Sunday | January 22, 2017
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Hemp 101: Farmers learn about growing industry during convention in Hilo

Farmers from throughout the state gained insight into Hawaii’s newest crop as the annual Hawaii Farmers Union United Convention kicked off Friday at OK Farms in Hilo.

More than 60 people gathered beneath the main tent to hear speakers from Colorado and Vermont discuss the ins and outs of growing and processing industrial hemp.

The hemp industry itself is a relatively new one that slowly has been taking root across the United States and Canada as federal regulations loosen and states create their own growing programs.

Gov. David Ige in July signed a bill allowing farmers to grow industrial hemp for agricultural research purposes, following the success of an Oahu-based pilot program indicating that the crop would thrive in Hawaii.

The hemp program has an initial budget of $425,000 and falls under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Agriculture, which issues licenses to potential growers and will keep track of transport permits and seed cultivars.

“This is getting real,” said speaker Doug Fein, who grows hemp in Vermont and is the author of “Hemp Bound,” a book documenting the burgeoning industry. “It’s all about the implementation stage.”

That stage won’t be immediate, he said. Because of the need to comply with federal hemp regulations, particularly regarding transport of seeds, implementation takes time.

Hemp is subject to regulations because the plant that produces it, Cannabis sativa, is the same that produces marijuana. Federal regulations stipulate that industrial hemp must have less than 0.3 percent of cannabis’ main psychoactive component, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.

Still, Fein said it wasn’t too early for Hawaii farmers to start planning ahead.

“If you get involved now, or in 2017 or 2018, you’re still ahead of the curve,” he said. On the mainland, the industry is a lucrative one with little market saturation. Fein estimated that his 23 acres would gross “in the mid six figures” this year.

Industrial hemp has a variety of uses ranging from biofuel to building materials such as insulation. And hemp seeds are a good source of protein for humans and animals.

In 2013, researchers at the University of Alberta used hemp to make a substance resembling graphene, a nanomaterial used for energy storage.

Hemp also can be used to make fiber for clothing — Fein wore a hemp shirt and toted his laptop in a hemp case — and to make paper. Speaker Dani Billings of Colorado passed around a hemp business card. Billings is the co-founder of the Colorado Hemp Project, an organic hemp farm that offers consulting services to new growers.

“We’re really here to help move the industry forward,” she said. Even 1 acre of hemp is “really manageable,” Billings said. When she first started growing hemp on 1 acre, it could be hand-harvested.

A Hawaii hemp industry would be helped by the Hawaii brand name, Fein said. He encouraged farmers to investigate as many uses as possible for hemp, including creating packaging from the plant to reduce the carbon footprint of production.

“We’re trying to heal the land and create a small farming economy,” he said.

The Hawaii Farmers Union United Convention continues today and Sunday. For more information visit https://hfuuhi.org/events/2016-state-convention/

Email Ivy Ashe at iashe@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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