Hemp, Hemp Hooray!

hemp plants against blue sky

An Opportunity for American Farmers

The hemp marketplace is projected to be $1 billion dollars by the end of 2018and close to $2 billion dollars by the end of 2022. American consumers are wild about hemp products, with hemp CBD oil and other CBD-derived personal care products leading the way. Currently, the U.S. has to import hemp textiles from China; hemp seed from Canada, and industrial products from Europe. Now, with clearance in the Farm Bill, American farmers can participate in this market.

What’s so unique about hemp?

Hemp has roots in American history! In the 1700s, America considered hemp a staple crop and its strong fibers were used to make rope, canvas sails, fishing nets, clothing, and even American flags. George Washington grew acres of it on his farm at Mt. Vernon and predicted at one point that it would be a more valuable crop than tobacco. Popular Mechanics Magazine dubbed hemp “The Billion Dollar Crop.”

Hemp became vilified in the 1930s and has been illegal to grow since the 1937 Marijuana Act.  There was one exception to this when the government called upon farmers to grow hemp to help win World War II. Despite this momentary pardon, it has been listed as a Schedule I Drug since 1970. Hemp’s Achilles heel has always been that it looks too much like its bad-ass cousin, marijuana.

Both hemp and marijuana are members of the Cannabis sativa family, but the key difference is that hemp contains less than 0.03% THC (as defined by federal law), which is the psychoactive component that gets you high when you smoke pot. Hemp is grown and harvested around the world, harvested primarily for fiber, seeds, and CBD.

Hemp is a versatile and sustainable crop

Other than the extreme desert or high in the mountains, hemp will grow in most soils. The plants develop a thick canopy cover and shield out weeds, thus demanding fewer pesticides. With its long taproot and thick root system, the plant helps nourish the soil. Its seeds, stalk, leaves and even roots can be processed into thousands of products. Think of the growing opportunities for American farmers!

The seeds are high in healthy fats, protein, and fiber and produce food as well as oil paints, printing inks, and soaps, lotions, and balms.

The hemp stalk, which is strong and fibrous, can be blended with other materials to make composites for automobile dashboards, door panels, trunk liners, and other interior parts; or manufactured into handbags, denim, fine fabrics, paper cardboard and packaging, and rope, canvas, carpeting, insulation, and can even be a fiberglass substitute.

The leaves can be mulched into compost, mulch, and animal bedding. The roots can be used as compost. The whole plant is naturally loaded with healthy terpenes and cannabinoids and many varieties are grown to make CBD and other functional medicines.

source: Dandy Graphics

Hemp can be fit into a crop rotation and provide farmers with another source of revenue. Victory Hemp Foods contracts farmers to produce hemp grain for their production facility. According to their analysis, hemp commands a higher net price than corn or soy. In Kentucky, some farmers are replacing their tobacco fields with hemp. In Colorado, some farmers are turning to grow hemp in addition to wheat.

As there is a steady demand for hemp as a raw material, many states are ahead of the game and have taken the regulation into their own hands. Before this week’s legislative vote, 40 states had removed barriers to its production.

According to the 2018 Congressional Research report, Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity, hemp represents a profitable niche market and a viable alternative crop for U.S. growers. In their report on the top 10 producing states,  Hemp Industry Daily provides snapshots of hemp production including sales and market potential.

Because hemp was not allowed to be grown as a large commercial scale in the U.S.,  profitability studies are limited, but research institutions, such as Cornell UniversityUniversity of Kentucky and the State of Colorado are compiling this economic information for farmers.

The Regulations – Hemp wins

Last week, the U.S. Congress passed the final version of the 2018 Farm Bill. The new five-year bill lays out the complex web of policies and programs governing the U.S. food system and includes a major win for the nascent hemp industry.

Hemp supporters, championed by Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, are jumping for joy over the loosening of restrictions to grow and harvest hemp, thereby offering the potential to bring in additional farm income. Probably most important is that the loosened restrictions will open up sources for funding and research, and farmers will be able to obtain bank loans and federal crop insurance, an enormous safety net for commodity crop farmers.

