Learning as You Grow: Hemp Crops Shrinking, Growers Increasing, Yields Improving in Third Growing Season
Traditionally, Illinois has seen much of its agricultural land used to grow corn, soybeans, and a variety of other produce, but it’s now in its third season of also growing a crop that has had a controversial and complicated past. Hemp has been grown and then banned. And then grown again at the urging of the government during World War II and then banned again.
The 2018 Industrial Hemp Act allowed it to return in 2019 and as time goes on more is discovered about the most effective ways to make the venture profitable. The majority of hemp production-over 90%-is for the use of cannabinoids, which are extracted for a number of purposes, from oils to gummies to smokable flowers.
According to the Department of Agriculture, 601 farmers planted over 7,000 acres of hemp in 2019, harvesting 5,233 acres or 73%. There was a substantial decline in hemp production in 2020 when 2,734 acres were planted, but 2,392 acres- 87% of their crop-was harvested.
“We’ve seen a significant decrease in the amount of acres grown, but an increase in growers. So, less is being grown, but there are more farmers. Some who may have initially grown 10 or 20 acres, may now grow less than five acres or even just one or two. There’s intensive labor in this type of production,” said Philip Alberti, Commercial Agriculture Educator with the University of Illinois Extension in Freeport. “We’ve seen growers be very successful and others never want to touch it again.”
There are a number of factors that contributed to the drop in harvested hemp, according to Alberti. Some growers found that the quality of their product was poor. Others found the market oversaturated and found it difficult to find a good buyer and thus, scaled back their planting. Some didn’t have access to the infrastructure and storage needed for drying their crop.
Jarett Burke is CEO of Kifcure, Inc., a Maple Park-based company that provides seeds and seedlings to growers, offers extraction services, and produces CBD products. He said that business has been good, but they aren’t providing nearly as many seeds to growers as last year. “The pandemic hit our retailers the hardest,” said Burke. Some retailers didn’t re-open after pandemic shutdowns and others moved online, he said. "On the flip side, we've seen a lot of farmers creating their own brands and branded products with their oil. This has been the fastest growth segment of our business."
Through a collaboration with 130 growers and the University of Illinois, as well as universities in Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana, the Midwestern Hemp Database was established to provide regional insight into agronomic performance and cannabinoid development of industrial hemp varieties. With the help of recent grant funding allocated through 2022 and partnerships with additional growers, the database will be able to continue and expand. Findings will help growers get a better understanding of management and performance to create a higher yield and a higher-quality product.
As more is learned about the process and growers work out the kinks of working with a new crop, Alberti expects to see the of growers hold or increase slowly from here and for the amount of acres to perhaps drop a little more “as we learn more about what is a good amount of supply and demand,” he said.
Alberti has also noted more interest in grain and fiber uses. “In Montana, a bill was recently passed authorizing hemp food ingredients for animal feed and that’s a huge step forward,” he said. “There’s now more interest in fiber for products since growing is much more similar to hay and grain. It can be used for textiles, clothing, paper products. It's a strong natural fiber and can be used for a number of different products. It’s a pretty remarkable plant.”