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.
Editor's Note: This is Part II of a two-part series on hemp harvesting and postharvest processes. Part I, which ran in the June issue of Hemp Grower, focused on managing operations in the field. It also included a glossary of essential hemp harvesting terms.
From September to November each year, a team is dispatched to harvest the hemp growing in the fields of East Fork Cultivars’ 33-acre farm in Josephine County, Ore.
Hand-harvesting the hemp plants is just the first step in East Fork’s process. Once the premium flower is out of the fields, ensuring it’s properly dried and stored to preserve its appearance and potency is critical, according to Mason Walker, CEO of East Fork Cultivars.
The right postharvest handling and storage techniques help producers ensure their hemp—whether grown for fiber, grain or cannabinoids—is ready to hit the market while avoiding mistakes that can impact quality and profitability.
Drying It Right
The steps each grower takes during postharvest handling depend on the crop's purpose: Hemp fiber generally requires the least effort; grain needs more handling; and drying hemp flower grown for cannabinoids can range from simple to complex, depending on the crop's final market.
Research published in the journal Biosystems Engineering showed that stripping leaves and heads from stems after harvest helped hemp fiber dry significantly faster than unstripped stems; turning harvested material in the field, especially if it was chopped, also accelerated the drying process. Growers can also use industrial hemp dryers to speed up the process. The goal is to reduce stalk moisture to less than 15% before baling, according to a report from the Alberta Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (AF).
At his farm in Rushville, Ind., fifth-generation farmer Marty Mahan cuts the hemp stalks and lets them ret in the field, then bales the dried hemp and stores it in a barn on the farm.
“It’s baled into large round bales or large square bales, depending on your processing equipment,” says Mahan, who is also a member of the Indiana Farmers Union Board of Directors.
The AF report recommends using twine made from natural fibers because polypropylene twine (made from plastic) can contaminate the fiber; the report notes plastic netting may also work because it can be easily removed.
Hemp grain (seed) requires a higher level of postharvest handling than hemp fiber, according to Dr. Shelby Ellison, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“In the world of hemp, one of the best practices for grain production is to remove moisture,” she explains. “If you have moisture in your grain, that moisture will facilitate bacterial growth … [and] those bacteria will generate heat, and it’ll spoil the hemp.”
Immediately after harvest, growers must transport their hemp grain from the field to facilities that can blow air on the grain to reduce the moisture content and dry it quickly.
Paul Sproule grows 100 acres of grain—along with other crops like wheat and corn—on his North Dakota farm, Sproule Farms. Although he often leaves other crops in his truck overnight after harvesting, he says it would be a mistake to do the same with hemp grain. “If the seed is exposed to the elements, it’ll go rancid,” he says.
Sproule hauls truckloads of hemp grain from the field to where it’s dried and stored in grain bins.
The process requires gentle handling to keep the seeds from being damaged. To avoid damage to hempseed, machines should be set to lower speeds, according to the AF report. In the field, use slower combine unloading speeds, reduce auger speeds (or, like Sproule, forgo the auger altogether), and use a conveyor or belt trailer to unload the grain. In grain dryers, heat should not exceed 95°F, per the AF report; overheated hempseed will oxidize, reducing its quality and suitability for food products.
The seed bracts that hold the grain reach up to 19% moisture in the field and need to get dried down to 8% for storage, Sproule says.
“Sometimes, there’s enough moisture in [a hemp crop] that typical drying bins [used for other crops] won’t work as well because we can’t get enough air flowing through them,” says Dr. Bob Pearce, Ph.D., director of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment hemp program at the University of Kentucky. “We may need to look at using smaller-batch drying systems and then transferring the grain into larger storage bins; that’s an area of open research.”
Sproule runs harvested grain through an air-jet sieve (a fan that blows air across the grain to remove dust and other bits of material clinging to the seed) and moves it into a bin where fans continue to lower the moisture content. He uses an app to monitor the moisture levels in the bin so he’ll know when to turn off the dryers. Depending on air temperature and humidity, he can reduce the moisture to the desired 8% within a period of a few hours to a few days.
