Decorticators used for hemp fiber processing come in many shapes and sizes, from old-fashioned manually operated hemp breaks and modern hand-cranked tabletop versions to small-, medium- and large-scale mechanized models powered by motors and integrated into fully automated industrial production lines. To avoid supply chain issues and cut out the middleman, growers have the option to purchase their own decorticating equipment. Here are five tips for selecting and using the right decorticator for your operation.
1. Match automation with your operation’s scale.
Before buying a decorticator, consider the scale of your operation and plan a level of automation that will suit it accordingly. Are you planning to process hundreds of large, round bales of hemp or just a few hand-harvested bundles of hemp stalks you can move without machinery? Larger systems have higher upfront costs but will save many hours of manual labor.
As you scale up hemp decorticating operations, power requirements and noise levels will increase. It’s important to remember you will also need additional material-handling equipment. In chronological order of when each handles the hemp, additional types of equipment include:
- bale unwinders;
- dust collectors;
- post-milling classifiers; and
- storage systems.
2. Ret for the proper amount of time.
When using a decorticator, consider the degree of retting your hemp has been through. Proper retting breaks down the lignin that bonds the bast fiber to the hurd during growth, which makes mechanical separation of the two much easier and will yield the best-quality fiber. There are a few different types of retting to consider—dew retting in the field is a popular option among hemp growers because it doesn’t require a significant investment—and it is as much an art as it is a science. Over-retting degrades fiber quality and strength and can lead to mold. Under-retted hemp makes decortication more difficult and leads to coarser fiber. Properly ret by observing the color and applying the snap test.
3. Decorticate as close to the farm as possible.
Regardless of scale, all fiber hemp should undergo some degree of processing near the farm to reduce weight and increase value before transport. The goal of decortication is separating the bast fiber from the hurd as much as possible, as both stalk components can be used separately to create a variety of products. (For example, bast fiber can be used to create textiles and rope, while hurd can be used to create animal bedding and composites, to name just a few products.) A good baseline benchmark is 95% clean fiber (with 5% or less hurd remaining) and 95% clean hurd (with 5% or less fiber remaining). The closer you can get to 100% separation, the better. Separation percentage is mostly a result of how the fiber and hurd are screened and classified post-decortication. Decortication only crimps and snaps the stalks, while secondary processing (classification) is necessary to achieve complete separation.
In addition, both fiber and hurd should have a minimal level of dust. Large-scale operations should use dust collection systems, but if you work at a smaller-scale operation, you can work in a breezy or well-ventilated area and make sure you shake off as much dust as possible while you are working.
4. Watch out for issues during decortication.
The orientation in which you feed the stalks into the decorticator can affect its performance. Some machines require the stalks to be oriented parallel to the flow of material to yield good results, while others can accept stalks without any particular orientation and still achieve adequate separation. (The diameter of the stalks should be between three-eighths of an inch and a half-inch to increase consistency in retting and decortication.)
Also, when using a mechanized decorticator, it’s important to be aware of:
- jamming (feeding too much material in at one time);
- wrapping (caused by unguarded rotating parts); and
- dust (which needs to be removed via dust collection or forced air).
5. Have a plan for after decortication.
Think about what you will do with your processed material before you begin decorticating. You should have a plan for your output receptacles—how will you capture the output from your decorticator, and how much storage capacity do you have before you need to transport the material to the next stage of the supply chain? Hemp fiber and hurd are very bulky materials, but super sacks, dumpsters, gondola and gaylord boxes, and cargo containers can help.
Last and most importantly, before you consider setting up decortication, you should ensure you have an economically viable plan for your outputs. Search for connections who are looking for growers and will pay a fair price. Make sure you can meet the target yield with a lower cost of production than what the buyer is willing to pay. If the math doesn’t work, then it isn’t a good deal.Rachel Berry is the founder and CEO of the Illinois Hemp Growers Association, a women-led benefit corporation and grassroots organization representing over 700 members. For more information, visit www.illinoishga.com. Berry is a first-generation regenerative farmer raising poultry, growing heirloom vegetables, native medicinal plants, and industrial hemp with her family on their 13-acre homestead.
