Story and photos by Bruce Schultz
The hemp business is coming to Louisiana in 2020.
Growers, processors and retail sellers are gearing up for the coming year, even though none of the required licenses have been issued by state agencies.
Industrial hemp is the same cannabis species grown for marijuana, but hemp is a different than marijuana. Industrial hemp can produce numerous essential oils such as the chemical compound called CBD (cannabidiol), and it must have less than 0.3% THC (Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the chemical compound in marijuana that provides the high.
The 2018 farm bill removed hemp as a federally controlled drug and allowed for national production of the crop. The farm bill required the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create regulations for states and individual producers to follow.
Other states have had industrial hemp production, such as New York, Kentucky and Florida by participating in a pilot program of the 2014 Farm Bill. Some states such as Colorado and Oregon also have programs where marijuana has been legalized. Louisiana is one of many states later to join the game.
Licensing by the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF) for companies to grow, haul or process hemp is required but no licenses have been issued yet. The LDAF expects to start issuing licenses in early 2020, and that will clear the way for Louisiana’s young hemp industry. The agency is hosting a series of meetings in December, and the LSU AgCenter held an informational meeting in November.
In the meantime, several companies in Louisiana have been formed and they are ready to do business as soon as they get LDAF approval, but the Louisiana Department of Health and the state office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control are also requiring permits for processors and sellers. The ATC currently has 1,274 applicants, mostly retail sellers.
Dr. Gerald Myers, a cotton breeder for the LSU AgCenter, has been assigned to grow industrial hemp and learn about its characteristics. He has 64 plants growing in the LSU AgCenter Plant Materials Center near the LSU Campus. “Nobody has grown hemp in Louisiana for decades.”
He literally started learning about hemp from the ground up, consulting numerous published and online resources.
He is growing the plants under a research exemption. Myers has so far obtained seed from plants grown in Kentucky, Washington, California and Colorado.
He said the first thing he noticed in the growing process was the plants had low vigor and were slow to emerge from the soil. He said some of the seeds had a germination rate of less than 1% while others had 80% germination so sourcing from reputable suppliers is essential. Transplants or clones are more likely to be used for essential oil production but are more expensive.
Myers said much of the hemp being grown is from genetics coming out of Canada and northern Europe, but those varieties aren’t likely to prosper in Louisiana conditions, he said. He would like to obtain varieties from Southeast Asia that are more likely to be suited for Louisiana.
He said the plants prefer well-drained soil with a neutral pH, and the nutrient demand seems to favor nitrogen and potassium more than phosphorous. “If you fertilize it like corn, you’d probably be fairly close.”
He’s also finding out that the plants are highly sensitive to photoperiods, the amount of time plants are in light and darkness. Shortening the amount of time plants are in sunlight speeds up the transition for plants to go into the reproductive phase to develop flowers, and it’s the flowers that contain the most CBD.
But most growers want plants to put their energy into producing CBD, not seed, so pollination is undesirable. For that reason, male plants that produce pollen are not wanted near female plants being grown for CBD and must be removed by hand. Small leaf buds may be clipped to encourage the plant to produce more flowers. Plants for CBD are also grown at wide spacings and there are no labelled herbicides. All this tells Myers that hemp production for CBD on a large scale would be a labor-intensive endeavor.
Licensing and testing fees under draft LDAF guidelines are likely to discourage mom and pop growers who might be thinking of growing just a few plants to make extra income.
He said that production economics are being looked at by LSU AgCenter economists.
Information on production, economics, pests and diseases is being made available on the LSU AgCenter website, www.lsuagcenter.com/industrialhemp.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that some farmers in other states are having difficulty selling their hemp crop because they failed to secure contracts beforehand, and prices have fallen considerably.
The Food and Drug Administration recently warned 15 companies, none in Louisiana, about illegally selling CBD products in ways that violate the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
The FDA also published a revised Consumer Update detailing safety concerns about CBD products more broadly. Based on the lack of scientific information supporting the safety of CBD in food, the FDA is also indicating today that it cannot conclude that CBD is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) among qualified experts for its use in human or animal food.
In addition to the interest in essential oils such as CBD, industrial hemp has a multitude of uses. Myers said the fiber potential might have a better long-term potential with fiber being made into make textiles, nonwoven batting, bedding materials, paper and a building material called hempcrete.
