Hannah Hagemann / NPR
Hemp farming exploded after the adoption of Farm Farm 2018 in December last year. The bill decriminalized the plant at the federal level, and opened the door for many American farmers to grow and sell hemp.
Over the past year, licensed hemp areas increased more than 445%, according to the spokesman and research group Vote Hemp. More than 510,000 acres of hemp were licensed in 2019, compared to around 112,000 acres in 2018.
At the same time, products made with cannabidiol – a chemical compound found in hemp – are sold everywhere from gas stations to CVS. CBD is being promoted as a cure for everyone against anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, even though science is not there yet.
Farmers see an opportunity to enter the "green rush." But now some are worried that their first harvest could leave them empty-handed.
The "green rush"
In Sperryville, Va., "There are more cows than humans," says Elizabeth Melson. In the distance, shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains lift. Golden, crimson and scarlet ash and birch trees lash in the wind, lining the Thornton River. Melson maps a quarter of a meter of hemp – the dense, Christmas-like plants shimmer in the morning light.
Melson began farming seven years ago. She now manages a small farm for the Sperryville eatery Off The Grid. But this is the first time Melson grows hemp.
"We are all in the green rush, we want to grow for CBD," says Melson. "It's the most amazing, you know, hyped-up, nutraceutical on the market right now, and [I] didn't realize how laborious it was."
Hannah Hagemann / NPR
Growing hemp for CBD is especially exhausting. Melson and her farm do everything by hand: cutting, picking and curing. They ended the fall of 220 plants last week. To cure the hemp, the team hangs the plants from strips of neon orange plastic security fence on the rafters and walls of a remodeled garage.
Melson still does not have the space or equipment to process the CBD oil plant. There are companies that can process Melson's hemp, but they are maximized. One company would come to the farm and pick up her fall, cure it and broker it.
"And then they called back and said, & # 39; We are booked; we are fully booked, & # 39;" says Melson.
Melsons not alone. Hemp farmers across the United States are struggling with fall challenges: unpredictable weather, a spike in hemp production, and a lack of processors and buyers.
"We really haven't seen any type of production since the 1940s and 50s in the United States, so this crop is almost like starting a whole new one," said Tyler Mark, a professor of production economics at the University of Kentucky who researches hemp.
The young industry is undergoing adult pain. And it is expanding rapidly, says Mark.
Mark estimates about 250,000 acres of hemp were planted this year – an increase of about 220% from last year. Up to 90% of this year's harvest will be processed into CBD products, he says.
So much hemp provides a competitive market.
"So since we don't have enough people to process it all," Marker says, "you've got a glut, you've got an oversupply of [hemp] biomass in the market right now."
Since May, the average price of harvested CBD flowers and leaves has fallen by around 50%, according to a report by Hemp Benchmarks, an industry publication. But in places like CVS and gas stations, "we haven't seen CBD prices fall in those stores as much as we've seen biomass prices fall at the farm level," says Mark.
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Jane Kolodinsky, an associate professor of economics at the University of Vermont, expresses it more modestly: "[Hemp farmers’] the markets have bottomed out and they have no buyers for their products."
Many farmers who jumped into the industry after passing the farm bill are inexperienced, she says.
"It's the farmers who just came in and decided: & # 39; Oh, it's a CBD market – I'm going to plant hemp, & # 39; that really doesn't have a business plan," says Kolodinsky. "They're probably going to get hurt the most."
What are the rules?
Even farmers who had business plans are still learning the ropes to grow a new crop.
Instead of federal hemp regulations, states have enacted their own rules. States like Virginia and Wisconsin require farmers to produce hemp with no more than 0.3% total THC, the psychoactive compound that gets people high. If temporary rules that the USDA launched last month are enacted into law, all 50 states will have to comply with the 0.3% total THC limit.
For farmers trying to grow high quality CBD flowers and obtain a crop within 0.3% THC window can be challenging. The two cannabinoids "move together," says Mark, so as CBD concentration increases, so does THC.
Unlike soybeans and rapeseed, it is possible that hemp can go "from one day is a legal crop to the next day an illegal crop, in terms of THC content," says Mark.
Hannah Hagemann / NPR
How old the hemp is can also affect THC concentration, and weather changes can also make.
Wisconsin hemp farmer Phillip Scott struggled to find a balance with his crop this season. Scott went on to be a full-time farmer in 2018. The former UPS worker began farming after being injured at work. Nerve damage left him limping, and Scott found relief from his pain using high-strength CBD tincture.
"It was it or opioids," he says.
Scott grew 37 goals of hemp this season, which he processes into tinctures. But Scott had to burn 10 of those acres to the ground: They tested 0.1% above the acceptable limit for THC.
"Even though I lose a plant, it's really good," Scott says. "It's frustrating that we have to destroy some of these crops, but we have to comply."
He estimates burning the 10 acres meant the loss of between $ 150,000 and $ 1 million.
Farmer Tom Lauerman is hopeful. Lauerman has been running cannabis for about 20 years and grown CBD-bearing hemp this year. He makes tinctures, ointments and lip balms on site.
"I think there is a way that small farmers can actually do well in this industry," Lauerman says, "make their own products, tell the story."
Hemp side congestion  Some farmers stay outside the CBD's green rush completely, choosing the long game by growing hemp grains and fiber.
Glenn Rodes is an eighth-generation Virginia farmer who breeds turkeys and cattle and grows corn, soybeans and canola. He started experimenting with hemp in 2016, but this is the first season he could see any profits.
"For now, there is a very, very high risk, high reward on the CBD side," says Rodes. "There would be lower risk, lower rewards on the grain and fiber side. But we still believe rewards."
Unlike most farmers, Rhodes does not grow female hemp plants – those that provide CBD flowers and oil. He harvested 10 acres of hemp bark, seeds and stalks this season. These parts of the plants can be transformed into cosmetics, fabrics, fuels, food, building materials and even plastics substitutes.
Hannah Hagemann / NPR
Still, "It's hard to compete with things like petroleum when you can pump it out of the ground and produce," says Rodes.
Rodes planted 10 acres of hemp. He even has equipment to make hemp seeds into oil. But his store does not live up to food standards, so he can't sell the hemp he handles on site.
Rodes is currently in talks with hemp processors and buyers. He hopes to sell 35 balls of fiber and 3,000 kilos of seeds.
However, hemp is still a sideline.
"I actually got that phone call from a dairy farmer and was wondering if he could save his farm," Rodes says. "And I just had to say, it's just too soon. We don't have the infrastructure. We don't have the market right now."