Ohio developing rules, best practices for growing new cash crop: hemp

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Ohio farmers are preparing to grow hemp, which was legalized when Gov. Mike DeWine signed Senate Bill 57 into law July 30. But questions remain about how to grow and market the crop in the Buckeye State.

Like marijuana, hemp is derived from cannabis but contains less of the active ingredient THC and thus lacks marijuana’s intoxicating effects. Previously, all cannabis-derived products were considered marijuana under state law.

The law requires the Ohio Department of Agriculture to create a licensing system for hemp cultivation, which the agency hopes to have in place by next spring.

Farmers in states such as Kentucky already grow hemp, but researchers say more study is needed to determine the best practices for hemp farming in Ohio’s climate.

For example, hemp reacts to sunlight, said Bob Pearce, a professor in the University of Kentucky’s Hemp Cafe research program, and will bloom more slowly in less-sunny regions.

“There are plenty of questions that need answers, including issues such as planting dates, planting strategies, soil fertility, weed control, insect and disease control, and overall basic production practices,” Gary Pierzynski, director of the Ohio Agricultural Experiment Station at the Ohio State University College of Food, wrote in an email.

Advocates say hemp is more environmentally friendly than other crops, but “we don’t have a lot of data to back that up,” said Marguerite Bolt, a hemp specialist at Purdue University’s Department of Agronomy.

For example, basic studies suggest hemp requires less water than other crops, Bolt said, but some farmers have reported using more water on hemp than on other crops.

“We’re beginning to make strides with the 2018 (federal) farm bill,” which freed up money for hemp research, Pearce said. But progress will be incremental, he added.

“We don’t know how the markets are going to look,” Ohio Farm Bureau spokesman Ty Higgins said. “But we do know a lot of farmers are very curious and will at least give it a shot.”

Ohio currently lacks processing facilities for hemp, Pierzynski said. As a result, much of the interest in hemp seems to come from farmers near the Kentucky border. That state legalized hemp in 2013.

The majority of hemp farms are growing the crop for the cannabidiol extract, said Julie Doran, founder of the Ohio Hemp Farmer’s Cooperative. Cannabidiol is more commonly known as CBD and is sold as a nutritional supplement.

Doran suspects that more farmers will cultivate hemp for industrial uses as CBD spreads and the price falls.

“The manufacturing process (for industrial hemp) isn’t there yet,” she said. “But I see that really taking off.”

For now, Pearce recommends that farmers refrain from investing more money in growing hemp than they can afford to lose.

The crop still appeals to farmers looking for a stable and potentially lucrative cash crop to provide revenue in the face of losses from bad weather and trade tensions with China.

Doran plans to open the Ohio Hemp Farmer’s Cooperative to new membership in the fall, but said nearly 180 people already have contacted her about joining. She held a hemp summit at the Delaware County Fairgrounds last year that around 200 people attended, and expects similar numbers for a hemp summit at the Pickaway County Fairgrounds on Sept. 28.

Younger generations of farmers seem the most interested in hemp, Doran said.

Franklin County Farm Bureau President Jeff Schilling said growers with limited space looking for a niche market are likely to be most interested in hemp, whereas farmers with hundreds of acres are likely to stick to corn and soybeans.

Mike Connolly has a 20-acre farm near Mansfield on which he grows corn and soybeans.

“Those are the two main sources of income, and it would be nice to have a financial buffer,” he said.

Whereas corn and soybeans rely on international buyers, Connolly said there’s a strong hemp market in the United States, which he said will provide more certainty.

“I would say it’s going to be a good market,” he said. “Will it a profitable crop right away? I think there’s going to be a learning curve, but I can foresee it being one.”

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