by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

The darling of growers seeking a new commodity, hemp has had its ups and downs. At the recent Grow-NY Summit in Syracuse, NY, Lawrence Smart, professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University, compared the introduction of hemp in New York with a rollercoaster. Although fun to ride at amusement parks, “it’s not very fun for growers and processors,” he said. “It’s a gold rush.”

Like the 49ers of the 19th century, some rushed headlong into hemp production and processing without much foresight and have experienced loss.

The Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture at Cornell AgriTech hosted the event, which featured a panel Smart moderated, with Morgan Tweet, COO and co-founder of IND Hemp and interim executive director of the Hemp Feed Coalition; Matthew Mead, founder and CEO of Hempitecture Inc.; and Daniel Dolgin, CEO and co-founder of Eaton Hemp.

In 2019, when hemp truly took off in New York, farmers planted 177,000 acres for CBD. In 2021, that plummeted to 30,000 acres with about half for CBD and half for grain and fiber. “In total, the current demand only requires about 3,000 acres of production,” Smart said. “You can generate a lot of CBD from a few acres.” For its other uses, only about 10,000 acres of production are needed in New York.

When New York farmers began growing hemp, they could receive prices of $34/lb. Now, it’s down to $1.60, but Smart said that the price is improving, with fiber and grain leading the way for the regrowth of the hemp industry. Cornell researchers have been looking at different uses for hemp.

“We see hemp feed as a necessary part of growing this industry,” Tweet said. “There’s a pretty long regulatory road to getting this approved.” Nonetheless, she views hemp as a commodity that offers farms benefit as a rotation crop for grain and fiber – and a vehicle for change.

“‘Fiber’ is a buzzword in hemp,” Tweet said. “With this sustainable material coming online, the supply chain is becoming more evolved.”

A lack of sufficient processors has created a bottleneck in the industry. That’s why Tweet said her organization’s contribution to hemp processing is so important. “Primary processing is really what the industry needs right now,” Tweet said. “We focus on the first part of the supply chain.”

Tweet said hemp seeds offer abundant nutritional value. For example, milled and classified seed cake contains 45% to 60% crude protein, 7% to 15% crude fat and 10% to 15% crude fiber. Milled seed cake contains 25% to 35% crude protein and the same crude fat but 25% to 40% crude fiber. Hemp seed oil is 95% fat, rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids and has a near perfect ratio with omega-6 (3:1). Raw hulled hemp seed (“hemp hearts”) contain 30% to 34% crude protein, 48% to 52% crude fat and 2% to 6% crude fiber. Hemp hulls contain 13% to 17% crude protein, 7% to 10% crude fat and 45% to 50% fiber.

She sees many nutritional opportunities for hemp. “It has the nutritional legs to carry it into the future,” Tweet said. “Plant-based protein has a wide future. Hemp nutrition meets a lot of the criteria food innovators have.”

“Hemp is a superfood and is a really sustainable crop,” Tweet said. “It’s part of a solution and should be taken as a holistic approach. Less water, little pesticides needed. This is really affirming to our industry, that there is a desire and need. Hemp can be competitive in absorption, acoustics and thermal. Hemp can perform on these levels, but we’re still working to be competitive on cost.”

Most of the U.S. hemp supply comes from Europe; however, with the recent spike in the interest of buying goods from local sources, local hemp sources have become more important to processors than ever.

“What we’re doing has the potential to impact a lot of industries,” said Mead. His flagship product is HempWool, a plant-based insulation that replaces conventional fiberglass insulation. “Our material feedstock offsets 9.8 tons of carbon per acre,” he said.

When developing his product in 2013, he was “laughed at” for “wanting to build a house out of a Schedule 1 substance,” before hemp was made legal again. “HempWool is ideally suited to replace thermal insulation,” Mead said.

In addition to its sustainability, HempWool is also safe to touch, as it will not break off and embed fibers like fiberglass insulation. It installs just like standard insulation and fits with a friction fit.

“We see application for other non-woven products outside the building environment, like automotive and cold freight shipping,” Mead said. “A lot of cold freight shipping is dominated by plastics, which ends up in landfills. With HempWool packaging, 90% to 100% would biodegrade.”

In 2016, Dolgin was the first grower to receive a license in New York. “We saw real potential in what hemp could do and wanted to work to show hemp is a viable and profitable crop for the upstate economy,” he said.

An organic farm, Eaton Farms uses ordinary farm equipment for the growing process. Dolgin said hemp makes an ideal cover crop as its broad leaves and fast-growing rate helps it shade out weeds. “Plant it like row crops and it grows very quickly,” he said.

Eaton Farms works to develop more uses for hemp, including the whole seeds. “We were amazed by the taste of whole hemp seeds,” he said. “It has a nutty, buttery flavor. We decided we wanted to create a plant-based protein company and create hemp seed snacks. We launched Eaton Hemp. We use the entire plant and use the fiber for animal care and pet bedding products.”

The challenges of growing hemp include harvesting. While conventional equipment like a combine is used, hemp is strong material, necessitating slower passes over the field. “The wrapping around the axles is tremendous,” Dolgin said. “You’ve got to be careful with the challenges with machinery.”

His operation bales hemp after harvesting for grain. The hemp is later decorticated. His company does not use the bast, but the wooded core, for animal bedding. Eaton’s bedding sells on and Amazon. Dolgin said it’s more absorbent and offers better odor control than other types of bedding.

Eaton Hemp’s seed snacks include Toasted Superseeds, Hemp Hearts, Superfood Bites and soon a Super Crunch Chocolate Bar. “I’d like to see what New York needs to spur more interest and investment,” Dolgin said.

Tweet views hemp as part of the solution for concerns about the environment. “Hemp doesn’t need as much water as cotton,” she said. “We see a huge reduction in water use… It’s a good rotation crop and cover crop. It has a root structure that does amazing things to the soil.”

Dolgin said hemp shows great promise as feedstock, but only if it’s used locally to where it is harvested. “That early data and that sustainability benefit gets dismantled when you transport industrial hemp over long distances,” he said.

“The state has to create policies that force the hand of innovation and use of renewable materials,” Dolgin added. His firm is looking at hemp as an erosion control measure along highways, for example.