Myers said he will be working with Dr. Steve Harrison, an LSU AgCenter wheat breeder, to study the plant, and to develop varieties suitable for Louisiana. In 2020, Myers will grow hemp in field trials near the main campus and at a location in north Louisiana. He expects the LSU AgCenter will hold hemp field days in 2020. “On the national level, there is a coordinated research effort, and the LSU AgCenter will be cooperating in that.”
Meanwhile, several companies are eager get into the business.
Sales of CBD products in Louisiana have been legal as of the 2019 Legislative session. One of those sellers, Kristy Hebert of Baton Rouge, who grew up on a cattle farm near Cutoff, got into the hemp business the hard way.
She was walking along Nicholson Drive when she got hit by a drunk driver in 2012. The accident shattered her pelvis and she was in a wheelchair for a year while she learned to walk again at a rehab hospital. She was prescribed morphine for the pain, something she wanted to avoid. “I don’t even take Advil.”
Hebert said she looked for a more holistic means of pain relief and found out about CBD that gave her pain relief, and it inspired her to change her major at LSU to biological engineering to work with hemp.
She moved to Kentucky after graduation to work with the Hemp Research Foundation and the Kentucky Hemp Association.
Eventually, Hebert decided to return home and start her company, Cypress Hemp,in 2017, selling CBD-based products and clothing made from hemp. One of the most popular products, a CBD oil, is taken in the form of a few drops under the tongue. She also sells encapsulated CBD, and lotions and salves.
She also has shirts made from a hemp-cotton blend, and she said at one time hemp was a common material for making cloth. “Even the Mona Lisa is painted on hemp.”
Hebert stresses that she is not a health-care practitioner, so she can only pass along what her customers tell her that CBD has done for them. She said many have told her they have gotten relief from pain as well as anxiety.
Her products can be seen at the business website, www.cypresshemp.com. The website also has an extensive section that explains how CBD is obtained from plants, as well as the biology and chemistry of hemp and CBD.
She said she grew hemp on an acre in Virginia in 2019. “It was a great success. The plants did real well.” But production from just one acre wasn’t enough for her needs, she had to buy hemp from other farmers. She plans to grow a hemp crop in Louisiana in 2020, after she gets her license, but she expects she’ll have to buy hemp from other farmers to meet the demand.
She’s on a mission to educate the public about hemp’s benefits. “This is agriculture, just like strawberries or sugarcane.”
She plans to have Cypress Hemp processed at Courier Labsin Houma.
Courier Labsis investing $20 million in its facility. It is being constructed in the old Houma Courier newspaper building with 35,000 square feet, and an additional 20,000 square feet of space will be constructed there, according to Courier Labs partner Michael Thompson.
His partner, Ben Nearn, said the company has been operating in Colorado with a hemp grower in the past few years, but chose Houma for its base because that’s where the primary shareholder is from and because the workforce there is familiar with the refinery technology that’s used for hemp processing. “It has a fantastically suited workforce from the petrochemical industry.”
Nearn said the plant will have the capacity to produce 2,000 kilograms a month of hemp isolates, and that could be increased to 10,000 kilograms.
They are fully aware that a large initial production surge could lead to severely depressed prices.
Nearn said the facility could be ready for its first batch of hemp by the end of April. That’s assuming the regulatory hurdles have been cleared, he said. “We have a person who is employed exclusively for compliance and licensing.”
In addition, Thompson said Courier Labs is in the process of obtaining its IS09000 and Good Manufacturing Process certifications.
Chris Hansche is a partner in the Logansport company Bons Temps Growers. They plan to sell clones of hemp plants and provide advice for growers. “So we’ll be there for the entire growing season.”
Hansche moved to Louisiana after working 8 years in the cannabis business in Washington state.
He said 30,000 square feet of greenhouse space originally used to grow bedding plants is being modified to grow hemp plants, and two more greenhouses are being built.
He said they will sell small and large plants, but he recommends the larger plants for first-time growers.
Hansche said the company, once it obtains its license, will be able to provide plants now being grown in Tennessee and Arkansas.
The first year will be a chance to determine which varieties grow best in Louisiana.
He said Bon Temps Growers is pooling landowners, growers and financiers to get the industry started. “I really want to see it succeed in Louisiana.”
A lack of processing facilities has been the key bottleneck in the industry nationwide, he said. “The most critical thing they didn’t think about is, ‘What do I do after it’s grown?’ “
He said the company has made connections with a processing company that will be based in Covington.
