Penn State Researchers Harvesting Industrial Hemp
Prepared by Daniel Ciolkosz, Penn State Extension
Industrial Hemp, which was a common crop in colonial times for the manufacture of rope, has been essentially outlawed for many years, due to its similarity to Marijuana. In fact, Industrial Hemp is a variety of the Cannabis plant that is extremely low in psychoactive compounds. Just last year, amidst a nationwide trend of greater acceptance of both Industrial Hemp, Pennsylvania government began allowing research plots of industrial hemp to be grown, with an expectation that commercial production could be permitted in the near future.
Hemp is often promoted as being a versatile crop, with value from its seeds (producing oil), and stalks (producing fiber). While some claims of industrial hemp’s sustainability can seem exaggerated, the crop’s modest needs for water or pesticides do make it an attractive option for farmers interested in growing crops that are more sustainable. In addition to fiber or oilseed, it is also possible to produce biomass from the crop, which could serve as a coproduct (complementing the production of fiber or oilseed) that is used for sustainable farm-based energy either on the farmstead or in the community. Two interesting bioenergy options for industrial hemp include:
- Pelleting industrial hemp biomass to use or sell as a heating fuel is an obvious opportunity in the Northeast Region, where winter heating loads are significant and pellet stoves are familiar to many.
- Delivering industrial hemp biomass to a local biorefinery to be converted into cellulosic biofuel could be a very large market, but this would depend on the availability of a biorefinery in the region.
At Penn State, agronomy professor Greg Roth has been leading a research trial of industrial hemp, looking at the issues farmers may face when producing this crop.
“The first thing is to decide what kind of industrial hemp to grow” says Roth. In general, industrial hemp can be classified as an oilseed variety (shorter plants) or a fiber variety (taller plants). A key factor with shorter varieties is weed control, since no herbicides are labeled yet for hemp. This is less of a problem for taller varieties, because they out compete weeds more effectively.
At Penn State’s research trial seed yields averaged about 1500 lbs/acre this year. With a market value of about 50 cents per pound, Roth notes that oil from hemp is “not likely to be cost competitive as a feedstock for biodiesel”.
While there are many opportunities for its use, most markets are not yet developed for industrial hemp. For example, the meal from the oilseeds is not yet registered as an animal feed. Registration is a lengthy federal process that may delay its use in the animal ag sector.
When asked about bioenergy opportunities, Roth mentioned that “stalks and leaves from the shorter plants can be collected and baled, and would probably be best used for energy since the fibers from the shorter.” Another possibility is that, if the fiber market develops, we will need a “De-Cortication” plant that separates the hurd from the bast (pith from the fibers). “In this process, the hurd could be a product used for bioenergy.”
At present, since there are not many markets for the products of industrial hemp, it is difficult to analyze the overall economics of the crop, but the most successful farmers are likely to be those who utilize as much of the crop as possible, perhaps producing oilseed, fiber and biomass from the one crop.
Farmers interested in industrial hemp may want to contact the Pennsylvania Hemp Industrial Council, which serves to represent the crop’s business potential within the state. Also, keep posted for field days and workshops from Penn State Extension on industrial hemp.