“At a time when farm income is down and growers are struggling, industrial hemp is a bright spot of agriculture’s future.”

-Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Twitter December 11th, 2018

But while it is freed from federal prohibition, there are still some restrictions to grow hemp and you won’t be able to grow it in your gardens like tomatoes, basil or beans. For instance, it must be grown with a THC content of less than 0.03% and the USDA must approve a states’ plan for licensing and regulating hemp. If a state doesn’t come up with a plan, the federal government will provide the framework. The law also states that non-compliant growers can be prosecuted.

Additionally, growing hemp is only part of the equation. As the market expands, so will the number of harvesters, processors, and distributors. This represents an exciting chapter in American agriculture!

The Year in Food News: What To Know Before 2019

world being pierced by a fork illustration

Within this post we discuss the following topics:

Trade Tensions with China. How does this affect you?

NAFTA is Dead, Long Live USMCA. Well, Sort Of…

What’s the Farm Bill? About a half-trillion dollars— or maybe more.

The 2018 harvest is almost done. What does it mean for food prices?

Keeping CRISPR Alive in Europe

Glyphosate Debate No Closer to Resolution

Trade Tensions with China. How does this affect you?

After the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, the United States and China announced a pause in the on-going trade dispute between the two nations, with President Donald Trump agreeing to postpone a scheduled increase in U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods set to go into effect January 1, 2019.

On December 1st, Trump agreed to a 90-day tariff truce in order to give both sides time to begin a serious discussion of the myriad of trade and intellectual property issues leading to the escalating series of tariffs. News reports indicate that as part of the agreement, the Chinese have agreed to step up purchases from the United States, including agricultural products such as soybeans. Just exactly what other agricultural products, and in what time frame, remain unclear.

As of December 11, the Chinese are believed to have resumed soybean purchases. President Trump was quoted saying the Chinese are “buying tremendous amounts of soybeans.”

So what does this mean for U.S. food consumers?  Not much, immediately.

The food industry continues to have more than enough commodities to satisfy immediate demand, even if the Chinese resume larger purchases of U.S. soybeans and other farm products.

The real issue for consumers is the long-term economic health of the farm sector. Exports are an important aspect of farm revenue, yet net farm income has been declining steadily in recent years, to a level about half its 2013 peak.  Without a clearer picture of future market stability for U.S. exports, that pressure is likely to continue.

With more and more farm operations on margin, look for further growth in farm size as farmers consolidate, and continued pressure for investment in the technological and operational improvements to keep food costs down.

Related Reading:
In the News: China Trade on Soybeans and Pork
Net Farm Income Projected to Drop to 12-year Low
How Consolidation is Changing Rural Agriculture
Examining Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture

NAFTA is Dead, Long Live USMCA. Well, Sort Of…

President Trump raised eyebrows by signing a new trade deal among the three countries known as USMCA (the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement), formerly known as NAFTA.

What’s the big deal?  Quite a bit for certain sectors of the U.S. economy, notably the automotive industry – and agricultural interest in all three countries.  Favorable trade terms under NAFTA helped agricultural trade among the three explode.

U.S. agricultural exports under NAFTA grew from $11 billion in 1993 to over $43 billion in 2016, making Canada and Mexico the second- and third-largest markets in the world for U.S. producers.  Canadian and Mexican ag interests – and consumers – reaped comparable benefits.

USMCA would build on NAFTA’s open trade principles to extend favorable ag trade terms to several sectors previously outside the tri-lateral agreement, including poultry, dairy, and eggs.

Preserving the open trade spirit behind this long-standing trade policy has never been more important to U.S. agriculture. The U.S. farm sector’s reliance on a robust export market as a major source of farm income provides us with the low-cost food we eat today.

Should food consumers care?  As with most major public food policy issues, the immediate effect of all this is virtually undetectable. But its role in preserving the economic health of a vibrant and responsive food system isn’t.  Without policies that help create economic opportunity for U.S. farmers, consumers can’t assume the world’s most productive and efficient food system can stay that way indefinitely.

So, if you like to eat and feed your family with an abundant and affordable supply of wholesome food,you might listen with at least one ear when those talking heads on TV mention trade.

