Let's get Hemp-notized! 

Indiana could be the next leader in sustainability through hemp

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Scott McKay is a Kokomo firefighter. He is also a consultant with Hemp Circle Industries, an Indiana company that works with other businesses to explore how they can incorporate hemp into their products and supply chains. It doesn't seem like the two career paths would be related. But for McKay, it makes perfect sense.

McKay's interest in hemp evolved from his dedication to fire safety and his personal investigation into how to make firefighters and citizens safer. In 2010, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health commissioned a multi-year study to analyze the risk of cancer among firefighters due to job exposures. The study determined firefighters have a significantly higher rate of cancer than the average citizen. The study also found that the cancer link among firefighters was directly connected to toxins and chemicals firefighters inhale on the job. Toxins from burning materials are a problem for firefighters as well as citizens. More often than not people die in house fires from smoke inhalation and the toxins in the smoke often accelerate death.

"It's because of all of the plastics and crap," says McKay. "House fires also burn a lot hotter than they ever did before. And that causes toxins to be released."

And McKay says the toxins and pollutants linger in the air long after the fire is no longer a threat. From the fiberglass insulation and other building materials to the carpet, clothing and everything else, oil-based products dominate a home. The repeated exposure is a factor in the increased cancer risk among firefighters.

That realization prompted McKay to begin searching for ways to change the materials, uniforms and tools firefighters use every day in an effort to make the profession safer. Natural fibers were the best and most logical solution.

RELATED:A history of hemp and cannabis in Indiana

Industrial Hemp

Cannabis sativa is one of the most versatile plants that grows naturally, but is vastly underutilized. Hemp and marijuana are both cannabis sativa. Industrial hemp has a lower level of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the main psychoactive component that gives the marijuana user a "high." Marijuana has a THC level of 11 to 30 percent whereas hemp's THC level is typically below .3 percent. Federal regulations currently have all cannabis, regardless of the THC level, labeled as a controlled substance. As a result it is technically illegal to grow cannabis in most states, including Indiana.

A research project at Purdue University is preparing for when the restrictions change. The goal is to be ready when Indiana farmers will be allowed to take advantage of another agribusiness opportunity.

"We sort of foresee a future where they are going to change the law shortly," says Ron Turco, agronomy professor at Purdue University. "I hope within a year or less at the federal level, they take it out of the drug classification and put it into a boring agricultural classification."

Turco would like for hemp to be as "boring" as corn and soybeans. Hemp has the potential to be boring — but just as vitally important to the economy as the other two commodities.

There are three important parts of the hemp plant that can be used in production: fiber, seed, and oil.

Hemp fibers are the most versatile because you can essentially create everything. Think of a product, and it's likely that it can be made out of hemp. Fibers can be made into over 2,000 products, from paper to concrete. Plastics, circuit boards and a multitude of other items currently made from petroleum could be made from hemp instead. Even clothing can and is made from hemp instead of nylon and polyester, which are oil-based products. When mixed with lime composites, hemp is used to make "hempcrete," a type of building material that replaces drywall and fiberglass insulation.

click to enlarge Agronomy professor Ron Turco in the hemp field at Purdue University's research facility. - PURDUEHEMP.ORG
  • Agronomy professor Ron Turco in the hemp field at Purdue University's research facility.
  • purduehemp.org

Hemp seed is already an annual hundred-million-dollar business. It's extremely nutritious, and contains essential fatty acids that are necessary for human health. The seed is 30 percent protein — and plant protein is more digestible than meat protein. The hemp protein doesn't require refrigeration and can be used as an ingredient in nearly everything. Like a sunflower seed, it's crunchy and desirable in flavor and is extremely versatile.

And then there's hemp oil, which is good for skin, hygiene, and beauty products. Hemp oil is obtained by pressing hemp seeds, which makes it easy to obtain. Since it's high in essential fatty acids (nearly 80 percent), hemp oil is specifically good for hair, skin, and nails.

Dr. Paul Mahlberg, Indiana University Professor Emeritus of Biology and cannabis researcher, has been studying hemp for over 40 years. With one of only two federal DEA research permits to grow cannabis in the U.S., Dr. Mahlberg can be considered the leading researcher in his field. When talking about the future of hemp, he is hopeful.

"We need to start moving ahead. Start using hemp, talking to friends about it, and creating goods with it," says Mahlberg. "But the most exciting part of it is the scientific aspect. We know a lot about the plant, but there is even more to learn. To continue to study hemp from a scientific standpoint, we can optimize the use of it and expand our knowledge about what it can do."

Dr. Mahlberg believes hemp is the future, and he may not be wrong. In 2014, hemp was legalized in many states, in conjunction with state departments of agriculture for research through pilot programs like the one at Purdue University. Currently Purdue is the only place in the state of Indiana where hemp cultivation is allowed.

"Hemp has a great and promising future," says Mahlberg. "We just haven't given it a fair chance yet."

The revival of the hemp industry in Indiana could cause an economic, industrial, and agricultural boom for the state. When that boom comes Purdue University wants to be in position to help Hoosier farmers cultivate the best crops possible.

"We are looking agronomic issues related to hemp production," says Turco. "We are looking at things like nutritional level for soil, how much fertilizer kind of questions, planting density, looking at disease issues. We're looking at planting depth as related to weed pressure. We're looking at yield for fiber, yield for seed and yield for oil. We're trying to assess the number of potential varieties that could be introduced into the state."