It’s no secret that hemp grown for CBD continues to dominate the bulk of hemp cultivated in the U.S., and it makes sense: Supply chains for fiber and grain in the country are still severely underdeveloped. But in order for the industry and the businesses within it to grow, there needs to be a continued push toward bolstering other areas of hemp.
Any good business owner will tell you diversification can be a key strategy to sustained growth for your business. While it can come with significant upfront investment and risk, those in the hemp industry are no strangers to taking chances.
And luckily, hemp has plenty of opportunities for diversification.
This month’s cover story subject, Santa Fe Farms, has seen those opportunities and is working to take advantage of them to strengthen their own and other farmers’ businesses. The company started off with just two farms right after passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, but Santa Fe Farms co-founder Steven Gluckstern has been working to grow the company to incorporate all aspects of hemp production and sales, including seed genetics, cultivation, extraction, processing and B2B products for sale to retailers.
And the company’s vision for what Gluckstern calls “an integrated … enterprise” is just beginning, as its products division is exploring avenues to create multiple products using hemp. Health and wellness nutritional products, packaging, paper and pulp, animal bedding, building products, bioplastics and carbon-sequestering biochar are all on the table for Santa Fe Farms.
“The future, from my perspective, was not going to be in phytocannabinoids; that was an interesting way to get started, but it was really going to be the industrial uses of this plant that were going to drive the industry,” Gluckstern told cover story author Jodi Helmer.
Although diversifying into new services and product categories comes with risk, growing hemp only for cannabinoids also comes with inherent risk. In this issue, Managing Editor Patrick Williams details how cross-pollination can affect cannabis and hemp crops grown for flower, causing seed development and devaluing the crop significantly. Williams also outlines solutions for this problem and what growers can do if their crop has been cross-pollinated.
And in this month’s Hemp Law column, attorney Henry Baskerville gives an updated look at the smokable hemp landscape. Though smokable hemp provides one of the most lucrative avenues for selling flower, laws surrounding it are “all over the map,” Baskerville writes, making for an in-flux, confusing market in which to operate.
The industry, its supply chain and regulations will continue to evolve, and new opportunities will continue to emerge. Not putting all your eggs in one basket could be a way to help avoid some of the risk along the way.
Theresa Bennett | firstname.lastname@example.org
When James Eichner and Ron Basak-Smith met as graduate students at the University of Colorado, they bonded over music, a love for cannabis, and a frustration over the cannabis industry’s plastic waste problem. Shortly after they met, a joint business-school project on reducing waste led the duo to launch a business with the same goal.
And their initial mission to reduce plastic waste in the cannabis industry has resulted in a full-circle solution: packaging made, in part, from Cannabis sativa L. (specifically, hemp).
In 2018, Eichner and Basak-Smith founded Denver- and Los Angeles-based company Sana Packaging, which manufactures cannabis packaging out of hemp hurd, as well as ocean plastic waste. In just a few years, the founders have turned their class project into a business that now serves more than 350 customers throughout North America.
How It Started
“We originally came at this whole thing from a point of pure frustration as consumers,” Eichner says, adding that he and Basak-Smith knew they wanted to find more sustainable cannabis packaging options for their project. Many cannabis companies use traditional petroleum-based plastic for their varying product and packaging needs, including vape cartridges, pre-roll containers, boxes and bags for flower. And while some of it may be recyclable, much of it ends up as waste—recycling rates for plastic products hover at less than 10%, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
So, Eichner and Basak-Smith began experimenting with plant-based plastics, which are both recyclable and biodegradable when sent to industrial composting facilities. And while composting facilities are still relatively rare across the country, plant-based plastics still offer sustainable benefits over the alternatives. They reduce the dependency on fossil fuels, which are limited, and instead use plants, which are a renewable resource and can pull carbon from the atmosphere.
Eichner and Basak-Smith first researched corn-based plastics but realized those have their fair share of problems. For instance, corn is traditionally cultivated using pesticides and monocropping or double-cropping systems, which limit the biodiversity of an area.
