First as usual, a drought update is in order. The area no longer under drought conditions or even abnormally dry has expanded from northwest Kansas into northern sections of southwest Kansas, a section just south of Ford County and into parts of north central Kansas. Here we are in moderate drought with just east of Great Bend in severe drought. Again the worst conditions are east of I-135 in the Flint Hills. The recent weather will likely eliminate some of the gains. Hopefully the forecast cooler weather and rain chances this week will materialize. Today, let’s discuss a new crop that has been identified as being used as long as 10,000 years ago and has been an important source of fiber for several thousand years at least — hemp.
The Kansas Legislature passed and the Governor approved a bill to start the cultivation of industrial hemp. The Kansas Department of Agriculture after a listening tour and many hours of work has written an initial set of regulations for producers wanting into the business. There is interest from Congress, especially from Senate Majority Leader McConnell, in cultivating industrial hemp. This isn’t easy due to various drug laws, etc. And we aren’t discussing this today. Instead, let’s focus on what this could potentially mean for Kansas crop producers. Also, we aren’t delving into industrial hemp versus marijuana debate. They are in essence different varieties of the same plant, Cannabis sativa. Marijuana has the psychoactive properties; industrial hemp, contains THC but it is present in much smaller amounts and was bred for fiber, not THC. So what about industrial hemp as a crop?
First, if the hemp growing wild all over the area is any indication, it seems to accept the climate and soils. Here we are speaking of hemp production primarily for fiber. Hemp uses include cordage (rope), fabric, high quality paper and canvas. Hemp production was heavily promoted as part of the war effort in World War I and World War II. It also has applications as a wood substitute and can be used in composite materials and plastics. In Europe parts of the plant are used for animal bedding. It can also be used as a biofuel similar to biodiesel or fermented to make ethanol.
In terms of cultivation, hemp is a summer annual crop maturing in 90 to 120 days. For better quality fiber it is planted closely together. Hemp produces well with less fertilizer than a typical corn crop. Planted closely together in combination with a vigorous growth habit it typically out-competes weeds which is important with the lack of labeled herbicides. Hemp can tolerate a wide variety of soil types but prefers loamy type soils. Like most broadleaves it doesn’t like waterlogged or acid soils. It loves heat and can produce a good crop using much less water than cotton and can produce a taproot up to four feet deep. Not having to worry about harvesting seed is also a benefit as many producers with traditional crops can relate good vegetative growth followed by poor grain yield. While hemp has diseases associated with it, other areas producing hemp seldom find diseases hurting yield. Finally, like canola, succeeding crop yields benefit from following hemp.
This is just a brief overview, very brief. However, if laws can be changed at the Federal level, hemp could be an excellent and economically viable crop for many Kansas producers.
Dr. Victor L. Martin is the agriculture instructor/coordinator for Barton Community College. He can be reached at 620-792-9207, ext. 207.