At East Fork Cultivars, Walker uses two different methods for drying hemp for CBD, depending on its final market. The hemp sold for premium flower, which fetches a wholesale price of up to $600 per pound, is hang dried on the stem in a climate-controlled building to preserve its look and quality. All the hemp flower sold as ingredients for use in products like beverages, topicals and tinctures is kiln dried.
“[Hang-drying] is a very laborious approach,” he admits. “The kiln-dried method is a more industrial approach … and [we use it] if the physical appearance of the flower and the flower structure doesn’t matter quite as much.”
Each climate-controlled building used to slow dry hemp has been insulated with spray foam and outfitted with commercial dehumidifiers. Walker also divided the buildings into zones, each with their own heating and cooling systems to maximize efficiency. “We’ve found that we can get the best quality by segmenting the buildings into smaller rooms for better climate control,” he says. “[The hemp] is dried for a full week and will remain on the stem for one to four months, allowing the chemical profile to settle and the moisture content to balance out.”
East Fork Cultivars tries to keep its slow-drying facility at 60% relative humidity, Walker says. Under these conditions, it takes a week to 10 days to fully dry the flower. The operation can also maintain a low temperature, which Walker says is important for maintaining terpenes and flower quality.
Postharvest, hemp contains up to 80% moisture, and drying helps preserve cannabinoids before extraction, per research published in the American Journal of Plant Sciences (AJPS). Kenneth Morrow, owner of cannabis R&D company and consultancy Trichome Technologies, says the optimal moisture content for cannabis and hemp flower is 8-12%.
Drying flower requires an optimal balance of humidity and temperature. Reducing moisture content to 15% can take anywhere from 11 to 36 hours when plants are hang dried at temperatures between 86°F and 122°F, per the AJPS. However, the research notes that drying hemp at temperatures above 37°C (98.6°F) could negatively impact cannabinoids and terpene levels.
The research also shows it takes fewer than five days to reach 11% moisture when material is stored in paper bags (versus hung) to dry in climate-controlled facilities where temperatures are 21°C (70°F) and relative humidity is 40%.
Andy Fogle, the chief operating officer of Nature’s Highway CBD, sells all of the hemp grown on the Neeses, S.C., farm as biomass and focuses on making the drying process as efficient as possible.
“The first year, we hang dried [our hemp]; it took a tremendous amount of square footage and it still didn’t dry that great,” Fogle admits. “We had 10 commercial dehumidifiers going, and the humidity levels would still be 90% in the mornings.”
Now, Fogle uses commercial belt-fed heating dryers to reduce moisture content, which he says are more effective and efficient than hang drying.
The Storage Sweet Spot
Proper storage ensures all the effort that went into drying hemp isn’t wasted. Just as the purpose for each hemp crop determines best practices for drying, hemp grown for fiber, grain and flower require different storage methods.
As long as hemp fiber is dried before it’s baled and is stored out of the elements, Pearce notes that climate-controlled facilities or other special considerations aren’t needed. “After it’s retted, raked and baled, [hemp fiber] can be stored indoors indefinitely,” he explains.
Large bales stored outdoors have the potential to absorb rainfall, and the added moisture can lead to rotting. Similar to hay—which shouldn’t be stored outdoors under plastic because moisture can wick up from the ground and spoil the bales—the AF report also suggests that hemp fiber should be stored off the ground to keep the bales from absorbing moisture. (Hemp fiber is sometimes stored on wooden pallets.)
Mahan stores his round bales in a hay barn on his farm. “Definitely don’t leave them sitting on the edge of your field; that’s not an option," he says. "Proper storage is important.”
