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For the first time in decades, Indiana farmers are harvesting hemp, a strain of cannabis that's used not to get high but for fiber, rope, clothing, grain, paper and the increasingly popular CBD oil.

The 2018 Farm Bill and Indiana Senate Bill 516 gave a select group of licensed farmers the opportunity to grow a historic hemp crop this year for a research trial. About 100 farmers got state permits to see if there are viable markets for a crop that was long banned because of its association with marijuana, which has much more of the psychoactive element THC, even though it's not itself a recreational drug.

“We need to be sure we establish the markets and see where this has the potential to go,” said Mark Boyer, who planted 50 acres of hemp in Miami County this spring. “Hemp is exciting as it has so many diverse uses. But how many of those uses are economically viable for us, we just don’t know because we haven’t had the time to test it out. The markets will develop and we will get there, but it takes time and plenty of work.”

Boyer owns the edible oil company Healthy Hoosier Oil, which sells sunflower, canola and other cooking oils. He plans to add food-grade hemp oil to the mix.

“We have a food-grade, cold-press oil extraction facility on our farm where we extract oil that goes directly into distribution,” Boyer said. “I’ve been doing that for six years, and I learned that the only way hemp seed oil can be extracted for food grade is through cold press, and that’s exactly what I am set up to do.”

He fields many questions from other farmers after he got to grow hemp in 2018 during a research trial with Purdue University. 

“There is a tremendous amount of interest from farmers,” he said. “I get calls nearly every day.”

Many farmers are targeting the CBD oil market, a wellness alternative that has exploded in recent years, being sold everywhere from pharmacies to video stores, gas station, panini joints and fireworks stands. Hemp is used for many niche products like animal bedding, wastewater purification, insulation panels and jewelry.

Hemp fiber gets used to make concrete blocks, other building materials, and even composite automotive panels in car doors and passenger rear decks. Jay Berry, a Grant County farmer who owns IGNITE Racing Fuel, said the industry is curious about hemp, especially to cut weight out of vehicles to increase speed.

“A lot of my connections are in the racing industry,” he said. “Hemp fiber is cheaper and stronger than something like carbon fiber, so just in the performance world there is a massive market that is interested in it.”

Hemp offers a way for farmers who might focus mainly on row crops like corn and soybeans to diversify and reach new customers. That could be especially helpful to hedge against downturns in crop prices or bad weather that reduces yields, cutting into profitability.

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“Our most innovative farmers are always evaluating opportunities to diversify their farms for additional stability,” Indiana Farm Bureau President Randy Kron said. “For some farmers, hemp will become just that. It’s an individual decision for each farmer whether hemp will work for their business, but it’s great to have another option for a crop.”

Though some joke hemp could grow on a rock, growing it has proven challenging for some Indiana farmers early on.

“Growing hemp is a lot more labor intensive than expected,” Berry said. “I’ve been through the field twice as many times as corn and beans.”

Interested farmers should familiarize themselves with the different requirements for growing, harvesting and processing hemp, said Jamie Campbell Petty, founder of the Indiana Hemp Industries Association and co-founder and executive director of the Midwest Hemp Council.

"Growing for CBD is, generally speaking, horticulture,” Petty said. “Many would like to convince you that hemp is a weed, and it will grow anywhere. That’s not true. Hemp is photosensitive and grows best in well-drained soil. And, until we are further down the road with genetics, seed instability is an issue.”

The USDA is now working on national regulations and reviewing Indiana's state program. If approved, commercial hemp production in Indiana is expected to launch in full next year.

“Indiana could be a leader in this industry, but we must all collaborate and work together, to take lessons learned from other states, other industries so that we don't overproduce and we don't invest in excessive infrastructure,” Petty said.

The hope is that hemp could be a new revenue driver for Indiana's farmers. 

“Hemp has a very bright future, we just have to go through some growing pains and learn,” Berry said. “The first people to grow will learn and be able to pass on notes to other farmers so we can all improve.”

The Office of the Indiana State Chemist encourages any farmers interested in growing hemp in 2020 to start working on the logistics, such as by creating a business plan and identifying processors.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.