To find Purdue University’s crop research farm, located just south of the university’s West Lafayette location, you have to travel on roads through vast tracts of corn and soybeans. Often, corn is on one side of the road, soybeans on the other; you are in a sandwich of traditional monoculture.
Is there another crop waiting in the wings, aching for its opportunity to join the big two? Industrial hemp is only in its infancy in Indiana, but already there are numerous positive indications of its impact, including the myriad of goods created from hemp: clothing, building materials, food, health products and biofuels.
As we began our tour of the Hemp Project at the Purdue Ag Center, one Purdue scientist called out to us: “Happy Hemp Day!”
On Aug. 25 (a Wednesday: hump day—hemp day, get it?), Purdue held its very first field day for the public to inspect their new industrial hemp pilot program. It was a three-hour tour of their agricultural effort to study the viability of industrial hemp crop in Indiana. The tour included presentations on economics, budgeting, weed management and cultivation, led by numerous Purdue scientists. Over 110 people attended, from farmers to hemp product merchants to sustainability enthusiasts.
No one has been able to grow hemp legally in the United States since 1957. Recent Indiana legislation, led by legislation on a national level (Farm Bill of 2013), opens the door for research to explore the possibilities of industrial hemp production, which portends many benefits for Indiana’s farmers and overall economy.
These two acres are the testing grounds for an agricultural pilot program that could have significant impact on the future of Indiana.
Finding out what not to do
Throughout the day, we were treated to numerous workshops, led by Purdue profs sporting vibrant cannabis sativa leaf decals on their shirtsleeves. First stop for our group was the “planting and harvest” session, led by Purdue’s Hans Schmitz and Tristand Tucker.
Schmitz and Tucker repeatedly emphasized the “pilot” nature of this program. Like good students in a school philosophy long forgotten, they are engaged in an inquiry and discovery process designed to result in mistakes. “We want to find out what not to do,” said Tucker, adding, “We don’t want anyone [farmers] to lose their shirts on this.”
Complicating this initial attempt at growing hemp were two major factors, echoed repeatedly over the course of the day.
One, paper work complications regarding the acquisition of hemp seeds from Canada slowed down the preferred agricultural timeline. In terms of other Indiana crops, hemp most closely follows a corn production schedule. So, instead of an early May planting season, researchers finally put seeds in the ground on June 12.
Second, within one or two days of the late planting, the rains began and rarely stopped for the duration of the month and into July. Purdue agronomy professor Ron Turco said, “We considered ourselves successful to get it planted, after 6 months of paperwork — and then it started raining and didn’t stop…”
According to the State Climate Office, Indiana set a record for rainfall in the month of June, with a state average of 9.03 inches.
Turco observed that hemp is not a “particularly robust plant” regarding its resiliency, noting, “we lost a lot of plants in the rain.”
He did caution that if the hemp had been planted on the more appropriate schedule, the results might have been very different.
Ergo, the need for a pilot program to test out various variables.
Overall, the Hemp Project acreage is broken into different sections so Purdue scientists can experiment with weed control practices, as well as the application of nutrients such as nitrogen.
Scientists also planted organic and inorganic sections of hemp.
Purdue Professor of Botany and Plant Pathology Kevin Gibson reported that the “organic side had a lot more weeds, produced less biomass and it had lower seed biomass,” but acknowledged those factors may have been due to the weather conditions.
“Maybe not the best year to start a new crop,” he said drily, given the “ridiculous amount of rainfall.”
Law, politics and THC
Purdue’s Ron Turco stated that marijuana and hemp are “exactly the same. The difference is the THC content is less than .3 in hemp; in marijuana it is greater than .3.” THC is the psychoactive element in marijuana.
Turco emphasized, “There is no THC in industrial hemp. You can smoke the whole field and you’ll end up with cancer before you’ll get high.”
Indiana is subject to the 2013 U.S. Farm Bill, Section 7506, which states that industrial hemp can only be grown or cultivated “for purposes of research conducted under an agricultural program…”
As a member of the Hemp Project, Turco is a licensed hemp grower in the state of Indiana under the aegis of the Indiana Seed Commissioner. In Indiana, statute is interpreted as allowing university-based research only. In Kentucky, Turco noted that the ag department of the University of Kentucky has involved numerous farmers in their pilot program.
Farmers and academics in Kentucky share a Memorandum of Understanding, greatly expanding the research opportunities beyond Indiana’s current two acres. Think of the old westerns where almost anyone could be deputized to assist the beleaguered and outnumbered sheriff.
The prospect of growing the program here in Indiana is unlikely, Turco indicated, at least until federal law changes.