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Since it is illegal to purchase hemp seeds in the U.S., Purdue researchers have to import seeds from other countries to conduct their research. This year's seeds are being shipped in from Canada, France, Italy, Hungary and Germany. Turco says they try to get seeds from places that have similar climate and soil conditions as Indiana. (Makes sense; Purdue researchers did the same thing for Indiana vineyards to maximize Hoosier grape production.)

Barriers and Obstacles

The ability to grow hemp in Indiana is something especially important to Jamie Campbell Petty. The founder/president of the Indiana Hemp Industries Association (INHIA) is working to get Indiana to consider the possibilities. She got involved in hemp after her stepson began a clothing business dedicated to using hemp textiles and educating people about the value of hemp. Petty says she didn't even know that it was illegal to grow hemp until she got involved in the legislative process. She learned from a variety of different folks, including the Tennessee and Kentucky chapters of the Hemp Industries Association. She decided Indiana needed its own chapter and started INHIA.

Petty's desires are rather simple — for the state to allow small farmers to grow industrial hemp.

"It started out for me simply as an agriculture crop and an agriculture opportunity, especially at a time when we need small farmers and we want small farmers," says Petty.

But a successful hemp industry takes more than just farmers willing to grow it. The farmers need a place to sell their crop. The "sale" of hemp is a complicated equation. First there has to be a place to process the plant fibers, harvest the seeds, and/or press the oil. There are currently no plant materials processing facilities in Indiana.

"You can't transport it very far and make any money," says Turco. "It's like everything else in the biological world of plants. You can't just move things very far because the transportation costs will kill you on profit."

Processing plants won't locate in an area without an industry to buy the material after it is processed. Right now there are just a few companies in Indiana that are using hemp in some form or fashion. The largest company in the state that exports hemp is FlexForm Technologies in Elkhart. The company specializes in natural fiber materials used in the automotive and aircraft industries, modular housing, packaging and paneling. The company imports thousands of pounds of natural fiber each week, but only a small amount of that fiber is hemp.

"We would use hemp if the material was readily available at a competitive price," says FlexForm CEO Gregg BaumBaugh. "Unfortunately that is not the case at this time."

More industries like FlexForm in Indiana would drive the demand for hemp to be grown and processed locally to keep their costs down. But with no local supply or processing facilities, companies using plant fibers have very little, if any, incentive to locate in Indiana.

As Turco says, it is the worst "chicken-and-egg" scenario ever.

The biggest and most immediate obstacle involves the legal permission to grow hemp in Indiana. Achieving that goal would start many balls rolling in many different directions. The path to legislative approval is education — teaching legislators the difference between hemp and marijuana and how hemp could economically benefit the state.

click to enlarge The first layer of fibers on a hemp stem.
  • The first layer of fibers on a hemp stem.

Justin Swanson, a government relations attorney with Bose McKinney & Evans LLP, understands the potential hemp has for Indiana's economy. That's why he joined the INHIA to educate lawmakers on the values the hemp industry could bring to the state.

"We grew up with "Just Say No" to drugs and at the federal level, they made no distinction between marijuana and industrial hemp," says Swanson. "When I'm talking to legislators for the first time about hemp, I can almost see it on their faces. The first thing they think of is marijuana and that we're trying to excise marijuana in Indiana."

But Swanson says it is worth overcoming that stigma hurdle because industrial hemp has a great story to tell.

"Industrial hemp is a sleeping billion-dollar industry for the United States," says Swanson. "It would be huge for Indiana to be kind of the hemp capitol of the nation, if not the world."

Swanson sees the "chicken-and-egg" scenario as well, but believes doors would open in all areas once farmers were allowed to grow hemp.

RELATED: Marijuana is a racist word

Dreams for the future

Those who see hemp as the future for Indiana hope legislators act soon so that Indiana stays competitive in the industry. Kentucky is also exploring the potential of hemp and now has a processing plant outside of Louisville. Sun Strand already processes flax, cotton and bamboo and is set to process hemp when the ban is lifted. If Indiana waits too long, Hoosiers could miss out on the next big thing to hit the U.S. economy and industry.

"We really need to get traction in that area really fast or this is going to die," says Turco. "Even if it was legal, if we don't start looking at this seriously as an income stream, we're going to have trouble long term."

If and when the government gives the thumbs up for hemp agriculture to begin, Hoosiers should be ready. Purdue University will be ready to assist farmers in maximizing their crops and advocates like Scott McKay are ready to help businesses work hemp into their supply chains and product lines. And with efforts to make our society more sustainable, hemp has bright future ahead of it.

"Now is the time to decriminalize hemp," says McKay. "With everything that we know about hemp and the world around us, it is a no-brainer to industrialize hemp as we move toward a more sustainable culture."

Learning about the value of hemp and opening your mind to the agricultural, industrial and economic possibilities of hemp is what McKay calls "getting hemp-notized." Since learning about hemp, McKay is not only educating others and working to make fire service safer through hemp, he has incorporated hemp into his every day living. McKay wears hemp clothing and has incorporated hemp oil and hemp seed into his diet.

"This could be bigger than the automotive industry," says McKay. "And this could create 'forever' jobs. That by itself is huge."

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Amber Stearns was born, raised, and educated right here in Indianapolis. She holds a B.S. in Communications from the University of Indianapolis (1995). Following a 20-year career in radio news in Indiana, Amber joined NUVO as News Editor in 2014.

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