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How Do You Process Hemp – Part One

A Two-Part Introduction to Growing, and Processing your Hemp Crop

Before you grow hemp and learn how to process your hemp, you need to know what you are growing it for. Hemp is an amazingly versatile plant that can be grown for its seed (grain), fiber, or essential oils —aka cannabinoids. But how you want to sell your final product, and the quality of your grow, will also determine how it is processed. So, to know how to process your hemp you need to know what you’re growing it for.

First off, though, it’s important to get a little background on the history of growing hemp in the United States which has huge ramifications for the industry today.

History of the Hemp Plant

The hemp, aka cannabis plant, is one of the oldest plants to be cultivated by humans. It is a very versatile plant and was traditionally used for its fiber and grain as a food source. Eventually, humans also learned that smoking hemp flower buds was both pleasant and had health benefits, so hemp truly is an all-around plant.

Hemp was grown by the founding fathers of the United States. Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington grew hemp, though there is no evidence they grew it to smoke it (despite internet rumors to that effect). However, they did find hemp to be a significantly important crop, especially as its fiber was the primary component for making canvas used for sailing, which meant hemp was vital to the early American Navy.

Thomas Jefferson made many references in his papers to growing hemp at Monticello. At one point, hemp was so important to the colonies that farmers were compelled by law to grow it. So, what happened?

There is one compound in the cannabis plant, THC or tetrahydrocannabinol, that can create an intoxicating, or “high” effect. As the United States moved into the 20th century, more people discovered that smoking the flowers of some hemp plants could create psychoactive effects. This strain of hemp became known as marijuana. Marijuana and hemp are the same plant species, Cannabis sativa. But, marijuana has been selected for high THC levels, while traditional hemp has very low to almost non-existent amounts of THC.

As the custom of smoking hemp developed, it was primarily smoked by minority communities, particularly African American’s. In the context of the racial tensions after the Civil War, an unfounded belief developed that the cannabis plant created bad behaviors. In the 1920s, a series of laws ended up banning all forms of the cannabis plant —  including true hemp strains (rather than marijuana) that had almost no THC in it. This created what is now called the “hemp prohibition” era which lasted around 80 years.

For years since, farmers and hemp proponents have pushed to legalize hemp, pointing out that low-THC hemp cannot create a high. By not allowing it to be grown, we were preventing an extremely valuable crop for the American economy. Their work was finally successful with the passage of the 2018 farm bill which legalized all cannabis plants with less than .3 percent THC, calling them “hemp” and any cannabis plants over .3 percent THC as marijuana.

For reference, typically, marijuana strains sold in states that have made marijuana legal have 15 percent or high THC in them. So, there is almost no THC in legal hemp. So, with that legalization, now finally, farmers were able to start growing hemp again. But then the question became, do we grow it for fiber and seed? Or do we grow it for the other valuable cannabinoids, like CBD, that isn’t intoxicating and are legal? And which is worth more when it comes to profit? Depending on what you grow, the processing part is entirely different.

Hemp Grown for Fiber and Seeds

Hemp planted for fiber and seed (often these plants are harvested for both) is grown a lot differently from hemp grown primarily for its cannabinoids. Fiber hemp is planted much like corn. It is direct-seeded and planted closely. The plants are encouraged to grow quickly and densely, shading out weed competition. This creates a dense patch of very tall, often 12 feet or taller plants. When it is time to harvest, these growers will typically use a combination that separates the seed heads and leave the long stalks which provide the fiber, in the field. The hemp grain is then typically stored. Hemp grain is currently the easiest hemp product to sell to buyers, although it is not the most valuable part of the hemp plant.

Then, depending on your climatic conditions, the fiber is generally left in the field to “ret,” a natural process of letting moisture begin to soften the strong compounds in the hemp fiber and began to prepare it for processing. Eventually, the fiber is picked up and baled and stored until it can be processed. Hemp produces two types of fibers — a short “hurd” fiber easily removed and turned into products like animal bedding or used in hempcrete.  And then along “bast” fiber, which can be very long (even 12’ long!) and is extremely valuable for processing into clothing.

However, processing for bast fiber is an extensive operation involving many steps to soften the fibers and prepare them to be used in current commercial weaving operations employed for other shorter fibers, like cotton and wool. Because hemp was prohibited for so many years, there were no commercial ‘fiber processing’ facilities existing in the U.S. for hemp when it was legalized in 2018.

However, that is rapidly changing. Now, there are options for both portable hemp fiber processing and extensive industrial hemp fiber processing facilities that are being built and developed as we speak. However, it is still difficult to find processing facilities for hemp for its bast fiber though there it is of considerable demand for it from manufacturers, especially those interested in natural, sustainable fibers. Farmers looking to grow hemp for its fiber should make sure they have a plan for an eventual buyer for their hemp fiber, as even the portable hemp fiber processing solutions are still costly. Coming up next, growing hemp for cannabinoids! NOTE TO WHOEVER PUTS THIS UPLINK TO THE 2ND PART HERE!

Colorado Breeders Depot is a reputable hemp breeder and grower. Since the beginning of the hemp industry, we have been committed to breeding only the most exceptional hemp varietals and providing professional growing advice to hemp farmers. Please feel free to shoot us any questions or requests at our website, Colorado Breeders Depot, or give us a ring (719) 275-7770. We love talking hemp, all its amazing benefits, and help guide you in growing a profitable hemp crop.

Read the 2nd Part of Hemp Growing: