This summer marks the third year that Kansans has been growing hemp for industrial purposes.
However, growing the plant’s less sexy cousin, associated with the high and some medicinal uses, has proven riskier and more difficult than many farmers originally anticipated.
As a result, the number of licenses issued this year is less than half what the state saw in 2020.
“There has been some misunderstanding about ease of marketability,” said Braden Hoch, the state director of the industrial hemp program.
A farm’s risk is compounded by an ever-changing set of state and federal regulations. And now some hemp growers and processors want more help from the government to reduce risk and encourage innovation.
Shining Star Hemp Co. is one of only 11 licensed hemp processors in the state.
Outside the industrial building near Pratt Municipal Airport in south-central Kansas where Shining Star operates are rows of 1,200-pound sacks of industrial hemp stems, grains and flowers.
Inside, workers break open the sacks and toss them onto a large conveyor belt that leads to a cacophony of machines that shake, blow, and sift the biomass into its usable parts.
The company is one of the few successful companies in the state.
“It was a lot of work, lots of phone calls to build relationships and find synergies,” said Jennifer Holmes, who works with Shining Star to develop and market products. “But to be honest, I can say at this point that we are great for our position.”
Paul McGeary developed Shining Star’s system for converting the hemp crop into something that the industry can use.
“It’s probably about 30 years of banging your head against the wall, mostly,” he said.
McGeary is a contractor for Shining Star. He has worked in the agricultural processing world for most of his life and applied what he learned over decades from sieving wheat and corn to develop this machine for sieving hemp.
He said the complexity of the process is part of what is holding the industry back. It just isn’t the size to cater to manufacturers who would use the fiber.
“We went to these meetings thinking that having £ 30,000 to £ 40,000 on hand was something. But when you get into the industry and they want five wagons a day or a trainload a week, we’re just not prepared for that, ”he said. “And making them wait until we are prepared is the bottleneck of the whole thing.”
Hemp has been hyped as something with a wide variety of industrial uses. The stem can be made from paper or biodegradable plastics. The seeds can be processed into food. And the flowers can be pressed to extract oils.
But so far the only market the industry is pushing seems to be for their cannabinoid-rich or CBD oil. And there is already a deluge of CBD on the market.
“We’re not very lucky to sell full-spectrum oil,” said Holmes. “It’s just something that we all have to work through and do the right thing and get into the grain and fiber industry.”
But that’s going to cost millions of dollars in investments in new equipment.
Until this equipment can be designed, built, or purchased, companies interested in making products from hemp fiber are out of luck. A company in Newton, Kansas wants to make limbs out of hemp. It imports its processed hemp from overseas.
Holmes wants more government aid to offset some of the risk of investing in converting the facility into something useful for industry.
“A lot of people are scared to start because they don’t know if they’re going to fail, so they never start,” she said.
The Kansas Department of Agriculture says its hemp growing licenses have dropped from 218 in 2020 to just 81 this year.
And last year, of the nearly 4,000 hectares that were planted, only 761 were harvested for production.
An eighth of it had to be burned by the state because it contained too much of the psychoactive chemical THC.
“The last two years have really helped individuals stay up to date,” said Hoch. “But producers still determine how hemp can best be grown as a useful crop and whether it is possible to include it in their crop rotation.”
He said growers and processors need to expand beyond CBD products, but with federal and state regulations for harvesting constantly changing, finding the right investors to drive this kind of innovation and development will remain difficult.