Related Reading:
The USMCA explained: Winners and losers, what’s in and what’s out
United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement
What is NAFTA?

What’s the Farm Bill? About a half-trillion dollars— or maybe more

As the year winds down, a lot of people in and out of Washington are breathing a sigh of relief over the final resolution of the running battle for new farm legislation. The bill passed with an 87-to-13 vote in the Senate on Tuesday, Dec 11thand will now go to the house, where it is expected to pass as well. This new five-year bill lays out the complex web of policies and programs governing the U.S. food system.

The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture

The bill makes no major changes in policy direction, and still covers everything from crop subsidies, crop insurance and conservation programs to urban farming, research and nutrition assistance programs – and a heck of a lot more in between, including new hemp regulations.

The 2014 Farm Bill has been estimated to cost taxpayers about $488 billion, although the final tally may come in a tad lower than that figure. Comparatively, the 2018 Farm Bill is expected to cost taxpayers $827 billion.

The share of that spending going to farmers? This is a bit controversial. Commodity programs, crop insurance, and conservation make up only 19 percent of the tab.  About 80 percent – four of every five dollars in the bill – goes to some form of nutritional assistance for those who are in need. This is commonly referred to as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), or food stamps.

The 2018 compromise is expected to address various cost-control mechanisms but nonetheless entails 10-year spending of about $687 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

So, what do consumers get for their tax dollar?  Even though a small amount goes to the farming network, the Farm Bill provides the framework of policies and programs — the rules of the road — needed to guide production, processing, research, product innovation, manufacturing, marketing, retailing and all the other elements of a modern food system.

It provides the framework essential to attracting investment and incentivizing the effort that keeps the system responsive to the evolving needs and demands of consumers.

The American public gets a stable, innovative and reliable food system, unlike anything seen in previoushistory. It’s government policy-making that can be argued to actually work, and work well, especially in today’s fractured political system.

Related Reading:
What is the Farm Bill — and why should you care?
Congress just passed an $867 billion farm bill. Here’s what’s in it.
Farm Bill: A Short History and Summary
The Farm Bill (archives from the NYT)

The 2018 harvest is almost done. What does this mean for food prices?

The end of the calendar year normally means corn and soybean farmers are wrapping up harvests of their crops.  Tough weather conditions have slowed the harvest in some production areas.  But overall, more than 90 percent of the corn and soybean harvest is completed. The final numbers will impact future farm production trends and have implications for future food prices.

Corn and Soybean Digest

The Department of Agriculture will release official numbers for the crops in mid-January.  But all signs point to a good harvest for corn and soybean producers, with some early estimates pointing to crops of more than 14.6 billion and 4.6 billion bushels, respectively.

Why should anyone outside the farm community care about such dry and mind-numbing statistics?  Because they point toward the future for supplies of the commodities that fuel the American food system – and the prices consumers are likely to be paying.

Experts are looking to see not just what stocks are on hand, but what farmers’ intentions for the next crop year will be.  Big stockpiles – and an export outlook clouded by trade tensions — can mean tough markets for soybean exports, for example.  Waiting for higher commodity prices, many farmers stockpile their crops rather than sell them thus creating more uncertainties. That may lead to smaller planted acreage for soybeans in the coming year as stocks increase and producers look for alternative crops, such as corn or specialty crops such as hemp.

Government estimates of food expenditures, meanwhile, show modest growth in prices paid for food.  USDA estimates say, prices for food consumed in the home should hold flat, or rise by only 1 percent, while prices for food consumed away from home are projected to be up 2-3 percent.  This is mainly due to higher labor costs.  Projections for 2019 show similar modest increases in food prices.

What keeps food costs so stable in the midst of such ups and downs in the commodity world? Part of the answer lies in the complexity and efficiency of the modern food chain.  Statistics show that the cost of key commodities represents a small fraction of the total food dollar – somewhere between 12 and 15 percent, by most estimates.  (Incidentally, the commodity share of the food dollar has shown a steady decline in recent decades.) The remainder goes to processing, packaging, transportation, retail costs, food service costs and other costs (such as energy, financial expenses, and insurance).

