The interest in industrial hemp is currently like nothing I have experienced in any ag marketplace. Sorry to use the term again, but it is the wild west! AfterI spent two days in late March at the NoCo6 Hemp Expo in Denverwith a diverse attendee group, I saw an article in Seed World that likened industrial hemp production to the early development of corn. The article is not about hemp, it’s about corn. However, if you are involved in the current proliferating wave of industrial hemp production, the article has some relevance.
Human selection transformed the maize plant to grow from teosinte, its ancient, humble, nearly unrecognizable ancestor, into a modern plant that produces high yields and can be efficiently harvested. I made the connection between corn and industrial hempfollowing NoCo6 discussions about the challenges for processing and conditioning both hemp seed and hemp biomass
One takeaway (and there were many) is the fact that harvest processes are not yet standardized. What are we harvesting for: seed, oil or fiber? How will we do it: by hand, combine, forage harvester or some other new method? All good questions with answers that eventually will lead to consistency in product. Much of harvest uncertainty stems from the hemp plant itself. It produces large, tough, fibrous stems that will damage most existing harvest equipment. The “friendly” part of the plant is extremely oily and tacky which causes additional issues like bearing failures and prolonged efforts to cleanout harvesting equipment.
Both of these issues cause problems for production and neither is easily solved. So back to the previously referenced article which touches on the genetic development of corn to meet the needs of the marketplace and consumers. The same needs exist in developing industrial hemp as were important in corn’s early market development. Good traits need to be leveraged and bad traits need to be minimized. We at least need to breed out the crazy stem! A plant that is simple to harvest and process and yields better oils, seed or fiber should be the target.
The idea may frighten some in the hemp industry. However, most of what we currently identify as corn was developed long before Mega Conglomerate seed companies were involved. The basic development of corn happened through natural selection, breeding and hybridization processes. The same could be used to develop industrial hemp into greater opportunities for all of us.