Plants are the ultimate alchemical beings as they can transform sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into their source of food, in addition to producing complex phytochemistry like terpenes, flavonoids, and alkaloids. We humans truly benefit from nature, since we can derive many gifts from the plants such as food, medicine, fiber, and so much more. Our early ancestors took advantage of certain plants for these comforts and thus domesticated many plant species for various purposes. As a result, many plants have endured the test of time and are still utilized in the same ways in which they were first sought after. Cannabis sativa is one of those staple varieties as this plant has provided for humans in many ways which included utilizing its seeds, flowers, and fibers for our convenience and wellness.
As hemp and its derivatives have recently been liberated from the Controlled Substances Act, the reemergence of this crop can bring about the same utilizations that we once had. The present economic focus on hemp is for the flowers to derive cannabinoid rich oil for the CBD market. However, this nascent market has proven to be extremely volatile and full of ambiguity. If we want the hemp industry to survive and ultimately thrive, then a collective shift needs to occur to demand more of the fiber and seed crops as these markets have less risk and uncertainty. This opens the door for more economic success for the small to medium-sized farmers because they won’t have to rely on a volatile CBD market to earn profits from hemp. Consumers also benefit because they can shop with a cleaner conscience knowing that their products are healthier for the environment either by the way it was grown to its final stages as an end waste product. There are many applications of hemp that go beyond the utility of providing food, fiber, and wellness, but will be explored at a later time.
It is fairly well-known that industrial hemp yields strong and durable fibers. These fibers were prized by earlier civilizations because of their ability to be effectively incorporated into many goods like textiles, rope, and paper. These filaments are derived from the stalks, and must be grown in a particular fashion. It is assumed that this crop is the easiest of the hemp crops to cultivate because farmers can harvest sooner than floral or seed production; they don’t have to worry about pollination or low yielding seeds. However, there are important aspects to note for cultivating and processing hemp fiber. Farmers need to select proper genetics to yield tall, slender stalks compared to their counterparts that produce flowers. Farmers should choose more varieties that produce more bark fiber tissues than a large woody core. It is part of the cultivation process to densely sow these seeds, so they can out-compete the weeds.
In fiber production, one must be aware of the plant’s anatomy. Cultivators work with two components of the stalk, these are called the bast fiber and the hurd. The bast fibers help support the stalk and remain just underneath the bark, whereas the hurd is the inner woody core. Bast fiber and hurd products differ by the way in which the end product is applied. For instance, the bast fibers are commonly used for making paper and creating textiles and rope due to their length and strength. On the other hand, the hurd is better suited for construction materials like creating hempcrete and fiber boards, and providing an absorbent animal bedding. The fibers can also be utilized into constructing plastic composites for the manufacturing industries. The development opportunities with hemp fiber will only increase as we create new technology and demand more of this strong and durable material.
There are certain steps one must take after harvesting the plants. They have to undergo a process called retting, which utilizes bacteria and moisture to break down the stalk’s pectin via decomposition. This process can take up to six weeks to complete, depending on the method (field retting or water tank submerging) in order to begin to separate the fibers. Then it needs to be dried and further processed to remove the bast fiber from the hurd, which can be done through a decorticator machine. To decorticate is to simply mechanically separate the outer fiber from the inner woody core. This machine fully separates the outer stringy fibers from the inner woody material into small wood chips, which can be done with wet or dried plants. In fact, some modern machines have been developed to fully process the entire plant into separate parts such as the raw flower as well as the outer fibers and inner woody core.
Historically, this crop was very labor intensive, and currently it’s still facing this labor challenge despite the addition of machines to assist in the process of planting, harvesting, and fiber separating. One can assume that the technology will soon be developed to further simplify the cultivation and fiber processing. Even though there can be a high cost associated with this crop in terms of cultivation and processing, the end products speak for themselves in terms of their quality and durability.
Hemp seeds can be turned into many products such as protein powder, hemp seed oil, or hemp milk. The seeds produced by hemp are an incredible nutrient-dense source of polyunsaturated fatty acids and essential amino acids. These seeds contain vital nutrients which make them a healthy option for folks who want to add more nutrients into their diet. The cosmetic industry has utilized hemp seeds for their benefits of being anti-oxidant and nourishing for the skin, while many people have utilized the seeds for consuming raw or topping their cereal and smoothies with it.
For the diet aspect, it is important to note that modern diets consist of an excess of processed and fried foods and not enough whole foods (fruits and vegetables). Consuming too much fried food produces pro-inflammatory effects in the body because of the high levels of omega-6 fatty acids. Processed food is taxing on our bodies as it takes a lot of energy to break down these things and can create a lot of health issues. Our diets reflect how healthy we are because whatever we consume has to get broken down, absorbed, and excreted; processed and refined foods aren’t assimilated as well and as a result can show up as GI issues, inflammatory conditions, and skin issues. We need a proper ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, in addition to fiber, so our bodies can function optimally; this helps with stabilizing blood sugar, weight management, and promoting gut health. Introducing hemp seeds in a modern diet is a great way to add good fats and nutrients, and subsequently help us feel better.
