created an Industrial Hemp Agricultural Research Project Pilot Program to encourage hemp research. In 2017, the state expanded the program from a few educational institutions to farmers and businesses. The 2018 Farm Bill went as far as removing industrial hemp from the controlled substances list. Today hemp growers in New York are partners with the Industrial Hemp Pilot Program and supervised by the Department of Agriculture and Markets.
Is all hemp the same?
The simple answer is no. There is still much to be learned about the genetics of hemp plants and what is important for developing plants that will thrive in our soil and climate. Plant researchers are looking at both modern hemp plants as well as feral plants they find growing along ditches and hidden in fields. Some of these feral plants date back to the colonial period of cultivation. Others are from the pre-WWII era when hemp was a huge source of fiber. These plants may well hold the key to developing modern cultivars which are well adapted to the soil and temperature in New York State and still produce a high rate of CBD and a low rate of THC.
Do the plants all look the same?
All the hemp plants currently grown have similar looking leaves, but there is quite a variety of height, width, and flower development. And even though the leaf shape is similar, it too can vary in size. Plant breeders continue to select for plants that are both easy to cultivate and easy to harvest, but still produce good quality fiber, grain, oil, or CBD depending on the desired end product.
There are many of different hemp cultivars, each bred to produce either good quality fiber, grain, oil or CBD. Growers choose the specific cultivar that matches the intended use. Most growers in our region are growing for CBD production, not for fiber, grain or oil production. In the future plants may be developed to allow for multiple products to be economically processed from the same plant.
This article is the first in a series of articles focusing on the hemp industry. See future Gardening in Orange County issues for more information.
For more information about all things hemp:
Beginning Hemp – Keys to Successful Production in NYS – Cornell Cooperative Extension Orange County
Cornell Hemp – Cornell School of Integrative Plant Science