Related Reading:
USDA – Food Dollar Series
National Farmers Union: The Farmer’s Share
USDA Graphs Explain The Breakdown of a U.S. Food Dollar

Keeping CRISPR Alive in Europe

The European Court of Justice earlier this year ruled that held gene-edited crops must be subject to the same onerous regulatory standards as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).


While many anti-GMO groups hailed the Court’s actions, reaction to the ruling ranged from howls of outrage to sighs of despair among the scientific and agricultural communities.  The ruling would effectively make Europe a non-player in the world’s efforts to use gene editing technology – known as CRISPR – to spur the next generations of agricultural innovation and progress in better plant development.

Now 75 leading scientists from a spectrum of European life science research centers have called upon European policymakers to reverse the court’s decision.  How policymakers respond will provide the next big indictor of which direction Europe will move in the global effort to produce the innovative new plants needed to deal with growing world demand for food – plants capable of resisting disease and pests, crops capable of dealing with changing climatic conditions, organisms capable of thriving on less water and fewer added field nutrients.

Related Reading:
In the News: European Court Hinders CRISPR Technology
CRISPR & Co are GMOs, says EU court

Glyphosate Debate No Closer to Resolution

2018 was a big year for glyphosate – the key ingredient in Monsanto’s widely used herbicide, RoundUp.

Glyphosate has been under steady and sometimes heated attack by a range of individuals and organizations concerned that excessive exposure to RoundUp can cause cancer.  When a California jury awarded $289 million to a man claiming the product caused his cancer, the debate entered a new and even more contentious phase. The award was later reduced to “only” $78 million, but new trials involving thousands of claimants remain in the works in various locations.

Expect to see the battle spill from the media and courtroom to the legislative arena.  Bayer AG, who acquired Monsanto for $63 billion in June 2018, has signaled its intent to continue battling to defend what it sees as a proven and important tool for farmers worldwide.  In early December, the company garnered widespread media coverage when it posted more than 300 studies regarding the safety of glyphosate. As part of the company’s “Transparency Initiative,” the release was touted as an important step in establishing trust in the science behind its products.  That material also has been provided to the European Parliament as part of their deliberations on the renewal of authorization for glyphosate production.

The debate in the European Parliament mirrors the political divisions related to GMOs.  Many legislators see a need to embrace science and products that maintain the EU’s competitive position in the global agricultural system.  But others favor a more restrictive approach as they think it is the best way to protect human health and the environment.

Related Reading:
National Pesticide Information Center: Glyphosate
Bayer committed to transparency: Posts more than 300 glyphosate safety study summaries online

Why Should We Care About Bees?

honey bee landing on flower

These hard-working creatures not only pollinate most of the food we eat, but they also make delicious honey! As a beekeeper, I have learned that bees require care much like any other family pet. But how can I keep my bees healthy with the ever-present pesticides in our suburban setting?

This past summer I tried my own method of protecting my bees. On a beautiful sunny day, I interrupted a commercial tree sprayer who was doing “preventative” insect spraying on our neighbor’s trees and bushes. He was perplexed when I told them that I had a honey bee hive in my yard. On one hand, he was under a maintenance contract to take care of trees, and on the other hand, he understood the spraying hazards to any type of foraging bees.

Checking the hive

While I may have made an impression on this sprayer by chasing him down, it is not feasible to manually protect the five-mile radius or 3,200 acres around my house— which is the distance that bees will travel in search of nectar and pollen.

And these types of insecticide sprays, called neonicotinoids, are not the only thing I need to worry about! I have to watch out for the wax moth, small hive beetle, signs of Nosema virus, and the dreaded varroa mite, on top of making sure the “girls” have enough to eat. Are there enough different sources of nectar and pollen for them to forage on? And winter is coming… does my hive have enough honey stores to make it through the season?


These honey bees (hives are in the background) are well-cared for and have a nice supply of nutritious forage.

While my bees have it easy with the care I provide (and how fast I can chase down neighborhood sprayers), wild bees, bumble bees and the other 3,999 species of bees in North America might not be as lucky.

We need bees for food!

