Industrial Hemp Act Spurs New Crop of Illinois Farmers
Mention of the word hemp can often conjure up two thoughts. One is the misconception is that hemp is synonymous with marijuana. The other is the World War II era when many wartime needs were produced from hemp.
Hemp is a variety of the cannabis plant species grown for a variety of purposes. It has been around since ancient times and is a fast-growing plant that was a legally-grown crop in the 18th and 19th centuries and became prohibited with the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937.
During World War II, hemp growing returned. It was not only encouraged by farmers, but even mandated in some cases as it was a valuable material that was in great demand for the war effort. It was used to make everything from marine rigging to shoe threading to twine to parachute webbing. According to the 1942 film “Hemp for Victory,” every battleship required at last 34,000 feet of rope with hemp being an ideal material for it.
“In Illinois, it was grown predominately as a fiber crop during World War II. It grew like hay and was cut and baled,” said Phillip Alberti, Commercial Agriculture Educator with the University of Illinois.
By 1952, it once again was banned and was not grown in Illinois again until 2019 after approval of the 2018 Industrial Hemp Act.
However, the hemp grown today is not the same as what was grown during the 1940s. “It’s very wide ranging and it’s pretty remarkable the wide number of things it can be used for,” said Alberti, adding that there are generally three different avenues of hemp production - fiber (used for paper, clothing/textiles, agricultural products), grain (hemp seed oil, foods) and cannabinoids (CBD oil).
Beyond those wartime uses, hemp can be used to make a number of products, some being building construction materials, clothing, biofuel, carpet, paper, animal bedding and cosmetics. According to Alberti, a vast majority of the product demand is for cannabinoids and that is the primary purpose for growing hemp in Illinois. Over 7,000 acres were planted in the state last year, with about 5,200 acres harvested.
Now that hemp can be grown in Illinois, it has drawn a new crop of farmers with varying degrees of experience in farming. Trevor Reuth had moved to Minnesota and spent 10 years working on his uncle’s century-old corn and soybean farm before moving back to the Chicago area to get involved in local farming of some kind. “I realized that I had the most fun getting on my hands and knees and working with plants individually - getting down to see what’s going on in the root zones, trenching in new rows of corn and just being able to manipulate your yields better,” he said. He teamed up with longtime friend Cody Kerrigan, who had purchased his family farm and wasn’t sure what he wanted to grow on the land. The two 30-year-olds settled on hemp after learning more about it at a convention hosted by the Cook County Farm Bureau that he learned about from his father. The duo started TRACK Farms on their 10 acres with Trevor as COO and Cody as CEO.
They started out producing 1-gram pre-rolled cones, and flowers/buds/nugs in 1/8- and 1/4-ounce containers. “We then got our tinctures processed and are now moving into a dog product line along with edibles, such as gummies and baked goods,” said Rueth.
Rueth said that a common misconception is that hemp gets you high. “Hemp isn’t cannabis,” he said. “You can think of it as cannabis’ cousin. It holds similar traits but is a very different plant genetically.” Per state guidelines, materials must test below 0.3% Delta 9 THC threshold.
They’ve been farming hemp for two seasons now on two-acres and this year added vegetables in hopes of contracting with grocery stores and restaurants and introducing farm stands in front of other businesses. “It’s an experiment,” he said. “We’ll see what sticks. We want to diversify and not just be known as a hemp farm.”
He emphasized that growing hemp is much like traditional farming between the planting, chores, and maintenance. As with other crops, hemp is susceptible to pests (like the Eurasian Hemp Borer) and diseases (like white mold). He said the process of farming hemp wasn’t much different than what he expected. “I would say farming hemp is about what I had expected it would be. I don’t think that’s the case for most people though,” he said. “A lot of people getting into hemp seem to be either generational farmers curious and interested in hemp and the industry but who know nothing about it or people who just really love hemp but have never farmed or operated a tractor before.”
The process of growing and harvesting can be very labor intensive or very mechanized, depending on the equipment used. Alberti also noted that although users have reported health benefits of CBD (health claims range from pain control to improved sleep quality to acne reduction to improvement of gastrointestinal issues to reduction in anxiety), there are no benefits that have been proven in studies and it is not regulated by the FDA, so marketing can be tricky. While testimonials can be shared, health claims cannot be made.
Jaret Burke with Kifcure, Inc. noted that growing hemp comes with many challenges. “It starts with selecting the correct genetics, which in some cases can be very sensitive to the environment, climate, and soil,” he explained, adding that Illinois’ wet climate and human error can contribute to other issues. “This is compounded by the fact that there is very little research done on this crop, so resources are limited in comparison to other crops, which have been studied for centuries past."
According to a report recently released by the Illinois Department of Agriculture, Illinois farmers produced nearly million pounds of industrial hemp in 2019. In 2019, the IDOA issued hemp production licenses to 561 farmers.
About the Author- Carrie Steinweg is a freelance writer, author, blogger, and photographer living in Chicago’s south suburbs with her husband and five sons. Her work has appeared in dozens of print and online publications and she is the author of seven books. A passionate foodie, Carrie thoroughly enjoys traveling and visiting new restaurants and craft breweries, attending food festivals, and trying out new recipes and kitchen gadgets. She writes about her food experiences at ChicagoFoodieSisters.com.