Hemp grain can be stored in metal bins with aeration and temperature control to keep it cool, says Ellison. (With poor temperature control, the condition of dried grain degrades.) The bins should also be sealed, which keeps critters from feasting on the freshly harvested grains, she adds.
Regular monitoring of stored grain is essential, according to the AF report. Some bins have automatic monitoring systems to detect hot spots, but wireless probes, which can be inserted into the grain via access points near the access doors, also work. If hot spots are detected, aerating and turning the grain in the bin can help with cooling, the report states.
On Sproule Farms, Sproule stores grain from a 100-acre field in silo-shaped bins; each can hold up to 7,500 bushels of grain. “The bins are sealed airtight, and the grain can be stored in there until it’s sold,” Sproule says.
Careful storage is also essential for hemp flower; exposure to light, heat and oxygen can degrade cannabinoids.
Little research exists on the best storage for hemp grown for CBD, other minor cannabinoids and terpenes, but data published about cannabis storage in the AJPS found that fresh biomass stored at temperatures between 33.8°F and 41°F for 30 weeks maintained its THC level. However, storing at higher temperatures led to decomposition of THC. Ellison believes the impact on CBD would be similar, so growers should prioritize proper storage.
At Nature’s Highway, Fogle stores biomass in 15-pound vacuum-sealed bags to protect it from light and air and preserve the cannabinoids. He notes that some growers also store biomass in 55-gallon drums (and Ellison has also seen growers use opaque bulk bags that hold hundreds of pounds of biomass).
Cardboard boxes also work and are the preferred storage method for Walker, he says.
After the hemp is dried, he uses a Twister Trimmer to grade flower, separating it into A flower, B flower and shake/trim. He then stores the product in food-grade plastic liners sealed with reusable zip ties, which he in turn stores in opaque cardboard boxes. The boxes are labeled with the cultivar and grade (as well as the required U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and USDA organic certification labels) and stored in a climate-controlled building.
“We’re always careful about managing light, heat and oxygen through the whole process postharvest, and that’s how we maintain quality,” Walker explains. “We can store our hemp flower and it’ll look great and keep its color, [aroma], terpene profile and cannabinoids and potency, if we do it right, for two to three years.”
With the right processing and storage, East Fork Cultivars can slowly sell its crop throughout the year.
“It’s a common misconception: People think it has to be [sold] quickly or it won’t be fresh,” adds Walker. “It’s really not true; if you store it correctly … [hemp] can be shipped out to our customers one, five or 50 pounds at a time … for years.”
Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based freelancer who covers the intersection between agriculture and business.
When Kansas launched its industrial hemp program in 2019, Aaron and Richard Baldwin recognized the crop’s potential to diversify their fourth-generation family farm. While other growers jumped into the state’s new market with an eagerness to tap into the cannabidiol (CBD) craze, the brothers saw an even bigger opportunity growing hemp for fiber and grain.
Joined by Aaron’s wife—crop researcher Melissa Nelson-Baldwin—they launched South Bend Industrial Hemp (SBIH) in 2019 to produce hemp for all three uses (CBD, fiber, and grain) alongside crops like corn, soybeans, wheat and milo. By combining data-driven research with generations of farming experience, the Baldwins set out to prove they could produce industrial hemp using traditional agriculture practices.
“At first, [everybody] thought CBD was going to be huge, and there was a good return on acres at first, but we knew that wasn’t going to sustain itself for long,” Aaron says. “We started growing fiber and grain [in addition to CBD] because we knew that was going to be successful in the long run. Three years ago, nobody was really talking about fiber or grain, so we were trying to set ourselves up to be ready when this exploded—and it exploded faster than anybody thought it would.”
Room to Grow
In the state’s CBD-dominant market, floral and biomass material accounted for 90% of hemp production in 2019 and 95% in 2020, according to data from the Kansas Department of Agriculture (KDA). “Compared to floral production of hemp, the hemp grain and fiber production markets remain relatively untapped,” says Braden Hoch, industrial hemp supervisor at the KDA.
