Published June 14th, 2021 at 11:55 AM
PRATT, Kansas — This summer marks the third year that Kansans have grown hemp for industrial uses.
Yet growing the less sexy cousin of the plant associated with getting high and some medicinal uses has proven riskier and more difficult than many farmers initially expected.
Consequently, the number of licenses issued this year is less than half of what the state saw in 2020.
“There were some misconceptions about the ease of marketability of it,” said Braden Hoch, the state’s industrial hemp program supervisor.
The risk of any agricultural operation is compounded by an ever-changing set of state and federal rules. And now some hemp farmers and processors want more help from the government to reduce risk and encourage innovation.
Shining Star Hemp Co. is one of only 11 licensed hemp processors in the state.
Outside of the industrial building near the Pratt municipal airport in south-central Kansas where Shining Star operates sits rows of 1,200-pound bags full of industrial hemp stalks, grains and flowers.
Inside, workers break open the bags and dump them onto a large conveyor belt leading to a cacophony of machinery shaking, blowing and sifting the biomass into its usable parts.
The operation is one of the few successful outfits in the state.
“It’s been a lot of work, a lot of phone calls developing relationships and finding synergies,” Jennifer Holmes, who works with Shining Star to develop and market products said. “But honestly, I can say at this point, we’re doing awesome for where we’re at.”
Paul McGeary masterminded Shining Star’s system for converting the hemp harvest into something industry can use.
“It’s about, probably, 30 years of beating your head against the wall, mostly,” he said.
McGeary is a contractor for Shining Star. He’s worked in the agricultural processing world for most of his life and has applied what he learned over decades of sifting wheat and corn to develop this machine to sift hemp.
He said the complexity of the process is part of what’s holding the industry back. It just doesn’t have the scale to supply manufacturers who would put the fiber to use.
“We were walking into those meetings thinking that to have 30- to 40,000 pounds on hand is something. But when you walk into industry and they want five train cars a day or a trainload a week, we just aren’t prepared for that,” he said. “And getting them to wait until we’re prepared, that’s the bottleneck of the whole thing.”
Hemp has been hyped as something with a wide range of industrial uses. The stalk can be made into paper or biodegradable plastics. The seeds can be made into food. And the flowers can be pressed to extract oils.
But so far, the only market the industry is pushing seems to be for its cannabinoid-rich, or CBD, oil. And there’s a flood of CBD already on the market.
“We don’t have the best of luck selling full-spectrum oil,” Holmes said. “It’s just something that we all need to work through and do the right thing and move into the grain and fiber industry.”
But that will take millions of dollars in investments in new equipment.
Until that equipment can be designed, built or purchased, companies interested in making products from hemp fibers are out of luck. A company in Newton, Kansas, wants to make prosthetic limbs from hemp. It imports its processed hemp from overseas.
Holmes wants more government help to offset some of the risk for investing in converting the plant into something useful for industry.
“A lot of people are scared to start because they don’t know if they’re going to fail, so they don’t ever get started,” she said.
The Kansas Department of Agriculture says its hemp growing licenses dropped from 218 in 2020, to only 81 this year.
And last year, of the almost 4,000 acres planted, only 761 acres were harvested for production.
An eighth of that had to be burned by the state because it contained too much of the psychoactive chemical THC.
“The past two years have really helped individuals get up to speed,” Hoch said. “But producers are really still determining the best way to grow hemp as a crop and if it’s feasible to include in their rotation.”
He said growers and processors need to expand beyond CBD products, but with federal and state rules surrounding the crop in constant flux, finding the right investors that can spur that kind of innovation and development will remain challenging.
Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.