Pollinators are responsible for 35% of the world’s crop production and 90% of the pollination in wild plants. That equates to one out of every three bites of food we eat and all the wildflowers in the woods and prairies! Unfortunately, the populations of these native bees, butterflies and other important pollinators are shrinking. Imagine your diet without raspberries, almonds or blueberries. If it weren’t for these pollinators fertilizing the crops, we would be very sad consumers!

Leafcutter Bee

Bumble Bee

Digger Bee

Mining Bee

Some of the native bees species of North America.

What is causing this shrinking population? While neonicotinoids are not the only smoking gun, the effects of these insecticides ignite passions on both sides of the debate.

What is a Neonicotinoid?

“Neonics” are used in agriculture, home gardens and even on your pets as an insecticide to kill sap- sucking and chewing insects that eat tender leaves from crops or drive your dog crazy from scratching. Neonicotinoids act on an insect’s central nervous system, causing paralysis and death.

Neonics are applied either as a spray, dust or added to irrigation water. Staple crops such as corn, soy, and canola, use seeds that are pretreated with neonicotinoids. When used as seed treatments, neonicotinoids are taken up by all parts of the plant as it grows. This means that foraging bees and insects may come into contact with neonicotinoids as they are foraging on pollen and nectar.

Tree sprayers such as this are common around suburban neighborhoods. Have a conversation with your contractor to see if spraying is really necessary.

The research against Neonicotinoids is not entirely conclusive.

To study the effect of agricultural chemicals on bees, scientists perform laboratory, semi-field, and field tests. Of these, realistic field tests are the most difficult to conduct, as the variables such as weather and bee foraging patterns are never constant. On the other hand, laboratory tests are often criticized because the exposure to chemicals is manipulated and controlled, and not representative of a bee’s normal foraging activities.

The Pollinator Network at Cornell University compiled an overview of the scientific evidence on neonicotinoids. “Overall, the majority of laboratory and semi-field research demonstrates neonicotinoids can be harmful to honey bees; however, the majority of field studies find only limited or no effects on honey bees.” There is agreement, however, on the negative impact of neonicotinoids on bumble bees.

Bumble Bee loaded with pollen

Penn State Center for Pollinator Research adds, “Wild and managed pollinators face numerous stressors. Honey bees, other managed pollinator species such as bumblebees and orchard bees, and wild bees suffer from exposure to parasites and pesticides, and loss of floral abundance and diversity due to increased land-use. In addition, habitat destruction limits nesting sites for wild pollinators. Unfortunately, these stressors may interact synergistically to produce more detrimental effects on pollinator health.” (Penn State Center for Pollinator Research)

Today’s neonicotinoids are less toxic to vertebrates than the older synthetic chemicals they replaced, but they are still a threat.  And the “organic” insecticides options aren’t any safer. Pesticides approved for organic use can cause significant harm to bees as well. (The Xerces Society provides some very useful information on organic pesticide application.)

How do we manage pests and protect pollinators?

At the Penn State Center for Pollinator Research, biologists call it Integrated Pest and Pollinator management (IPPM), but if you are familiar with the term Integrated Pest Management (IPM), pollinators add a new dimension to this accepted paradigm.

“Neonics – and other pesticides – are valuable tools for growers, but we know that pesticides kill bees as well under the “right” conditions. And bees are exposed to a heck of a lot of pesticides because we are asking them to pollinate our crops. We may not know exactly the extent to which pesticides are responsible for bee populations declines – particularly since so many factors interact – but we know what to do about it – IPPM!”

—Christina M. Grozinger, Director, Center for Pollinator Research, Penn State University.

In this video, Penn State biologists demonstrate that both pest management and pollinator protection can be achieved when they are used in an integrated pest and pollinator (IPPM) context.


What YOU can do to help pollinators!

Plant wildflowers and other native plantings in your yard or neighborhood to provide nutritious forage for the bees and other pollinating insects. Provide housing for pollinators. Your local Audubon or State Agricultural Extension will have many recommendations. If you must use pesticides, be selective in your timing and dose: don’t apply when plants are flowering or when bees are foraging.