Farming is a gamble every year. Planting the crop and using the right management techniques are variables, and, of course, the weather has to cooperate. Longtime farmer Chip Bryars says the past few years have been tough on some Baldwin County farmers.
“I come from a farming background and I grew up on a farm,” Bryars said. “From my perspective, our traditional commodities over two, really three years have been somewhat depressed. Harvest has been a real struggle for the past two years, conditions-wise, and the quality of our crops has been poor. A lot of guys are suffering right now and haven’t really turned a profit in a few years.”
With that in mind, Bryars and two partners founded Hemp-Tek, a farming consultation firm aimed at getting farmers in Baldwin and the rest of the state interested in growing hemp. Bryars and company can provide hemp farmers everything from seedlings to arranging for buyers for the final products. He will also be raising hemp on his personal farm.
“Hemp-Tek is trying to be a turnkey solution for guys anywhere in the Southeast who are looking to go from traditional row crops and into hemp, or just guys who are trying to start from scrap and grow hemp,” he said.
The 2018 Farm Bill passed by Congress in December removed the controlled-substance label from hemp and declared it an agricultural commodity. Hemp is in the same cannabis plant family as marijuana, but contains only 0.3 percent of the intoxicant found in marijuana.
“This legislation defines hemp as all parts of the plant less than 0.3 percent THC, including derivatives, extracts and cannabinoids,” according to a report from the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries.
Bryars said this new commodity could be a boon for Alabama farmers, but also comes with its own set of risks.
“This is a potential huge boost to our economy if we can do it,” Bryars said. “There’s a lot of unknowns. It’s scary because it’s never been done down there, it’s a high-input crop. It’s going to cost a fair amount to plant.”
With hemp being a new crop, there’s also no way to get insurance on it until farmers prove it can be planted, sustained and harvested with a first growing season.
“If a hurricane comes in and wipes us out, we’re out of luck,” Bryars said. “We see this potentially as kind of a first year to test the waters. We’re just going to make sure we can grow it before they really put large acreage in. If we are successful growing it next year, we should be able to insure it and then we move forward with larger acreages.”
Bryars said there are more than 25,000 uses for parts of the hemp plant, but a hot commodity in health food stores is CBD oil. Foley recently gave a business license to Wonderfully Hemp, a store that will sell products with CBD-like oils, candles, gum, candy and vape oil, among others.
“Cannabidiol [CBD] is extracted from the flowers and buds of marijuana or hemp plants,” according to a report on WebMD.com. “It does not produce intoxication; marijuana’s ‘high’ is caused by the chemical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).”
The same report was skeptical about the medical benefits of CBD, but Bryars says it will be the main product in the initial phase of hemp farming in the state.
“What we’re focused on right now is CBD,” Bryars said. “It’s the highest value per acre that we can grow this crop for.”
Even if the CBD craze does fade, Bryars said, hemp can be used for a wide variety of consumer products.
“We will be using the parts of the plant that do not contain CBD for different fiber uses,” Bryars said. “We’re working with some research companies and they are looking into textiles, concrete made out of hemp, fiberglass made out of hemp, insulation, paper. We’re looking at as a bioenergy feedstock for power plants. You can produce more energy per acre than you can with trees, which has been of interest to power companies.”
A popular crop in Baldwin County along with peanuts, corn and soybeans is cotton. Bryars says hemp fiber can be even more efficient.
“We think that fiber could become a major player,” Bryars said. “We can produce more fiber per acre with hemp than we can with cotton, so we see fiber as potentially becoming a major crop, but that’s probably 5 to 10 years out.”
Perhaps the most ambitious project with hemp would be turning it into fuel and using it to power farming operations.
“We also see biofuel as a potential factor here and a project that really interests me,” Bryars said. “I’d like to work on if we can get this thing going the first year or two and producing some units where the farmer can tell us how many gallons of diesel fuel they burn in a year, and we can come back to him and say you need to grow this many acres of hemp.”
A machine would be brought to the farm to convert the hemp to fuel, Bryars said, and the farm would be producing its own power source.
“They could grow their own fuel on the farm,” Bryars said.
Bryars said he expects backlash from companies already providing products he hopes can now be made from hemp.
“We’re upsetting all kinds of folks,” he said. “The pharmaceutical companies, the alcohol companies. Not everybody is going to like what we’re doing here, but the market’s there and we’re going to move forward as best we can.”
A total of 182 farmers statewide were approved to try out the new crop this growing season, including 20 in Baldwin County and eight in Mobile County. According to Christel Harden of the agriculture department, a total of 65 processors were approved — two in Baldwin County and four in Mobile — and 65 were approved statewide. Five universities are also permitted in the program, Harden said.
After a final meeting with state officials set for April 4, growers will be allowed to begin on their 2019 crops.
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