Tiger Fiber leads Missouri back into the hemp industry
Getting hemp in the ground will be a mostly typical process for most farmers — provided they are growing for fiber or seed. Growing the crop for CBD oil is a whole different matter.
2020 will be the first time in decades in which Missouri farmers can cultivate hemp and they will have to decide which purpose to grow the crop: fiber, seed, CBD oil, or a fiber/seed combination. The planting and harvesting of hemp varies quite a bit depending on the intentions of the crop.
Interested parties will need to apply for a permit through the Missouri Department of Agriculture (MDA), undergo a background check, and be free of any felony convictions for 10 years. The department charged with overseeing hemp issued proposed regulations in October, which are open to comments until December. Producer Registration and Agricultural Hemp Propagule and Seed Permit applications will be available online Dec. 2. The department expects to issue permits winter 2019 into 2020.
The expected 2020 growing season will be the first in Missouri for decades.
In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act strictly regulated the cultivation and sale of all cannabis varieties. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified all forms of cannabis — including hemp — as a Schedule I drug, making it illegal to grow in the U.S.
In 2018, the General Assembly passed an industrial hemp pilot program in Missouri — as outlined in the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill. The legislation limited production to 2,000 acres statewide, among other provisions. Under that law, MDA published proposed rules in January 2019, which went into effect in July 2019.
In the spring of 2019, before proposed pilot rules went into effect, that fledgling industry was amended by state lawmakers. The bill updated the language in Missouri statute to be consistent with the standards laid out in the federal 2018 Farm Bill. It also removed statutory acreage restrictions on the crop.
Farmers will not be completely without reference when it comes to planting hemp. The University of Missouri, with aid from Tiger Fiber, planted several plots of the crops around the state for research this year. The research plots, in combination with the experiences of other states — more than 30 states have legalized hemp since the 2014 farm bill — give farmers a baseline to go off.
Still, there are a lot of variables to be determined.
“On paper, Missouri is one of the best places to grow hemp,” James Forbes, co-founder of Tiger Fiber, said.
Hemp, an annual crop, has a very competitive root structure and can “out-compete” weeds for soil nutrients. There are no approved pesticides or herbicides in the United States, thus eliminating the need to spray several times while the crop grows — like corn.
Hemp can be processed into fabrics, yarns, fibers, carpeting, home furnishing, concrete, cosmetics, nutritional supplements, pharmaceuticals, foods, beverages, rope, paper, plastics, insulation, biofuels, and more.
“The global market for hemp consists of more than 25,000 products in nine submarkets: agriculture, textiles, recycling, automotive, furniture, food and beverages, paper, construction materials, and personal care,” according to a 2017 Congressional Research Service report.
The stalk and the seed are the harvested products. The interior of the stalk has short woody fibers called hurds; the outer portion has long bast fibers. Hemp seed/grains are smooth and about one-eighth to one-fourth of an inch long.
The stalk can range from 4 feet to 18 feet tall and the type of hemp grown is selected based on the processing purpose and market. Taller varieties of hemp are more desired for fiber production. Shorter stalks are more attuned to seed production.
Because of the variations in varieties, the cultivation of the crop varies depending on the purpose of the crop.
Discing, tilling the soil is currently recommended as with other crops.
“As we progress in the industry and we start focusing a lot more on hemp’s ability to replenish the soil, we might even suggest no-till agronomy strategies,” Forbes said.
Those planting hemp for fiber or seed production can use a seed drill after a quick calibration. Hemp seeds are a similar size to spinach seeds.
Those planting for CBD oil are in for a more extensive and expensive process. It will “most likely” require hand planting.
But for buying any seeds, Forbes recommends finding out the stock thickness and height and nutrient needs. He pointed out, like other crops, there are several varieties with some, for example, requiring more water than others.
“As of today, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of available hemp seeds you can get from anywhere around the world. I would definitely make sure to communicate with who is providing your seeds and see what they say. If they can’t give you an answer, I would be hesitant about sourcing seeds from them. There are bad actors,” Forbes said.
Forbes said harvesting equipment really depends on the variety of hemp: some can be combined, some can be cut.
Those growing for seed production, with a few adjustments and the right header, can combine the crop. He noted John Deere can cut with a modified head cutter, designed to deal with the gummer, sticker top five percent of the plants’ biomass, where most of the seed resides.
For fiber use, the process is very similar to harvesting a specialty hay crop. He noted some use a sickle bar to put the crop down — with some even using crimpers to crack open the stalk. Depending on genetics, raking may or may not be necessary. When dry enough, the stalks need baled.
“We are promoting multi-crop utilization,” Forbes said. “So that if you wanted to grow hemp for two applications you could grow a seed/fiber variety…harvest for seed and then going through with the sickle bar for the stock.”
“I’m not going to say ‘Yeah, your equipment is going to automatically work.’ Because you also have to know what type of seed genetic you have — if it is going to be a thinner stock, a thicker stock,” Forbes said. “It really depends on how you are growing it and what your end product is.”
He noted there has been a lot of equipment damage with the thicker stocks – “trying to fit square pegs in round holes.”
Processing the hemp is where Tiger Fiber comes in.
“Our goal, long term, is to have enough infrastructure for processing that we are close to the producer and also close enough to water, rail, highway, and air so that we are able to distribute outside of the state,” Forbes said.
“With the logistical economics and the amount of different parts of Missouri that are geographically well suited to grow hemp, we would like to have an influence in different parts of the state,” he continued. “So, if you are in the southeast, you have a southeast processing facility. If you are in the northwest, you have a northwest processing facility. If you are in mid-Missouri, you have a mid-Missouri processing facility.”
//ALISHA SHURR Photo//Tiger Fiber