For fiber- and grain-focused farmers like the Baldwins, this untapped market presents a huge opportunity—along with plenty of challenges.
SBIH was one of 213 producers licensed to grow hemp in 2019, as part of the state’s pilot hemp program under the Agricultural Act of 2014 (2014 Farm Bill). That year, the KDA licensed 5,800 acres for hemp production—but fewer than 3,000 were planted and about 1,800 were harvested. (See more data from past growing seasons in the table below.)
This year, Kansas only licensed 1,630 acres. While the state adopted a new hemp program pursuant to the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (2018 Farm Bill) and shifted its licensing regulations—which now only require one individual to be licensed at an operation, instead of licensing every individual involved—the drop in licensed acreage echoes a larger trend as nationwide hemp acreage has started to decline, Hoch says.
As this drop continues across the country, Hoch says these statistics speak to the obstacles that growers encounter with hemp. “It’s still too early to know how successful hemp production will be in the state. Even though we’ve had two seasons of production here, producers are still attempting to determine how to best grow hemp and if it’s feasible to include in their rotation,” he says.
Despite the challenges and nationwide drop in hemp production, at SBIH, the Baldwins have doubled the acreage dedicated to hemp fiber and grain, from 80 acres in 2019 to 160 this year. By learning from their mistakes to fine-tune their operation, they’re applying their experience to not only expand their own business, but also help other growers overcome the challenges inherent to hemp.
Based on decades of farming experience, the Baldwins saw plenty of similarities between hemp and the other grain crops grown on their 2,500-acre farm near Great Bend. As with many of these traditional crops, they started growing hemp as a dual-crop—that is, harvesting both fiber and grain from the same plant. (Editor’s note: For more on dual-purpose hemp production, see the latest “From the Field” column.)
“We dual-crop everything else,” Melissa says. “After you harvest the wheat, most farmers bale the remaining straw. You can cut the heads off milo and then graze cattle on the stalks, and people do the same with cornstalks. You need to maximize your acres [by adding] another form of income, and we saw hemp as no different.”
The challenge was figuring out just how to grow hemp alongside other crops. The first year, they tried incorporating hemp into their fields by double-cropping, which is “getting two crops on the same field in the same year,” Melissa says. It was a low-risk experiment, she explains, “because the ground was going to go fallow anyway, and we were able to capitalize off the wheat that was already there.”
After harvesting dryland wheat that July, the Baldwins immediately planted hemp fiber in the same field, covering 80 acres. But by then, “it was too late and too hot,” Richard says. The fiber plants didn’t grow as tall as the Baldwins hoped, and to top it off, a webworm infestation decimated the crop. So, as farmers do, they adjusted their approach.
Now, they plant hemp seeds around mid-April, before sowing beans and corn, when spring rains and cooler temps give hemp “a better chance of surviving,” Richard says. Around mid-May, they also transplant 1,500 CBD clones, which are divided between a greenhouse and a small outdoor grow.
Hemp not only fits into their planting schedule, but also leverages the same equipment they use for conventional crops. “Our focus for fiber and grain is to only use equipment we’re already utilizing on our farm, down to the seed plates in our planter,” Melissa says. “We want to show farmers that they can put hemp in their farming rotation [without any] specialty equipment.”
For example, they use the same 30-inch planter that they use for other row crops and run it through the field twice to achieve 15-inch spacing. They harvest hemp grain with the same combine they use to harvest wheat and soybeans. Then, they swath (cut and place in rows) the remaining plant material and allow it to ret (sit in the field to break down) while they harvest corn and beans, before coming back to bale the fiber.
“At the end of the day, it’s a plant, so we stuck with our core strengths and knowledge as farmers,” Aaron says. “We tried to keep it simple, and I think that’s a big part of our success.”
The Ability to Pivot
As with other crops on the farm, the Baldwins are constantly experimenting with new varieties and growing methods to maximize their yields.
