INDIANAPOLIS -- Hoosier farmers facing declining profits and the financial uncertainties of the United States' ongoing trade war with China won a chance to cash in on a new crop this month.
After years of legislative waffling, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed SB 516 into law, allowing Indiana farmers to grow hemp, the non-THC containing cousin of marijuana.
The decision comes after Congress passed the 2018 farm bill, which had a provision removing industrial hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, thereby enabling states to legalize growing and selling hemp for fiber and CBD oil production.
The USDA cites an abundance of uses for the fibrous crop. Medical and food oils can be derived from the seeds, and hemp fibers can be used to make clothing and paper, as well as offering a renewable replacement source for wood and plastic.
Cultivation of industrial hemp currently brings about $100 to $300 more per acre compared to corn and soybeans, according to the Purdue University Industrial Hemp Project.
While hemp is not expected to replace those Hoosier-staple crops, it gives farmers an alternative for diversified planting and to shield profits from droughts and market fluctuations.
"It really is going to have an enormous impact nationally and in Indiana, as well," Jonathan Miller, general counsel to the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, wrote in a press release.
The legalization of hemp can be a win for farmers and environmentalists alike.
Hemp thrives in a variety of climates and soil types and is naturally resistant to most pests. Because the crop can be sown without much space between plants, hemp fields are not susceptible to weed invasion.
And, as a natural substitute for cotton and wood fiber, hemp can be turned to pulp using fewer chemicals than wood.
Because of its high biomass, long root structure and height, hemp absorbs more carbon dioxide (CO2) than it produces as it grows, according to a study of the plant’s environmental effects by the Virginia Industrial Hemp Coalition.
After the plants are harvested, farmers can char the leftover roots and stalks, then mix them into the fields to put the CO2 the plant pulled from the air back into the ground.
“Hemp is one of the highest yielding biomass crops on the planet, and it takes far less water and fertilizer to grow than other high-yielding biomass plants,” according to the report’s author, Sam Johnston.
As a quick-growing replacement for wood, hemp could slow deforestation by reducing the harvest of trees for the production of paper and other wood-pulp products.
Resin derived from the oil and fibers of the hemp plant can also be used in the production of plastics while retaining the plant's carbon-sequestering benefits.
As more states legalize the crop, experts predict a 10-fold increase in the already budding hemp market, which in 2017 was about $1 billion, according to research by the Hemp Business Journal. The U.S. is the largest consumer market for hemp products in the world.
Justin Swanson, a board member of the Indiana Hemp Industries Association, expects farmers to jump at the opportunity to grow the plant.
“I think you're going to see close to 3,000 acres licensed to grow in Indiana outdoor this year,” Swanson said. “The trend in Kentucky was they licensed a lot more acres than were actually grown.”