The promise of an established fiber hemp market is almost overwhelming. Everything from concrete to jeans to boxes to plastic to ethanol, plus more, can be made from fiber hemp.
And consumers adore the sustainability of hemp, especially as a replacement for much-maligned, environmentally damaging crops like cotton and timber. Or human-made, polluting products like single-use plastic. Yet the market demand has yet to surge for fiber hemp. Leaving farmers wondering, should they plant fiber hemp for 2020?
Growing hemp for fiber versus a high-yielding CBD, or other cannabinoids like CBG, require very different growing practices.
Traditional fiber hemp is planted and grown similar to corn. It is directed seeded and planted densely, typically 20 to 30 lbs of seed per acre. Farmers generally seed fiber hemp with row spacings of less than 12 inches and the goal is about 150,000 plants per acre.
This is the most affordable and most uncomplicated way to grow hemp. Typically farmers can use equipment they already have for other crops, eliminating the need for additional purchases. The goal in planting fiber hemp is to establish a dense stand of hemp plants that grow thick and tall, shading out weed competition and producing long stalks that deliver the premium ‘bast fiber’ that hemp is famous for.
Hemp produces two types of fiber that are both marketable. Bast fiber is the long, outer fibers that are processed into the premium grade fiber attractive to the textile industry. Hurd sometimes referred to as “shive” fibers, are located in the core of the stem. These produce short (about .5 mm) fibers that can be used for many different applications, including animal bedding, in hempcrete and for paper production.
Hemp grown for cannabinoid production; on the other hand, is produced using very different techniques.
CBD or CBG hemp is widely spaced, typically in rows at three feet apart or even further. Plants are spaced widely within the row as well, keeping in mind a healthy CBD hemp plant can easily stretch five feet wide. When growing for cannabinoids, the goal is as many big flower heads as possible because the flowers are where cannabinoid and terpene production occurs.
CBD and CBG farmers typically plant into wide-spaced rows, encouraging a much bushier, but also shorter, plant than is seen in a traditional fiber hemp field that produces many more branches and flower heads. Hemp for cannabinoid production cost is typically much higher per acre than fiber hemp. The crop requires more labor for weed control, scouting for male plants plus irrigation and fertility management for optimum yields.
Fiber hemp is also a lot cheaper at harvest time than harvesting for cannabinoids. It can typically be swathed and combined (if you are also harvesting the grain), then baled up for storage. Fiber bales, if kept under cover, can be stored almost indefinitely until they are ready to be processed. Overall, fiber hemp is a much less expensive crop to grow than hemp for cannabinoids and it can be grown using equipment that most farmers have already.
The significant bottleneck for fiber hemp production in North America is the lack of processing.
Turning those premium bast fibers into a product that can be used in the textile industry requires a fair amount of secondary processing and a significant investment.
First, the bast fibers and the hurd fibers have to be broken apart or ‘decorticated.’ Then, the fibers must be ‘degummed’ or further processed to remove high levels of lignin so that the individual fibers can be separated, softened and prepared for spinning. The infrastructure for large-scale fiber hemp processing is expensive. With 80 years of prohibition before hemp was legalized in the 2018 farm bill, the manufacturing and processing facilities do not currently exist in North America.
However, with strong market demand for hemp fiber products, several processing facilities are currently in the works. Right now, those first facilities are reportedly slated to begin processing fiber hemp in early 2021. As of Spring of 2020, however, there is no large-scale processing or accompanying market for fiber hemp grown in the United States even though consumers and retailers are keenly interested in purchasing American-grown hemp textiles.
Levi Strauss has developed a line of ‘cottonized hemp’ clothing and even the Department of Defense is exploring hemp fibers as a possible replacement for polymer blends currently used in the U.S. military uniform.
The ease in which fiber hemp is grown compared to CBD hemp is very attractive, especially for larger-acreage farmers. However, if there is not yet a market that is buying fiber hemp, it’s hard to justify growing it, even though the market potential holds a lot of promise.
That’s were tri-crop varietals, hemp varietals bred to produce fiber, seed and cannabinoids, can help bridge the gap and spread the risk for growers in 2020— especially those intrigued by the promise of the potential fiber hemp market. Through careful breeding regimes, hemp breeders have created varietals that not only produce a respectable amount of fiber but also yield grain and a cannabinoid harvest when the biomass is processed.
Colorado Breeders Depot introduced in 2020 our own selectively bred tri-crop varietal “Boax.” Producing an average of nine to 12 percent CBD biomass, plus 1000 lbs of hemp grain and two tons of hemp fiber, Boax is a great way to mitigate the risk yet also take a chance on a future fiber hemp demand. Sell the grain and CBD biomass from your Boax crop at the end of harvest and hold onto the fiber until the infrastructure is ready and looking for hemp fiber to process.
Farming always holds an element of risk. Yet the rewards at being one of the few to have a crop that is in high demand can be profitable, plus establish solid relationships with fiber hemp buyers for the 2021 crop. Spreading the risk between a tri-crop varietal that offers ways to cover the bases, while also creating new market opportunity and keeping the costs down with cheaper production methods, makes sense.
We also have a full line of high CBD, low THC feminized hemp seeds and clones, plus a high CBG varietal. We offer free ongoing consultation and have a buy-back program for our grower’s network.