For example, after the 80 acres they planted on dryland in 2019 failed, in addition to changing the planting schedule, the Baldwins switched to different genetics and moved their planting location to land with center-pivot irrigation, where they have more moisture control.
This year, they planted several varieties to compare how different genetics perform with and without irrigation. They planted 120 acres of hemp on irrigated land and 40 acres on dryland.
“On part of our dryland this year, we used a genetic that we had success with on the irrigated [field last year],” Richard says. “We also added a couple genetics to different [corners] of that dryland to find out which ones work in which location.”
Leveraging her crop research experience (which she still conducts from her farm for clients around the world, studying crops they grow on the farm along with potatoes, cucumbers and more), Melissa closely evaluates the results of these trials so the team can keep improving. “One of the reasons we’ve been able to make such productive adjustments year-to-year is because we analyze our data to make educated decisions,” she says.
The team collects data on height, nutrient requirements, leaf tissue samples, and yield, especially the hurd and bast breakdown for fiber varieties. With this data, combined with the Baldwin brothers’ problem-solving farmer mentality, they’re tweaking the operation as they grow. Melissa says: “2019 was a great learning year—not so [great] in terms of production, but in terms of [learning] what not to do. When 2020 rolled around, we learned from those mistakes, and we had a beautiful crop.”
But the Baldwins soon learned that more challenges awaited in this market beyond just growing hemp.
Fixing the Processing Bottleneck
In the spring of 2020, the Baldwins lined up a processor to buy their fiber bales. “We all high-fived and cheered, like, ‘Yes! We’re doing it,’” Melissa says. But when she called the buyer a month before harvest to arrange the final details, she discovered that the processor had lost its funding and shuttered—leaving SBIH stuck with the bales.
“It was such a hard day,” Melissa says. “That’s the hemp industry: You move forward, and you move back.”
But the Baldwins weren’t the only ones getting stuck in the hemp supply chain. Many of the other farmers they talked to were facing the same obstacles as potential processors dropped out and left them hanging. Instead of just looking for another way around the bottleneck, the Baldwins decided to fix it themselves.
“The more people we talked to, we [knew there were] growers that want to grow and manufacturers that want to put in hemp lines, but there was nothing to connect those two pieces,” Melissa says. “So, we started crunching the numbers and [decided to] pursue our own processing facility.”
Around August of 2020, the Baldwins started looking at decortication equipment for the new facility and settled on a long-stranded fiber processing machine from Formation Ag in Colorado. After boot-strapping their entire hemp operation to that point, they began to pursue funding for the machinery—encountering a quick “no” from their bank, which holds the money from their CBD sales. Fortunately, the Formation Ag team helped connect SBIH to a venture capital firm to secure the investment they needed.
The Baldwins purchased an existing building about 5 miles from their farm—conveniently located near an airport, freight and rail transport, with plenty of room to grow. The decorticator arrived in early June of 2021, Aaron says, marking the official opening of their processing facility, which is the first fiber processing facility in the state, according to the Kansas Office of the State Fire Marshal. (The fire marshal oversees processing in the state.)
Scaling Fiber Production
At the SBIH Processing facility, round bales of hemp are fed into the decorticator, which unrolls them into mats. Then, the hemp travels through a series of rollers that essentially break the bast, or outer woody fibers of the plant, away from the inner woody core, known as hurd. Each product heads down a separate conveyor belt for cleaning; then the fiber is degummed, while the hurd is sized and sorted to meet manufacturing specs for various market uses.
“If you can dream it, [hemp] is headed there,” Melissa says. “Everybody talks about textiles, but that’s just scratching the surface. Hemp wood, bioplastics, erosion control, animal bedding, paper mills—you would be amazed at people’s plans to use hemp. People are using fiber for insulation because of the cellulose content, and [using hemp in construction to make] hempcrete. The potential of what this plant can do is really exciting.”
Melissa adds that SBIH Processing has buyers lined up across various industries for the company’s processed products.
The facility is currently processing the bales that SBIH produced last year, which “store nicely, just like any kind of hay,” Aaron says. “Hopefully, we can have it [processed by the time] the new crop comes in. Between those and the acres we have growing now, it will be enough to keep this facility full till next year.”
SBIH recently hired its first employee to run the processing facility, and Melissa says they expect to add more staff within the next year.
To fully capitalize on the decorticator capacity of 1.8 tons per hour, however, they had to look beyond their own fields to find a scalable supply.
Helping Farmers Grow
Early in SBIH’s hemp journey, Melissa began documenting the operation’s highs and lows on social media, “because people were curious about what we were doing,” she says. As their online following grew, this curiosity shifted from skepticism to intrigue.
“In 2019, we had a lot of farmers watching us, but it was like, ‘What are those guys doing? They’re crazy,’” she says. “And then 2020 rolled around and they’re like, ‘Wow, they’re still doing it.’ By the end of 2020, we had people [telling us], ‘If we had someplace to sell this, we would put it on our farm.’”
After talking to plenty of farmers in the area who expressed an interest in growing hemp, Melissa knew they could rally enough support to supply their processing facility. So, in January of 2021, she posted an announcement for a hemp growers’ meeting, inviting other farmers to come and learn how to work hemp into their crop rotations.
“We sat down and helped them compile budgets, and we basically gave them a blueprint to follow,” she says. “We tell them exactly how we want them to plant it and harvest it, because we want them to be successful.”
About a dozen farmers teamed up with SBIH to grow 1,000 acres of hemp for fiber this year (and many of them are dual-cropping to produce grain, as well). Most of these farms are located within 45 miles of Great Bend, except for one grower in Oklahoma and a few in Nebraska.
“We want to help [other growers] be successful, so then in two or three years when our processing facility needs 10,000 acres, we can bring them along with us,” Melissa says. “If you don’t have a local supply, then you lose the economic profitability because you’re going to have to import it.”
SBIH sells the hempseed to their partners at a discounted rate, based on genetics the Baldwins have already tested on their farm. (The company sells seeds to farmers who are not formal partners as well.) SBIH also offers its partners contracts to buy their fiber harvest in the fall. Throughout the season, they’re providing advice and even visiting partner farms to help problem-solve issues along the way.
“We’re focused on making sure that those farmers don’t have to go through the hard ships that we went through the first couple of years,” Aaron says. “We give them a jumpstart so they don’t have to figure it out on their own.”
Embracing Hemp’s Potential
Looking ahead, the Baldwins see plenty of growth potential in their partnership model as more growers team up to supply hemp for their fiber processing facility.
“We’re so excited for what we’re building here, as we continue to connect with people who want to grow for us,” Melissa says. “Our dream would be to open another fiber processing facility by the 2022 sea-son and [to eventually] have a network of processing facilities throughout the Midwest.”
This addition to the state’s supply chain could be a boon for the industry—especially considering nearly 60% of all hemp produced nationwide last year still hasn’t been purchased or processed a year after production, according to Hoch. “The future of [fiber and grain] production is going to be dictated by the infrastructure established to support that production,” he says. “As more processing outlets for fiber and grain become available, potentially that would [connect] producers to the market.”
The Baldwins agree that the success of the hemp industry requires connecting the dots of the supply chain. By giving farmers genetics and advice for growing, along with contracts for processing fiber, SBIH hopes to help the Kansas hemp market reach its full potential.
“I really think Kansas could go back to being the top-producing hemp fiber and grain state in the country,” says Richard, referring to pre-prohibition state agriculture reports that ranked Kansas as the top hemp producer by bushel in 1863. “If we can get the marketing and manufacturing of products [aligned] with the demand for fiber and hurd, we could be producing tons and tons of fiber for the world.”
Brooke Bilyj owns and operates Bantamedia, a national award-winning content, SEO and PR firm based in Cleveland. She is a frequent contributor to GIE Media’s horticulture publications.
Shortly after the passage of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (the 2014 Farm Bill), Oregon was one of the first states to license hemp production, as the state’s department of agriculture (ODA) began accepting applications for industrial hemp licenses in 2015. Since then, the majority of Oregon farmers have grown hemp for cannabidiol (CBD) production, says Dr. Massimo Bionaz, Ph.D., re-searcher and associate professor in the Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences at Oregon State University (OSU). However, CBD production creates high quantities of spent hemp biomass—made up of the plant’s extracted leaf and stalk portions.
Dr. Serkan Ates, Ph.D., researcher and assistant professor in OSU’s Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences, says farmers have struggled to find an end use for these leftover hemp byproducts.
Bionaz, Ates and other researchers are working together on several studies to address this agricultural challenge.
The researchers received $299,950 in grant funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) in February to study feeding spent hemp biomass to cattle. The grant aims “to implement the safe use of hemp byproducts in livestock diets and take full advantage of their nutritional and potential medicinal properties to improve animal health and the quality of animal products.”
OSU’s primary objectives with the study are to collect enough data to encourage the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to legalize the use of hemp byproducts in livestock diets and create an extension program to connect producers with the hemp industry, the grant states.
Hemp byproducts are currently not approved by the FDA to be used in livestock diets, Bionaz says.
Yet, the amount of hemp byproducts being produced both nationwide and in Oregon has experienced exponential growth. In 2015, the ODA reported 13 licensed hemp growers and 13 processors. Just four years later, in 2019, those numbers skyrocketed to 1,961 growers and 597 processors licensed.
In 2020, Oregon licensed 1,678 growers, 515 processors and 26,377 acres for hemp cultivation. Based on 2020 data compiled by Hemp Grower, Oregon had the fifth-highest number of acres licensed for hemp out of all 50 states.
OSU’s cattle study is just one of three hemp-related experiments the university’s researchers have taken or will take part in. Last year, OSU scientists ran a similar experiment on lambs. They are also preparing to conduct a study on poultry sometime this fall, pending approval by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), Bionaz says.
The Lamb Experiment
The lamb experiment ran from July 1 to Oct. 1, 2020, and consisted of three stages: the adaptation period (three weeks), period one (four weeks) and period two (four weeks). The trial consisted of five lamb groups: a control group, Low Hemp 1 (LH1), Low Hemp 2 (LH2), High Hemp 1 (HH1) and High Hemp 2 (HH2).
The control group was fed grains (maize, barley and soybean meal), orchardgrass hay (10%) and alfalfa. In both the experimental and control diets, grains and orchardgrass were the common ingredients, but in the experimental diet, the researchers replaced alfalfa with spent hemp biomass.
During the adaptation period, researchers fed lambs in the experimental-diet groups a small amount of alfalfa and hemp for three weeks to get them accustomed to the hemp.
In period one, the researchers fed each group a mix with different ratios of hemp and alfalfa. In period two, scientists switched two of the groups to a regular diet of grains, alfalfa and orchardgrass hay.
“The two groups that went back to the controlled diet after the first four weeks of the experiment were the withdrawal groups,” Ates explains. “That was done just to see the effects the withdrawal had on the [lamb] meat.”
The researchers designed the experiment to analyze the presence of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and CBD residuals in meat of lambs fed spent hemp biomass and determine the effects the cannabinoids had on the lambs’ health and performance. The researchers also analyzed the lamb’s “typical carcass quality parameters and quality of the meat,” including the meat’s fatty acid composition. The researchers then compared the low and high hemp groups and looked at the animals’ feed intake and liveweight gains, Ates says.
