University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Nope. It's Hemp

A one-syllable word is being spoken more and more often these days in Minnesota agricultural circles—not exactly a magic word, but a word that, for many, carries hopeful possibilities.

Photo Credit:  Mark Luinenburg

At a time of critically low prices for Minnesota’s iconic ag commodities, corn and soybeans, the versatile hemp plant—which can be processed into textiles, bioplastics, food, and a lot more—is a “new” old crop that offers visions of profitability, say advocates. Research conducted at the U of M in recent years has even helped identify hemp varieties that thrive in northern climates.

Of course, there’s another word for hemp, one with six syllables: cannabis sativa. And the strain of cannabis that’s high in the chemical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is, yes, also known as marijuana, Mary Jane, weed, pot, or grass.

For years, this confusion was enough for government regulators to simply declare all cannabis a drug. As such, while growing hemp in Minnesota was once relatively common, it became illegal. That’s even though the strain of cannabis known as industrial hemp is so low in THC that ingesting it has no psychoactive effects.

Today, however, things are changing. Cannabidiol, known as CBD, is yet another product that can be extracted from hemp, and it’s a hot property right now. Retailers are marketing CBD oils, which are nonintoxicating, to help with a range of problems from insomnia to menstrual cramps—although some have drawn fire from the Food and Drug Administration for their assertions.

At least one study—by cannabis researchers BDS Analytics and Arcview Market Research, as reported by Forbes magazine in May—says the U.S. market for CBD products could reach $20 billion by 2024.

That, of course, remains to be seen. But for now, 652 people in a pilot growing project in Minnesota are betting hemp might be the next big thing.

Rope, Restriction, and Research

Industrial hemp has a long, honorable history: Textiles made from it were being woven in China and Central Asia as early as 4,000 BCE. Presidents Washington and Jefferson were both hemp farmers. In fact, in 18th -century America, growing hemp for nautical ropes, sails, and for caulking ships’ hulls was considered a patriotic duty.

Production of hemp was also once common in Minnesota, although its path through the years has been bumpy. A 1918 copy of the Alumni Weekly—a predecessor publication to this magazine—proudly announced the first and second place recipients of a Flax and Hemp scholarship at the University, underwritten by a local water company. By 1934, U of M Extension reported about 6,400 acres of hemp were being grown statewide.

Then came the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, which, like later government regulations, failed to discriminate between hemp and the intoxicating strain of cannabis. It imposed heavy tax duties on growers, and planting declined.

Enter WWII.  In 1943, a U Extension pamphlet titled “Wartime HEMP Production in Minnesota” extolled farmers to once again plant this useful crop in order to replace hemp from the Philippines that had been cut off by Japan in the war. The government urgently needed farmers to grow 300,000 acres for needed rope, cordage, and threads.

After the war, demand fell, however. And when the 1970 Controlled Substances Act finally criminalized the growing, possession, and interstate transport of any variety of cannabis sativa—including hemp—legal production ceased for all intents and purposes.

But interest in all the possibilities of cannabis never really went away; 1976 saw the first legal use of medical marijuana, the cannabis crop with high levels of THC. During the next four decades, several states legalized medical-marijuana-based products, with Minnesota doing so in 2014.

That same year, the federal Farm Bill also allowed states to start setting up pilot programs to once again study the growth, cultivation, and marketing of industrial hemp.

The Farm Bill and Beyond

Minnesota’s pilot hemp-growing program debuted in 2015 and the Department of Agriculture (MDA) began licensing test growers. To start the program, the MDA actually had to get a permit from the Drug Enforcement Administration to import hemp seed from abroad; Canada, which has been growing industrial hemp legally since 1998, is the main source.

One of the most prominent scientific voices regarding industrial hemp has been the U of M’s George Weiblen, Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the Department of Plant Biology. Commenting on a 2015 study by his lab that isolated a genetic difference between the psychoactive and non-psychoactive strains of cannabis, he said hemp “is a plant of major economic importance that is very poorly understood scientifically. [But] we have indisputable evidence for a genetic basis of differences among cannabis varieties, further challenging the position that all cannabis should be regulated as a drug.”

In 2017, Weiblen’s lab launched the U of M’s Industrial Hemp Variety Trials, in which 12 varieties of hemp seeds were tested in fields on the Twin Cities campus in St. Paul, as well as in Crookston, Morris, and Rosemount, and on the White Earth Reservation. The tests were to see which varieties would thrive in which locations, and the general conclusion was that “industrial hemp [grown] in Minnesota can yield similar quantities of grain as in Canada.”

By 2018, the Farm Bill finally decriminalized growing, possession, and interstate transport of hemp, right about the time interest in CBD exploded.

“The Farm Bill made hemp a legal crop, and that’s great,” says Minnesota Department of Agriculture Assistant Commissioner Whitney Place (B.S. ’10; M.S. ’13). “But regulatory problems persist,” with agencies like the FDA not yet ruling on all products that rely on CBD as an ingredient.