This hemp crop can be grown similarly to the fiber crop, that is it can be densely sown, and has some of the same advantages like providing some weed suppression. Farmers still need to select proper genetics for this crop. Growing for seed can take some time as the seeds need to mature, and depending on the genetics will determine the optimal harvest time which could occur in August through October. The seed crop is also labor intensive and requires machines to harvest the plants, so it is highly recommended to avoid tall seed varieties as they can make the harvesting process more challenging (the fibers get wrapped up in the machine). Farmers need to stay on top of the harvest because any kind of delay could yield fewer seeds. This crop can also utilize the fibers, but they tend to be of a poorer quality as the stalks can be shorter and contain more of the hurd (less of the bast fiber). Nevertheless, these fibers can still be utilized and as a result yields dual purposes.
Currently, the hemp that is grown for the market is predominantly cultivated for its flowers in order to extract the cannabinoid, CBD. This crop has gained a lot of popularity amongst small to medium-sized farmers because they believe they can save their farmland from financial ruin as they struggle to compete with industrial agriculture. A few states benefited from the 2014 Farm Bill, but it is the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill that truly allowed hemp to be reclaimed by the masses and its place as a profitable agricultural commodity. Despite a legal barrier lifting, the CBD market has been fraught with risk and uncertainty due to the absence of federal regulation, the lack of stable CBD genetics, and the lack of cultivation and processing knowledge. However, the demand for CBD continues to prevail even though farmers and processors struggle with these hardships.
The CBD market has exploded due to its role of being a popular wellness alternative amongst diverse age groups and backgrounds. Many consumers appear to use CBD hemp products for quelling anxiety, reducing tremors and seizures, and providing anti-inflammatory relief. Unlike its counterpart THC, CBD has only begun to be studied prolifically in the last decade or so for its ability of being non psychoactive and its potential health benefits. Even though the FDA has not yet ruled on their regulatory stance of allowing CBD in food and beverages or how people can market their products, many states have ruled in favor of supporting their local hemp economy, thus permitting CBD infused food and beverages. The CBD hemp industry will remain ambiguous until science backs up anecdotal experiences, genetics have stabilized to produce low THC, and farmers gain confidence working with this crop. Regarding the dilemma of the THC limit, it is very crucial to understand that it will take an act of Congress to increase the THC limit in hemp from its current standing of 0.3%. Cannabinoid levels can naturally increase for a number of reasons, but at present it is the case that any hemp crop which tests over 0.3% THC must be destroyed for being out of compliance. The CBD industry has a long way to go to work out the issues, but an important takeaway is that this market is still in high demand. Many people want to see it succeed for a number of reasons.
The dominant hemp paradigm appears to be solely focused on floral production for extracting cannabinoids and terpenes. Moreover, there are many challenges facing this industry that include a minimal or lack of federal regulations, lab testing, stable genetic varieties, and basic cultivation and processing knowledge. In order for us to utilize all parts of the plant this will require a large undertaking from a majority of the players in the supply chain to actualize this agenda.
These are the farmers, the processors, and consumers. They need to have the proper infrastructure in place to provide what is needed for the supply chain. Farmers need a labor force and efficient machines to densely plant seeds, as well as have proper harvesting equipment and a decorticator. There are few decortication machines available on an industrial level to process the level of hemp material to compete with other countries; farmers need to invest in this machinery to properly and efficiently process their hemp, but the infrastructure is not quite there yet to make it affordable and accessible on an industrial scale (Western Hemp States, n.d.). Processors also need to have their own equipment in place, which could look very different based on the particular industry they reside in, such as construction or textile. The underlying dilemma is that the technology for these various kinds of machines must be developed to provide for all scales of production and at affordable prices. Additionally, the fiber and seed markets need to be seen as profitable and as important as the CBD industry. The consumers play an important role, as they are the buyers of the goods; they must be educated about their products, so they know which companies to support and can generate the demand for hemp goods and products.
Unfortunately there are still many risks associated with the CBD hemp market. For those farmers and processors currently figuring things out, it appears that patience, determination, and flexibility is required to survive the volatile markets. We will continue to witness a lot of ambiguity in this market until certain aspects are worked out (genetics, regulations, etc). In the meantime, there are other viable hemp crops that could bolster this emerging industry.
There are many unforeseen challenges that go beyond this simplified understanding of the hemp industry. This encompasses issues that include environmental, social, economic, and political challenges. These issues can be tackled, but the road to success will be a long and arduous one. Ultimately, we need to get back to the practice of utilizing all parts of the plant because this will benefit farmers, producers, and consumers. It will take determination and education to lift up this industry and make it a thriving force.
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