Virgin Hemp Farms grew all of its first crop in Utah this year, but much of its 2020 crop will be in grown in Louisiana, said Blaine Jennings, a partner in the company based in Lafayette.
He said the first crop was grown in Utah because they were able to obtain a license there from the state government.
He said they have three greenhouses to start plants, and they will have 27 acres near Kinder for growing plants to maturity, in addition to continuing the Utah fields. Raised beds with plastic mulch and drip-line irrigation will be used, he said.
Also, they will use greenhouses to cultivate hemp flower specifically for smoking. Currently, smokable products cannot be bought in Louisiana. But Dr. Mike Strain, LDAF commissioner, said a recent federal court decision could prevent states from outlawing smokable CBD products, and that would lift the state ban. Jennings is aware of that court decision in Indiana, and he’s following it closely.
Jennings said the company also plans to build a processing facility with an industrial dryer.
Once a license is obtained, the company can plant seeds, but he said if licenses are issued as early as January, it will put seed growers on a tight timeline to produce seeds in time for planting in June. Plants grown for seed in greenhouses require restricted light close to maturity to simulate shortening day lengths that occur in the fall, he said.
Jennings said the specter of marijuana persists when CBD products are discussed. “There’s nothing of evil value to it. Hopefully that stigma will go away very soon.”
If a hemp crop grown for CBD contains more than .3 percent THC, the crop must be destroyed. Jennings said the amount of THC increases in hemp plants that are stressed, but the level can be reduced with an increased dose of nitrogen fertilizer.
But Jennings said variety selection can reduce the likelihood of excessive THC by careful selection of cultivars with low THC levels.
He said even though CBD plants have not been grown legally in Louisiana, it’s possible to choose varieties grown successfully in similar climates around the world.
But varieties grown in hot, humid areas of inland Oregon should perform well, he said.
Hemp prefers dry, arid climate, he said, but so does cotton and it grows well in Louisiana. But he said hemp requires soil that drains well, and that could eliminate clay soils found in rice fields and many areas where sugarcane is grown.
Jennings said anyone who wants to grow the crop should start small. “We’re not going to recommend going out of the starting blocks with 200 acres.”
He said the recent informational meeting held by the LSU AgCenter in November was beneficial for the start-up company. “We had a really good reception at the meeting.”
Jennings’ partner has a Lafayette-based company, Aromatic Infusions, that sells CBD products and essential oils.
Robert Dupont of Dupont Nursery, based in Plaquemine, hopes to start selling clones, or cuttings, from hemp plants. The nursery was established in 1975, and it has specialized in hibiscus plants from its own breeding program.
Like others getting into the hemp business, Dupont is waiting for a license from LDAF, and he expects that could happen in January. “Until then, we can’t touch a seed.”
But he’s also eager for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to write its final rules for testing hemp that could provide growers with leeway for THC content.
Without that rule alteration, he said, growers will be forced to harvest their plants early to avoid excess THC. “You get above .3% THC and you’re busted.”
But Dupont said it appears that plants that produce CBG, a compound like CBD but with more therapeutic characteristics, could potentially be more profitable than CBD.
Dupont said plant genetics will be crucial to growing hemp successfully in Louisiana. “We searched this country to find good genetics in the same latitude we are in.”
He said the Hemp Mine in South Carolina has developed good southern varieties that withstand humidity, with lodging resistance. He said the company’s varieties appear to grow well in clay loam soils.
Danny Dupont of Plaquemine, brother of Robert Dupont, has the Z-Top Greenhouse Co. He said growing hemp in a greenhouse provides control of moisture and insects. He said his greenhouse design features a filtered system that won’t clog. “It’s going to fit well with hemp.”
He said he has seen hemp plants that were stressed after a rainy spell. “These times when we get a week of rain, the plants are going to struggle. The roots don’t like to be wet.”
The LDAF is hosting free orientation meetings for cultivating, processing and transporting industrial hemp in Louisiana.
“Anyone interested in obtaining a license to cultivate, process or transport industrial hemp in Louisiana is encouraged to attend,” said LDAF Commissioner Mike Strain.
Topics of discussion will include licensing requirements through the LDAF, seed acquisition, cultivation and processing, as well as transportation regulations.
Registration is required. For details on how to register, go to the LDAF website at www.ldaf.la.gov, click on “Industrial Hemp” and a link to register is located under “Louisiana Industrial Hemp Regulatory Orientation.”