Fall in Michigan means harvest time for farmers, and many Michiganders are already flocking to apple orchards and pumpkin patches to reap the benefits of that harvest. A very different group of farmers are celebrating their first harvest as well.
Following the passage of the 2018 farm bill, which legalized hemp farming, the state passed the Michigan Industrial Hemp Research and Development Act, which provided regulations and a licensing program for those wishing to grow hemp in Michigan. The pilot program saw 564 growers obtain licenses to farm 32,600 acres across 835 locations, along with 423 processors and handlers obtaining licenses.
Now, these licensed growers are seeing the results of their first harvest, hoping for success in what has been a pretty disappointing year for a lot of Michigan farmers.
David Conner is one of these licensed hemp farmers from Paw Paw, Michigan. He co-owns Paw Paw Hemp Company with Joe Leduc. He says Michigan has the potential to be at the forefront of the growing hemp industry.
“I think our unique growing season and climate is really going to give us a special product that's going to give us a unique marketing advantage as soon as it starts getting out there and people experience it and see it. I think our yields will be better, the quality of the product will be better, and I think it'll be taken in by the end user better.”
But CBD isn’t the only thing these farmers are after. Unlike other crops, all parts of the hemp plant can be processed and used in some way.
Gary Schuler is the founder and executive director of GTF LLC in Grand Rapids. His company processes agricultural waste. He calls the CBD craze a “gold rush,” and says the value of hemp as a whole plant will impact not only Michigan’s farmers, but the state’s economy as a whole.
“I think that's going to create some more security and stabilization for hemp farmers to know: if my crop didn't produce enough of the CBD percentage that I’d hoped for, but there's still value in the rest of the material, we're going to be okay.”
Schuler names a variety of industries that could benefit from hemp. He names the textile industry, which has already begun adopting strong threads made with hemp. He even says hemp has the potential to be a substitute for plastic.
“Plastic materials have a unique quality, from heat sensitivity to flexibility, depended on what is needed from the material in a given product. What’s exciting about this hemp material, versus any other kind of plant like corn or wheat, is that it actually can add value to that component part: it can actually add flexibility as well as reduce the weight.”
Schuler says hemp could allow for a gradual phasing out of plastic. “If we combined a polypropylene with the hemp material, let’s say it’s a 25 percent polypropylene mix, you’re now reducing the carbon footprint by 25 percent, the use of fossil fuels by 25 percent and now replacing it with a circular material such as hemp.” This, he says, allows companies to still operate efficiently and cost effective and start tracking their reduction of their carbon footprint. “We can really make some immediate strides towards a more sustainable product to replace 100 percent polypropylene materials.”
Conner said that the acreage that farmers have for hemp right now won’t be sufficient to supply big companies with hemp to offset plastic use, but thinks that as the industry grows, it’s a real possibility.
"Right now, people are growing for CBD oil and smokeable hemp because there's a ready to find supply chain market for that. Once we get a tier one supplier on board, like a Ford or GM, that we start to move into industrial hemp for offsetting plastics and polymers, I think you're going to be seeing a big shift in the supply chian from a grower aspect, because it would be significantly cheaper to produce a hemp plan that's for a fiber than it is for CBD oil."
He says the structure of the hemp plant harvested for CBD is very different than hemp harvested for industrial use.
"Our goal wasn't to produce the tallest plant, but the heaviest oiled plant. Our plants are typically short, squatty, under five feet tall, but they're just fat with these buds that are just full of oil, because what you're looking for is the CBD oil. The hemp plant for a fiber tends to grow more like sugarcane or a bamboo: requires less input cost, easier to maintain, easier to process. That's the type of plant the big tier ones are going to need, especially in much larger volumes." He says one from a plastics company that was interested in fibrous hemp estimated that they would need over 30 million pounds of biomass materials to offset any plastic intake. "It's a cool, exciting idea that will come, but it'll take us awhile to get there."