It’s the wild, wild west for Illinois hemp growers

The legalization of hemp sparked a hemp-growing “gold rush” by avid growers across the country. Four years later, a significant number of hemp farmers have gone out of business. And the amount of hemp acreage planted has decreased significantly.

The 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp cultivation in the United States for the first time since the 1970s. Hemp and hemp seed have been removed from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s list of controlled substances.

But despite legalization, hemp farmers face many challenges. Those that are still around are constantly adapting as the government considers regulations and farmers struggle to find processors.

As a commercial agriculture researcher and administrator at the University of Illinois Extension, Phil Alberti advises hemp farmers throughout Illinois. He sympathizes with the growers trying to navigate the burgeoning hemp market and evolving regulations.

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“We’re in a very young industry and we still have a long way to go,” Alberti, an avid advocate for the fledgling hemp industry, told The Center Square.

Alberti compares hemp cultivation today with corn cultivation in the 1920s and 1930s.

“We find out the genetics. We are working on best management practices,” said Alberti.

Today, when a farmer grows corn, the farmer knows where the elevator has to go to sell the corn, Alberti said. The prices are structured. Corn futures give farmers an idea of ​​future prices.

“We don’t have that with hemp,” Alberti said. “There is no repository for processing. It just hasn’t developed yet.”

There are not enough processing plants that can process the hemp into crude oil and flour. Hemp farmers run into shortages at harvest time if they don’t initiate processing before they start growing

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“It shakes to this day,” said Alberti.

Government regulation is another hurdle for hemp farmers. In 2022, in-person field tests were ordered, much to the chagrin of breeders. Hemp farmers can no longer send in samples of their hemp for testing. Growers now have to pay for the time and travel expenses to bring testers to their farms to collect samples. Some growers pay up to $1,000 for required testing, Alberti said.

The change has affected the bottom line of hemp farmers.

Rules and regulations will continue to change, Alberti said. 2023 promises new requirements. Alberti said he’s encouraged that state and federal regulators are keen to evaluate new research and listen to growers’ comments. But growers continue to pay the price for operating in a changing market.

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Hemp shows great promise as animal feed, Alberti said. Hemp is a fast-growing, nutritious plant with deep roots that can crowd out many weeds. Hemp requires half as much nitrogen fertilizer as corn. Alberti receives many inquiries from ranchers interested in growing it, he said. Unfortunately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is still wrestling with the safety of allowing slaughter animals to consume hemp.

“What’s fascinating is that people can buy hemp hearts and hemp pods and eat them and feed them to children, but right now it’s illegal to feed them to animals raised for human consumption,” Alberti said.

The ability to grow hemp for cattle feed remains on hold until the FDA decides on guidelines, he said.


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