Positive change on horizon for hemp products and hemp farmers in Kansas
Hemp can be used for a variety of industrial and consumer purposes. Here, whole hemp seeds, crushed hemp seeds and ground hemp are displayed in scoops. (Getty Images)
The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Kelly Rippel is an independent researcher, consultant and advocate for the hemp and cannabis industries in Kansas. He’s also an appointed member of the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s Hemp Advisory Board
As we gear up for 2023, most Kansans know about the reintroduction of hemp as a protected agricultural commodity. After operating as a research project from 2019 to 2021, our state’s commercial hemp program is now overseen by the Kansas Department of Agriculture. Businesses that process hemp are now registered with the State Fire Marshal’s office.
The first few years saw inclement weather, a learning curve to grow and harvest hemp, and a still-emerging supply chain. All contributed to a decreasing number of licensed and harvested acres over time.
However, multiple factors are causing a new, positive shift.
The initial years of Kansas’ hemp program saw 90-93% of licensees growing labor-intensive varieties for floral biomass to be extracted for CBD products. This was mainly due to national attention about cannabidiols’ therapeutic benefits through lobbying efforts and legal definitions. This unfortunately distracted from other beneficial plant compounds and end uses.
In 2022, Kansas had just more than 1,094 licensed hemp acres. After previous years’ yields saturated the CBD market and large companies came onto the scene, farmers have transitioned to growing varieties more aligned with their environments and operations as traditional row crop farmers.
It is exciting to see more fiber and grain cultivars, which signal renewed investment into an industry contributing globally to sustainability and regenerative practices. Another positive sign is USDA’s Risk Management Agency now offers basic crop insurance to hemp farmers, and the program will evolve over time.
The lowest-hanging fruit for hemp is food for humans and animal feed. Thanks to established research and protocols, we are moving toward full marketability approval at the federal level. The vast majority of hemp-derived foods — such as protein powder, hemp hearts and seeds sold at grocery stores — are currently imported from countries such as Canada. However, changes are expected to be coming in next year’s Farm Bill, with potential to open up pathways for domestic production.
The next sectors Kansas farmers can be excited about are hemp hurd for hempcrete, insulation and construction materials, various forms for biocomposites, and long fiber for textiles. According to data from USDA and more recently information from South Bend Industrial Hemp in Great Bend, average net returns of hemp for fiber range from $400 to $600. Returns for hemp seed are estimated to range from $400-$450 per acre. While these figures fluctuate, trends documented in U.S. Congressional reports and economic studies show hemp’s potential is exponential, with stabilization projected in coming years.
While there are fewer than a handful of industrial hemp processors in Kansas, they are now up and running. These businesses are open to work with farmers, as expansion into coops may be on the horizon.
There are still hemp biomass extractors for those growing floral material for CBD products. That market may see changes if other forms of cannabis become protected in the upcoming legislative session. Fortunately, Kansas is also home to multiple agricultural equipment entities, including Shield Ag in Hutchinson, which provide equipment farmers can use for cultivating hemp. Another manufacturer of hemp harvesting machinery is located in Giltner, Nebraska: Bish Enterprises & Hemp Harvest Works.
Every operation is different, but some farmers find that using or modifying their own combines with headers or sickle bars is sufficient. Here is a snapshot of current industrial hemp processors throughout Kansas. Multiple resources exist for information on production, including a best practices planting guide from Kansas Hemp Consortium and other guides and reports.
Hemp provides a value-added economic opportunity for farmers. They gain multiple revenue streams from one crop.
In addition, hemp is a powerful soil health tool. As hemp grows naturally, its roots spread wide and deep, creating increased soil oxygenation. As a result, robust mycorrhizae can form, leading to soil biodiversity. Another benefit of hemp is enhanced carbon sequestration and remediation of heavy metals and contaminants. Studies demonstrate that introducing hemp as a rotation crop can increase successive yields of other crops grown on that field. At the same time, when optimal planting density and population are reached, hemp is a natural weed suppressor.
We know that Kansas farmers will be faced with challenges in the years ahead.
Farming operations, including small family farms, take pride in their work and legacies, so they do not want to pass on hardship or debt. At the same time, due to drought and other causes, many rely on crop insurance to keep them going from year to year. They rarely seem to be getting ahead due to inflation, costs of inputs, labor scarcity, equipment costs and supply chain shortages.
What’s more, the trajectory of growing crops that often fail is simply not sustainable, especially in areas that experience frequent problematic weather conditions. This is where diversification and innovation matter. Hemp is currently and will continue to play a critical role for empowering cities and rural communities alike.
Conversations with elected leaders at the local, county, state and national levels can ensure these opportunities remain available for Kansans.
If you are interested in learning more about becoming licensed to grow hemp, please visit Kansas Department of Agriculture’s website. Feel free to reach out to Kansans for Hemp and other industry leaders to connect with Kansas’ growing hemp network.
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