Hemp growers need to navigate a maze of legal and production challenges if they hope to be successful.
That was part of the message in a hemp update roundtable delivered on Saturday, Nov. 7, at a University of Maryland Eastern Shore Conference. This year’s 17th annual Small Farm Conference was delivered partially on-site and partially by Zoom.
Saturday’s Zoom conference focused on legal and production hurdles faced by hemp farmers. Hemp growth was legalized in the 2018 Farm Bill, but there are conflicting state rules about usage and a lack of production facilities available. That doesn’t mean it can’t be a good cash crop, but it does mean farmers have to do their homework well before the first seed gets planted.
Zoom speakers urged farmers to have a buyer before they grow their crop, but that is not as easy as it sounds, according to attorney Scheril Murray Powell.
That’s because the hemp industry is in its infancy and buyers want to know they are getting a consistent crop.
“It’s not that easy to know where you’re selling it,” said Powell, who is a hemp advocate as well as a farmer.
She said that rules for whether hemp from out of state can be sold, whether hemp can be used for human consumption or whether it can be used in pet products vary from state to state. Most states have fewer restrictions for hemp being grown for paper, construction or textiles made from hemp fiber, she said.
Maryland, for example, just updated its hemp regulations on Oct. 30.
“Hemp is an emerging agricultural commodity that presents a new opportunity for farmers looking to diversify their operations,” said Maryland Secretary of Agriculture Joe Bartenfelder in an Oct. 30 press release. “We have seen significant interest in the first two years of the Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program and we are excited to expand the state’s hemp industry with the new Hemp Farming Program.”
Under the new Hemp Farming Program, growers may apply to produce and cultivate hemp for commercial purposes. In previous years, Maryland growers have only been able to produce hemp under the department’s Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program.
Powell advised growers to work with universities to have access to as much information as possible. She also urged growers to consider that processing facilities may be in short supply when making their growing decisions.
When it comes to dealing with banks and lending institutions, farmers may have to educate people about hemp.
“Do not be discouraged, but ask questions and be honest,” she said. “You may have to do some education about legality. You may have to go from bank to bank. Large banks are working with hemp, although marijuana is a little more tricky.”
She said farmers may want to have a banking contingency because “banks change their minds all the time.”
Speakers said to be sure to select the right variety because different varieties work better for fiber than for CBD.
Powell compared hemp to bamboo, saying it is a crop which can be used for food, fiber and construction, but which can also potentially be disruptive or even invasive.
UMES associate professor Simon Zebelo said that corn borer is a significant insect pest for hemp. He has been studying trap crops to be planted on the border or in between hemp in order to attract pests and protect the hemp. In this case, he has tried planting sweet corn around the hemp to attract corn borer and give the pests “what they want.”
He has done similar work planting squash as a trap crop around watermelon fields. In that case, he said the fields with trap crops produced more and somewhat larger watermelons as long as the squash continued to blossom and attract cucumber beetles until the watermelon fruit were set.
Powell said that, despite some criticism, no one is trying to eliminate traditional pharmaceutical medicines by growing hemp. They are just trying to provide patients with more options, she said.