Hemp, Promise and Problems

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man harvesting hemp

Yellowing soybean leaves and drying corn husks are early autumn signs that huge combines will soon gobble grain from vast fields of Nebraska’s two main crops.

They also mark completion of a promising but problematic harvest: Hemp.

It’s the second year Nebraska farmers can legally grow and process industrial hemp.

Some producers and processors envision a future when this crop, used to make wildly popular CBD oil and dozens of other products, could turn into a small but mighty industry in a state known for corn.

They also see daunting barriers to success. Tepid support from the state is making it hard to supercharge production, they say. The market for hemp products, while rapidly growing, is still small and unstable. And there’s a continuing misperception that what hemp farmers are growing is illegal marijuana instead of what they are actually growing — a perfectly legal crop.

The Schwarz family farm in south central Nebraska demonstrates both the promise and the problems.

The promise: Last year Linda and Tom Schwarz and adult children Becky and Alex planted 300 outside plants and 800 smaller plants in greenhouse pots on their Gosper County farm. They dried and bagged 160 pounds of CBD buds and leaves, and 80 pounds of CBD hemp.

A big problem: Most of the Schwarz family’s 2020 crop remains in those bags, stored in the farm’s greenhouse. The family had expected to sell half that hemp to a Hastings bath supply business, but COVID-19-related issues caused the deal to fall through.

“If we can’t sell it, there’s no point in growing more,” Alex Schwarz said.

The only approved pharmaceutical-grade CBD product is Epidiolex, used to treat seizure syndromes. But a flurry of medical studies — more than 1,000 just last year — are trying to determine the benefits of CBD. Some key early studies have found it may help exhausted, burnt-out and depressed Americans, but may not help much with pain management.

The Schwarzes and Nebraska farmers like them are growing the raw material that is processed into CBD oils, creams, candies, dietary supplements, lotions and scores of other products.

Growing this crop means dealing with regulations that corn and soybean farmers wouldn’t dream of.

For example: Hemp can be legally grown and harvested here only if levels of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, is 0.3% or lower. Licensed growers must contact the Nebraska Department of Agriculture to have plant samples tested before harvest. Hemp testing even a smidge too high must be destroyed as a Nebraska farmer watches his or her harvest literally go up in smoke.

It’s not all doom and gloom. The Schwarzes are getting better at growing. They raised fewer plants this year, but expect yields similar to 2020 because of lessons the Gosper County farmers learned in year one.

A decision about how much hemp to plant next year will be made after the farm’s other 2021 crops, mostly corn and soybeans, are harvested.

“We’re still experimenting at this point,” Tom Schwarz said. “There just isn’t enough movement of CBD and CBG.”

The U.S. Congress passed a farm bill in 2018 that made clear that low-THC hemp plants and products aren’t controlled substances.

The Nebraska Legislature then passed a law, signed by Gov. Pete Ricketts in 2019, that legalized hemp farming.

By last year, 84 Nebraska growers were licensed to raise hemp. The area where the crop can legally grow quadrupled in 2021. Nearly 900 acres of Nebraska farmland and 70,000 indoor square feet is now licensed.

While growing, it’s tiny. Colorado farmers planted nearly 20 times more hemp than Nebraska did this year, according to the Farm Service Agency.

And corn is still king in the Cornhusker State. Nebraska growers planted roughly 10 million acres of it this year.

Still, you can still find spots where rural Nebraska entrepreneurs are trying to harness hemp’s potential, like at a 16,000-square-foot plant near Pleasanton.

There, the Sweetwater Hemp Company uses a technique called ice-water extraction to pull CBD and CBG out of legally grown hemp plants. It’s the largest processing plant of its kind in the United States.

Rory Cruise is Sweetwater Hemp’s chief executive officer. His brother-in-law Brett Mayo, chief marketing and extraction officer, oversees day-to-day operations.

“We aren’t running even close to capacity,” he said. “... We are in full sales mode, retail and wholesale,” he said.

Two-thirds of Sweetwater Hemp tinctures, gummies and topical products are sold through the company’s website. The rest are sold at places like chiropractor’s offices and clinics in Grand Island, Hastings and Kearney.

Sales are hampered because big box stores won’t yet touch CBD and CBG, Mayo said, anxious because hemp regulations vary from state to state.

The Schwarzes believe industry growth depends on a state focus to produce fiber so the whole hemp plant can be used, not just buds and leaves. They think hemp has soil benefits and could work well in their crop rotations.

But Sweetwater Hemp’s Mayo said businesses like his and farmers like the Schwarzes aren’t receiving enough support from the state.

“This could be a thing that could make the state a lot of money. They’re limiting what we have and could grow in the state that could fund schools, roads, law enforcement and other things,” Mayo said.

Steve Wellman, director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, said hemp might qualify for existing state economic development incentives available for many types of businesses, but said he’s unaware of any specific to the crop.

He said he has seen reports from states where hemp products have long been legally produced. Growers there are also sitting on product, he said.

“With a small market, it’s easy to overproduce,” Wellman said. “It’s hard to get investments. Profitability will drive the decisions.”

It’s too early to judge the potential for hemp-related products, said Mark Wilkins, director of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Industrial Agriculture Products Center. The novelty of legalization means there’s a lack of research.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg problem” he said. “Nobody is going to build a processing plant until there are acres to harvest. Nobody is going to plant acres until there is a processing plant.”

And all of that is slowed because of the crop’s more illicit analog.

“It’s not dangerous,” UNL’s Wilkins said about industrial hemp products. “A lot of it is that it’s still viewed like marijuana. So you get these weird rules that you’d never get with corn or soybeans. It’s never going to go forward with those in place.”

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