“The groups that had the high spent hemp biomass diet [the 20% groups] had statistically less feed intake during the first period compared to all the other groups, and the low hemp groups [the 10% groups] had a similar feed intake as the control groups,” he says. “When we removed the hemp from two of those groups’ diets in the second period, it was really interesting to see that in that second period, their [feed] intake was statistically higher. Higher feed intake was also observed for the group that received 10% spent hemp biomass during the second period, but we are still trying to understand the reason for that.”
The researchers originally hypothesized that the spent hemp biomass would have a detrimental effect on the lamb’s performance, but Bionaz says it appears to have had no effect; however, they have not reached a conclusion on that yet.
“This is all preliminary data,” Bionaz says. “We cannot make a final conclusion on any of this data, but these are some of the very interesting findings that we are trying to investigate more. The final findings cannot be concluded until the data has gone through a final review process and is accepted for publication in a peer-review journal. When that happens, then the data will become publicly available.”
The Cattle Experiment
The cattle study began May 3 and is expected to run through the summer, Bionaz says.
Similar to the lamb trial, the cattle study consists of five groups and is broken down into three stages: the adaptation, intervention and carry-over stages.
There is no specific hemp variety used for the experiment, as it is likely the varieties get mixed in the processing centers the researchers source the hemp from, Bionaz says.
The quality of the feed is comparable to alfalfa, with some parameters, such as fat and minerals, being higher, Bionaz says. The biomass contains about 19% to 21% crude protein (compared with anywhere from 12% to 20% for alfalfa, according to University of Nevada, Reno), along with 3% to 7% fat, 23% to 44% of fiber and a high mineral content, he adds.
Once they complete the study, the researchers will analyze the effects the spent hemp biomass had on the cattle’s health, metabolism, liver and milk quality and composition. They will also determine the residuals of cannabinoids left in various areas of the cattle.
“While the objective is to check the amount of cannabinoids in the milk, we will also be looking at the accumulation of cannabinoids in meat by taking muscle biopsy in the adipose tissue, which we will take at the end of the first four weeks of feeding, and then following those four weeks of feeding hemp, we will have four weeks of withdrawal,” Bionaz says. “Then, two weeks into the withdrawal, we will conduct another biopsy to see if the cannabinoids have been removed from the body.”
Ates says it’s essential to conduct a trial study on three different animal species (poultry, lambs and cattle) for a couple of reasons: they all have different metabolisms; they will process the spent hemp biomass and its components differently; and their production types are different, so the end products for the hemp spent biomass might vary in milk compared to meat, Ates says.
One of the biggest hurdles with this research study is the expense, Bionaz says, because the meat from the cattle used in the study cannot be sold to the market due to regulations from the FDA, which has not yet approved hemp for any animal consumption. So, any meat from animals previously fed hemp would be considered “adulterated” by the USDA.
But the grant from NIFA will help provide the researchers with enough funds to do a “true investigation” on spent hemp biomass with cattle, Bionaz says. And the researchers also submitted a request to the FDA asking the agency to let the animals to go back into production after some time following the study, Bionaz says.
Utilizing spent hemp biomass as a source of livestock feed can benefit both the hemp and livestock industries, Ates says.
Using spent hemp biomass can help producers reduce their waste and create other environmental benefits, Ates says. “And from the livestock producers’ perspective, the spent hemp biomass might be a very good quality and cheap alternative feed for them, which can help them reduce their feed cost,” he adds.
Additionally, it could help create a more circular system between crops and livestock on the farm, he says.
“In the meantime, we will be collecting data from the animals, processing those samples and analyzing them in our labs,” Bionaz says.
By the end of 2021, the researchers plan to publish a peer-reviewed article with the finalized data conclusions from the lamb study to understand better the experiments and what’s working, he says.
Furthermore, the research team is continuing to design and develop additional studies depending on the availability of the grants and other resources. As Ates says: “The sky’s the limit for hemp.”
Andriana Ruscitto is assistant editor for Hemp Grower, Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis Dispensary.
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