How hemp could change the vegetable industry

At the end of 2018, Congress passed a Farm Bill that differs from its predecessors in one remarkable way: it removes hemp from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and includes it as a viable crop “for agronomic rotational purposes and for use as a habitat for honey bees and other pollinators.” Furthermore, it opens the door for funding research studying the uses of industrial hemp as well as “emerging commercial products derived from hemp.”

So what does this have to do with me, a vegetable farmer?

In a nutshell, the Farm Bill has effectively unshackled our ability to explore hemp in an environment that’s legalized by both the state and the federal government (unlike marijuana, which is still considered a Class I controlled substance by the federal government). And that’s good news because we at Spinaca think producing hemp could help revolutionize our crop rotation, open new product channels, and align with emerging markets.

A long (and sometimes hidden) history

Originating from the cannabis sativa species, hemp strains contain very little tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—the compound in cannabis that can get you “high”—less than .3% to be exact. Hemp strains do contain large percentages of CBD, a nonintoxicating compound with potential medical applications, “including antioxidative, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotection effects,” according to a 2017 peer-reviewed study.

Hemp has been around for a long time. I’ve seen photos of Henry Ford with his Model T, made with a bio-plastic whose ingredients included hemp. As a publicity stunt, he took a sledgehammer to the fender; his blows didn’t leave a dent, illustrating how hardy bio-plastics could be. And some believe Levi Strauss wove hemp fibers into cotton to make blue jeans stronger. One of hemp’s best-known applications is for making rope for boats, which can handle seawater exposure.

From a farming perspective, hemp is a great new crop that a farmer can produce and sell. The bad news is because it was in prohibition for so long, there’s only a handful of individuals domestically with the correct seed stock. They know the right variety for production of, say, hemp oils versus textiles or hemp protein. So it will take some research to discover what the best varieties are for our area and for our needs. But at least now the opportunity exists to pursue that.

The benefits of farming hemp

As farmers, we’re considering growing hemp for a few purposes.

#1 As a crop rotation with our current fresh-market vegetables. Hemp is inexpensive to grow, impervious to pests, simple to keep clean, and takes a fraction of the water required to grow other fiber crops, like cotton. As a cover crop, it introduces biomass into the soil, fixes nitrogen and helps with erosion better than current options like vetch, winter rye, or legumes.

#2 As a saleable good. Our next step is vetting where to get the right seed crops, then determining the best modality in which to sell it as a product. Should we grow it only for crop rotation? For textiles? For oils in cosmeceuticals? Or for seed to be ground into hemp protein? Our long-term goals will determine when we harvest; for instance, as a textile, hemp needs to be harvested before budbreak, but as an oil, it needs to have flowered. Perhaps we’ll grow blocks of hemp to different maturity for different applications. We can’t know until we determine the vacuum of need for this versatile plant.

#3 As a complement to our work in the functional foods industry. Whether as a powder or as CBD oil, hemp is emerging as a major component to nutraceuticals. As a vegetable grower and supplier for functional foods and nutraceuticals, we get asked for beet purees and powders to combine with CBD for recovery drinks, salves, and sprays. We foresee a lot of blending of nutritional veg crops with the help that CBD can bring to the table.

These aren’t the only benefits of growing hemp for the modern market. We are at the precipice of an entirely new, and rapidly expanding agricultural space with the potential to yield so many new opportunities. Follow along our next couple of posts as we navigate our way through this latest evolution in American ag.

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