Eight short months ago, hemp was the fastest growing crop in US agriculture. As of August, US farmers have reported slashing the planted acreage of the crop by 67%, from 137,000 acres in 2019 to 45,000 acres, according to newly released data from the US Department of Agriculture. This drop follows four consecutive years of US farmers more than doubling their hemp acreage annually.
Blame the CBD boom. Hemp is a source of cannabidiol, also known as CBD, the cannabis-derived compound that consumers use for relief from muscle and joint pain, anxiety, and insomnia.
“We saw CBD production explode in 2019,” says Erica Stark, the executive director of the National Hemp Association, which represents hemp farmers, processors, researchers, and manufacturers. “The demand didn’t increase at the same pace…There’s still a lot of farmers who are still looking to find buyers for their 2019 crop.”
And the price they can expect for it, says Stark, isn’t what it used to be. “Prices dropped dramatically from, say an average of $35 a pound, down to $10 or less,” says Stark, adding that over-saturation is to blame, along with an ever-changing regulatory framework. The US cannabis industry at large saw a similar dive in 2019.
“It’s sort of like the perfect storm of circumstances,” she says.
For most US farmers, hemp is still a relatively new crop. It was illegal for anyone without a permit to grow it in the US until the 2014 Farm Bill opened up industrial hemp cultivation to state-controlled pilot programs. The 2018 Farm Bill removed industrial hemp—defined as cannabis plants with less than 0.3% THC by dry weight—and its extracts from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, where it might have been interpreted as marijuana.
Stark says she encourages farmers to start small when it comes to hemp. Although the plant can be used for a multitude of end-products, including rope, sweatpants, and culinary oil and seeds, US processing capabilities are still catching up, leaving farmers with a complex regulatory framework when it comes to farming, harvesting, and selling their crops. The plants must be tested for the legal percentage of THC (the plant’s intoxicating compound, or cannabinoid) and then sold according to how much CBD is present—and new rules mandate that plants must be tested for these cannabinoids within 15 days of harvest.
Stark says she sees this year’s dive as a bump—or a divot—in US hemp farming’s road to equilibrium. She emphasizes that the learning curve is steep, and farmers should do their homework before investing too heavily.
“I’ve seen way too many people jump in without the level of experience that’s really required,” she says. “I know we call it weed, but having it grow and having it be commercially successful are not the same thing”