Expert Round Table Discussion: Hemp Fiber
This webinar, held on May 14, 2020, featured Dr. Jen Gilbert-Jenkins of SUNY Morrisville, Stephen Halton of CNY Processing, and Dr. Jared Nelson of SUNY New Paltz. You can catch the video summary here.
Jennifer Gilbert-Jenkins, Ph.D. (JGJ) on growing hemp:
"Hemp is incredibly cold tolerant, which means that you can start your season as soon as you can work the ground. However, hemp is water intolerant; you could plant at the end of April, but a wet spring seasons means you would have to wait for the soil to dry out. For hemp, temperature doesn’t matter, but soil moisture does."
JGJ on growing the right genetics to meet customer specifications:
"We don’t know what cultivation variables affect hemp fiber quality; the conversation is all about harvesting. To me, the most important question is, how are you going to harvest? The answer to this question determines what genetics to use. The research we’re doing is investigating variability: what impacts fiber properties and what qualities can we expect at the end so it can meet customer specifications? We'll need to work with the engineering community to better understand exactly what is needed for certain products."
JGJ on hemp as a cover crop:
"Hemp is just another crop; it won’t be a gangbusters plant. Farmers shouldn’t think that rotating hemp into their crops is going to solve all of their economic woes. That said, I love hemp as a fiber crop because it benefits soil health and opens up the world of cover crops; it can get you a lot of biodiversity. For many farmers, it fits so well into their growing season and crop rotation. So, traditional farmers may consider growing hemp just to get a great cover crop."
Stephen Halton (SH) on opportunities for processors: "There are so many uses for hemp fiber. For processors, there is 'low-hanging fruit.' For example, hemp hurd fiber is sought after in the creation of hempcrete. But really, the low-hanging fruit is whatever you’re good at; don’t just copy what others are doing. Use your own background and expertise and build on that."
SH on hemp farming's growing pains:
"I was working with a paper manufacturer, and they already know what specifications they need if they are using wood to manufacture the paper, but they don’t know this for hemp. This is part of the growing pains of the hemp industry — we need to be experts in growing hemp and help manufacturing clients figure out exactly what they need so that they can use hemp for mass production. Think of it this way: hemp was illegal back in 1937, which was a pivotal time for agriculture. Farmers were figuring out all kinds of things with dairy, pressing their own soy beans, and so on. But farmers didn’t get to learn these kinds of lessons with hemp; getting small decorticators to small farms across the country would help us get over the learning curve a lot faster."
SH on the future of fiber:
The New York state hemp industry is changing. There is still a lot of hype around CBD, but more and more people are switching to focus on fiber. I'm getting lots of people contacting me to help them make the switch and I've been trying to build infrastructure for this to happen. Hemp farming can succeed only if the seed-to-processor path is clear."
Jared Nelson, Ph.D. (JN) on what determines a farmer's final hemp product: "Our recent research shows that genetics are significantly more important to the end result of the fiber properties than what we originally thought. The notion that 'hemp is hemp is hemp' is just not true. The two key factors that researchers are investigating are genetics and retting — these are the major variables that determine your end product."
JN on using hemp fiber for fiber glass in cars:
"Hemp fiber is poised to replace plastics (polypropylene) in some cases. For example, an automotive supplier used it to replace glass fibers, which actually gives you a lighter and more durable product. They used hemp with a similar fiber length; it’s not necessarily stronger than glass but it is half the weight, so you get a lighter piece, and it's more durable."
JN on the maturity of hemp's seed-to-processor path:
"There are huge steps in hemp's seed-to-processor path that need to be ironed out with different experts. Think about this: in the early days of concrete, they didn’t know that you have to change the mixture on concrete based on temperature. Nowadays, concrete manufacturers are very adept at this. Hemp is in a similar early stage; we're still determining what the inputs are and how they affect the outputs."
JN on reverse-engineering how hemp fiber goes into products:
"I’m optimistic because, as researchers, we’re starting to look at the right things. Ultimately, we need to reverse-engineer how hemp fiber goes into products so that we can tell customers exactly what they need — this is what will drive the market. If this reverse-engineering was well understood, farmers would have a crop that they can reliably sell. At this point, we’re in a gray area with people growing hemp fiber, but they don’t know what to do with it once they've harvested."