Although CBD products seem to be everywhere now, they exist in a somewhat grayish legal area. In December 2018, the FDA said that three common food ingredients derived from hemp—hulled hemp seed, hemp seed protein powder, and hemp seed oil—fell under GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status. However, the FDA has only approved one drug using CBD, to treat a rare form of epilepsy.

Place says that limbo situation is of concern in Minnesota because two-thirds of the licensed growers in the state’s pilot program are raising hemp for CBD. Andwhile the FDA has opened listening sessions focused on CBD, that could take a long time, says Place.

Officially, the FDA says it is working “to answer questions about the science, safety, and quality of products containing cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds, particularly CBD” while noting that “CBD products are still subject to the same laws and requirements as FDA-regulated products that contain any other substance.” In late July, the FDA sent a warning letter to at least one company charging that its CBD products were in fact “misbranded drugs” whose sale violated the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

In particular, the FDA called out the company, Massachusetts-based Curaleaf Holdings, for making unsubstantiated marketing claims about the products’ ability to treat illnesses including Alzheimer’s and opioid withdrawal, and it gave the company 15 days to fix the offending statements.

SporoBio Plant Manager Ryan Smith (B.A. ‘20) shows a handful of hemp going through the drying process at his company’s headquarters near Hastings.
Photo Credit:  Mark Luinenburg

Is Opportunity Knocking?

While federal regulation of CBD remains under scrutiny, in 2019, Minnesota lawmakers clarified the state’s stand on such products: By January 1, 2020, CBD products that meet certain strict labeling and testing requirements will be permitted under state law.

Ben Bowman (B.S. ’01, M.B.A. ’10) is chief financial officer of FEN Biotech in Ramsey, Minnesota, which is a major producer of CBD and one of the participants in the state’s hemp growing program. He believe there is a strong future for the crop, even going beyond the popular CBD oil. “It can be a good rotational third crop for farmers across the state,” he says, “diversifying their income, but also diversifying the use of the land. Hemp is a good cleaner of the soil. The question is, how will the industry emerge to take advantage of the different components of the hemp plant, and how will those components compete in the marketplace?”

The potential hemp industry could be a diverse one. The plants can produce fiber for textiles, Bowman says, while the pulplike internal stalk can be processed into paper and cardboard. And there’s hemp grain for human and animal food, and two oils: one from the seed, as well as CBD oil itself, derived from hemp buds. “And we get calls pretty often from people who are researching hempcrete, [where] hemp is used as a substitute for concrete, or an additive to it,” he adds.

As promising as hemp may be, growers need realism about the difficulties involved in it, says Les Aakre, an agricultural sales representative at Twin City Seed in Edina. “There are multiple ways to plant hemp,” he says, “plus weed-control issues—there aren’t many herbicides that will help; you need hand labor. Setting a combine for harvesting hemp—nobody’s written a book on that yet.”

“We’ve been learning as we go along, both on the farming and the processing side,” says Ryan Smith (B.A. ‘20), plant manager of SporoBio, a Dakota County, Minnesota, grower and processor focused on CBD oil and related products. “There’s no real roadmap or standard operating procedure for doing this work,” he adds. “We’ve been experimenting with ways to harvest, for example, and we’ve found one that’s okay but not optimal. We’re still working through that issue.”

“The real lesson,” says Aakre, “seems to be start small, learn about the crop, then grow gradually.” Paul Kubista (B.S. ‘99, ‘01 UMN-Crookston), president of Twin City Seed, agrees. “A lot of the forecasts of the fantastic profitability of hemp that you hear are totally unrealistic,” he says. “The thing to do is to is to figure out the whole picture, and that takes time.”

While there are a number of processing facilities for CBD licensed by the state, including SporoBio’s, there are far fewer for the whole plant—Kubista thinks there may only be two—“and some people doing their own processing,” he says. In the interim, most producers face the costs of transporting hemp to plants in Canada and elsewhere.

Whatever the problems with making hemp profitable may be, younger Minnesotans are intrigued. “A number of students in classes I’ve taught have said they’re very interested in finding careers in the cannabis industry,” says Mary Brakke (B.S. ’82), teaching assistant professor in the College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resources. This fall, she and Peter Morrell, an associate professor in the department, launched a new undergraduate course on the Twin Cities campus in St. Paul: The Science of Cannabis explores the plant from multiple angles, and will include guest presentations from an MDA official and a grower.

In getting the course approved, Morrell says, the pair had to agree to some stipulations from the U’s Office of General Counsel. “We can’t take field trips to any cannabis site. No cannabis products of any kind can be brought into the classroom. [Although] I don’t think this means I have to confiscate a student’s hemp purse,” he says with a laugh.

“I think the general counsel’s caution came from the way the federal regulations are worded,” Brakke adds. “They wanted to err on the side of caution, because in many cases the government doesn’t make a distinction between marijuana and hemp. The regulations just say ‘cannabis.’”

All of which suggests that even as alumni, students, and growers continue to explore this intriguing plant, there’s still some teaching work to do in Washington.

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