Jamie Campbell Petty, President of the Indiana Hemp Industries Association (INHIA), agreed. Petty says that on a policy level in Indiana, HB 1181, passed this past legislative session, distinguishes hemp from marijuana. She also noted that, “Indiana Farm Bureau passed a policy resolution in support of hemp industrial farming.”
On the federal level, Indiana congressman Todd Young has expressed his support for HR 525, an industrial farming act that takes hemp off Schedule 1 of the Farm Bill, opening the barn doors to industrial hemp. Campbell Petty encouraged workshop-goers to talk to their congressional representative to support HR 525 or the Senate version, S 134.
Her organization, Indiana Hemp Industries Association, was ubiquitous as a dozen tour participants sported INHIA t-shirts made from hemp, emblazoned with #hoosierhemp on the back.
“We can eat it [hemp], we can drink it, we can wear it, we can buy it, but we can’t grow it,” thus missing an enormous economic opportunity for Indiana. She added, “We have to get the chain of supply in place first” before moving to the next level.
One illustration of Indiana’s missing link in the supply chain is the fact that Kentucky has a processing plant for hemp, a ready destination for its farmers’ hemp crop. It’s illegal for an Indiana farmer to take his or her hemp across state lines.
Some workshop leaders imagined an impending future where processing plants based in Indiana would provide numerous jobs as well as support local industrial hemp farmers.
Ron Turco noted that overall, in his dealings with state officials, everyone has been good to work with, from the state police to the Indiana Seed Commissioner.
The Indiana State Department of Agriculture had this to say. “Indiana is fortunate to have the right climate and soil allowing for the strong development of many diversified crops, including industrial hemp,” said ISDA Director Ted McKinney, in a statement to NUVO. He added, “There has been a growing interest in industrial hemp production for use in fiber manufacturing. We appreciate the research conducted by Purdue University to determine the potential economic benefits industrial hemp can provide to the agriculture and manufacturing sectors in Indiana, within the guardrails provided by federal and state law.”
Hemp as panacea
One of the attendees of the field day workshop was Peter Schubert, Director of the Richard G. Lugar Center for Renewable Energy. “Hemp is a great energy crop,” he wrote in response to my emailed question. “The seeds hold oil from which biodiesel can be produced. The stalks can generate green energy, plus biochar – a valuable soil nutrient. Also, by displacing petroleum-based products with hemp (e.g. fibers, polymers, plastics) we boost national security and reduce harmful emissions.”
Schubert added that his Center, located on the IUPUI campus, is “working with the Purdue researchers to add value in hemp production. After seed harvesting, we hope to feed the residue into our Stalk Stoker – a biomass conversion system designed to help farmers be more energy self-sufficient. When Indiana farmers begin growing this crop they can run the seed press using the electricity, and boost the next year’s crop with the biochar.”
Brandon Pitcher is a well-known sustainability expert and was the subject of a NUVO cover story in 2010. He is Chief Sustainability Officer for the Indiana Hemp Industries Association and held a session focusing on a building material called hempcrete, comprised, as you might imagine, of hemp.
Placing his hands on the hempcrete blocks, he told the assembled that hempcrete replaces the existing building system: it’s the brick, the insulation and the siding all rolled into one block. He called it a “plug and play” process in assembling. “It’s like a LEGO building system. Put a little mortar in and you’re good to go.”
He called the environmental and ecological benefits of hempcrete “tremendous, including the carbon sequestration potential.” Pitcher directed me to an article he co-wrote, stating: “A 2000 sq. ft. house constructed with these blocks will lock up over 5 tonnes of CO2 ... These blocks are not just net-zero they are carbon negative, absorbing even more CO2 as the walls age.”
Hempcrete will, according to Pitcher, sequester carbon for at least 100 years. But that’s not all. “When you mix this material with lime it creates a process called calcium carbonation which will result in limestone about 100 years. This will be a stronger material for your great grandkids than it is today.”
Brandon mentioned he has interest from a Hoosier client to develop what could be the first hempcrete building in the United States. He added, “Hemp Circle Industries is actively seeking to develop projects with people looking to get in the hemp industry.”
Like everyone else that day, Pitcher emphasized that hemp is about “job creation all along the supply chain,” adding that he also believes hemp to be the “most competitive plant species for sustainability.”
“My hope would be,” he told the workshop goers, “that if we take sustainability seriously in this state, then this plant would be the number one most economically valuable plant,” because of its impact on a myriad of systems; food production, energy generation, building materials, healthcare.
“One plant can solve so many problems,” he mused. “If you tell me this isn’t economically viable, I’ll tell you … you have no creativity.”