Eventually, the two stumbled across hemp—which is regarded as a more renewable and regenerative feedstock—as a plant-based alternative, and they worked with engineering students to develop hemp-based packaging. Their formulation still needed to include corn, as it is an easier and more common plant-based material to work with than hemp. Still, Eichner and Basak-Smith believe reducing the amount of corn in plant-based packaging is a significant improvement.
Others agreed, and the two won their class-wide pitch competition in 2017 with a 100% plant-based 3D-printed prototype made with hemp filament and bound together with corn polylactic acid (PLA) plastic. (Hunter Lovins, an environmentalist and co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, was among the competition’s judges.) From there, Eichner and Basak-Smith received funding, mentorship and other resources from the Colorado-based CanopyBoulder accelerator program to found Sana Packaging. Their business was now up and running.
Sana’s hemp plastic packaging is made of about 30% hemp hurd and 70% corn.
Improving that ratio has its challenges. For one, hemp hurd is difficult to work with. It’s rigid and opaque, allowing for limited uses. And with little history available on how hemp hurd interacts with injection molding equipment (which shapes plastic pellets into products), it’s been a balancing act of finding manufacturers who will take on the challenge and working with them to experiment with input proportions.
“Usually, you design a mold to work with the material. But because it’s an emerging market and people didn’t really know how to work with [hemp hurd], we had to do that while also designing material that would work with the mold,” Eichner says. “We were tweaking prototype molds and also tweaking formulation at the same time.”
Finding a steady supply of hemp has also been a challenge for Sana, Eichner says. The founders wanted Sana to be as sustainable as possible, so sourcing the hemp from U.S. growers was a must to avoid the environmental impacts of shipping it from other countries. But farmers growing hemp for fiber in the U.S. are still few and far between compared with cannabinoid producers, and infrastructure down the supply chain is even less developed.
However, Eichner says Sana has secured two suppliers in North Dakota and North Carolina who contract with farmers to grow the material. The suppliers compound the hemp into plastic pellets, and Sana makes its products by injecting the pellets into molds.
The company produces two different sizes of plastic tubes for pre-rolls and vape cartridges, and a plastic box for flower, concentrates, vape cartridges, and edibles.
Eichner says Sana has used a total of 57 tons of hemp plastic since its inception, equating to about 17.1 tons of hemp hurd.
“We by no means think it’s a perfect material, but we absolutely want to support the industrial hemp space,” he says.
The Long Haul
Sana Packaging also offers cannabis packaging made from reclaimed ocean plastic. The company now offers three hemp-based packaging products and five ocean plastic-based products, the latter of which have a slightly lower price point than the hemp products. As such, Eichner says a majority of Sana’s customers are opting for the ocean plastics: They account for about 60% of Sana’s sales, while the hemp-based plastic products make up the rest.
While the hemp-based packaging hasn’t necessarily been a profit driver, Eichner wants to continue working with it.
“We almost knew the hemp plastic products were kind of a loss leader in the sense that the plant-based future is something we’re still moving toward …. But it’s something we’re going to keep pushing,” he says.
Eichner adds that he’s looking forward to hemp-based plastic formulation improvements. “Right now, the stuff on the market is composites. The next big change will hopefully be material compounders starting to derive polymers from [the] hemp plant,” Eichner says. “That will make hemp-based bioplastics significantly easier to work with.”
The company is waiting for those advancements before it releases any new hemp-based packaging products, Eichner says. He acknowledges that could be years down the line, but he’s in it for the long haul.
“We think once there’s a better hemp bio-composite to [work] with, our other hemp products will become obsolete,” Eichner says, adding that hemp is “the most ideal feedstock for bioplastics, or one of the most ideal, especially from an agricultural perspective.”
Theresa Bennett is managing editor of Hemp Grower.
2020 Hemp Cultivation Map
Hemp Grower's interactive cultivation data map provides a state-by-state breakdown of acres grown, licenses issued and more for the 2020 growing season. View More