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Hemp industry looks to make comeback

Producer applications are down slightly from last year's inaugural growing season

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After making its debut in 2020, Missouri’s industrial hemp program growth for year two remains a work in progress, officials say.

The Missouri Department of Agriculture began accepting program applications last year, allowing residents the chance to produce the plant and sell products derived from its materials. MDA reported 207 producer registrations and 78 agricultural hemp propagule and seed permits were approved in 2020. Additionally, 80 industrial hemp samplers were certified to collect compliance samples. Of the more than 200 producers, MDA officials say roughly two-thirds planted last year, covering 811 acres statewide.

“For 2020, we really put together a program that was scalable,” said MDA spokesperson Sami Jo Freeman. “We didn’t really have an estimated number of registrations that we were going to have to put out because we simply didn’t know. What we saw for 2020 was pretty strong for the first growing season.”

However, she said the number of producers this year points to some uncertainty of how quickly the program will grow. Producer registration numbers as of March 23 are down 12% from 2020, with 182 applications received. Of those, 36 are pending renewal.

The program marks a comeback in Missouri for the plant, which had largely been prohibited since 1937, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Marijuana Tax Act, according to the Hemp Industries Association. The tax and licensing regulations of the act made hemp cultivation difficult for farmers, save for a brief period during World War II, when they were encouraged to grow the plant for the war effort.

The 2018 Farm Bill passed by Congress opened the door for industrial hemp production nationwide.

“It’s the plant literally with 25,000 uses,” said Tom Raffety, president of the 2-year-old Missouri Hemp Producers Association.

Raffety said hemp is extremely versatile because its leaves, roots, seeds, stalks and flowers have potential uses in textiles, fuel, paint, biodegradable plastics, construction materials, organic compost, medicine and other products. The strong fibers of the plant can even be processed into pulp to make paper.

The federal Farm Bill led to the Missouri General Assembly later that year approving the industrial hemp program under the supervision of the MDA. State officials say the legislation legalized the crop and exempts it from the list of controlled substances and the definition of marijuana. Hemp is cannabis that contains 0.3% or less THC by dry weight.

By January 2020, the program began accepting applications. Each application costs $750 and is renewable annually.

In production
Buehler Farms LLC in Mount Vernon was among the licensed hemp producers last year. Co-owner David Buehler said his century farm currently is using the plant exclusively to produce CBD supplements. The farm is selling CBD-infused elderberry syrup, elderflower hemp honey and herbal salve through its Elder Farms line.

“Hemp was an alternative we could grow on a small acreage and process ourselves to put right directly into our products,” he said, noting Buehler Farms plants in May and harvests in September.

Buehler said the first-year goal was to start small and grow hemp on 5 acres of the 400-acre farm. The plan is to add another 5 acres this year, he said.

“It’s very expensive to put it out,” he said. “We didn’t want to put out more than we could take care of.”

Kyler Brown, sales director and co-owner of Elder Farms LLC, said last year’s investment was around $120,000, including $90,000 for equipment.

While declining to disclose last year’s revenue, Buehler said he was “very happy” with how the company’s CBD-infused hemp products sold. Elder Farms’ products sell in roughly 150 retailers in five states, Brown said, pointing to 30 Hy-Vee stores in Missouri, Kansas and Iowa, as well as all three shops of MaMa Jean’s Natural Foods Market LLC.

“We were delayed a little bit on planting because of wet weather at the very beginning,” Buehler said, noting investment costs should be entirely recouped this year. “We didn’t really have any insect problems until the very last. Other than that, it went really well.”

Brown said the company’s hemp production for now remains focused on floral for CBD products.

“As the market evolves, fiber is definitely something we’re interested in from a sustainable and renewable point,” he said. “Processing is really the bottleneck with that. We’ll just have to see how the next few years pan out.”

Raffety said his Charleston family farm in southeast Missouri intends to be among hemp producers this year. Weather issues prevented him from getting involved in 2020.

“We hope to get some seed in the ground on a limited scale this year,” he said, noting planting might start at 20 acres. “I’m looking more toward fiber, because that’s where we have relationships now.”

There’s a lot of education farmers have to absorb, Raffety said, adding the industry was basically destroyed almost a century ago.

“We’re learning which varieties work better than others on planting and emergence,” he said. “All of this is new again. We’re having to re-create this entire industry.”

Mixed experiences
Of the 800 acres planted last year in the state, 69% were successfully grown to harvest, according to MDA data. Nearly all of the remaining acreage was unharvested due to a variety of factors, including weather, pest or disease, lack of a market and unfavorable preliminary test results.

Freeman said early year projections for the program are difficult.

“It’s kind of a mixed experience right now,” she said. “People are still trying to figure out exactly how it fits into their operation and what they want to do with the opportunity.”

Raffety said the slightly lower numbers this year may be an indication that potential producers are being more cautious about jumping into a new agricultural area. It’s a strategy he recommends.

“Start small and learn, and go from there,” he said. “Don’t go out and try to plant 1,000 acres of this stuff in year one.”

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