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Hemp farmers and processors work out kinks during first legal harvest in more than 80 years

Dave Crabill using a tool to remove the flower from a hemp stalk
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Dave Crabill uses a tool to manually remove the flower from the hemp plant's stems and stalk.

In 2018, the U.S. Congress lifted a pre-World War II restriction that made it illegal for farmers to grow industrial hemp—a variety of the cannabis sativa plant that contains less than .3% THC.

More than 500 Michigan farmers are licensed to grow the crop. This year, they farmed around 30,000 acres of hemp.

Dave Crabill is a hemp grower and vice president of iHemp Michigan, an organization that connects hemp farmers, processers, and manufacturers. We talked to him about this year's harvest and the future of hemp farming in Michigan. 

What is hemp used for?

Crabill says that most hemp farmers grow their crop in order to harvest its highly-valuable cannabidiol, or CBD oil. That oil is stored in the hemp plant’s flower, and extracting it is an “extremely labor intensive” process.

Hemp fiber can also be used to create textiles, but Crabill is looking into a Grand Rapids company that can use the inner core of the hemp stalk — called the “hurd” — to make “injection-molded plastics.” 

How is hemp processed?

Most hemp is processed manually, but Crabill says that there is specialized equipment coming onto the market that can help mechanically harvest the plant. He says that with the state’s “manufacturing base and rich agricultural history,” Michigan is poised to become “a leader” in that industry.

“Innovation is what we need to take out some of the expense of the labor,” Crabill said.

What’s the deal with CBD?

Now that it’s legal to grow hemp, Crabill predicts that we’ll start to see a lot more research into the medicinal properties of cannabinoids like CBD. He thinks there’s a need for more regulation when it comes to quality control of products like CBD, but hopes to see those rules developed from within the industry. 

What have reactions to hemp legalization been like so far?

Crabill argues that the industrial hemp industry is a startup like any other, but that it grapples with an additional issue that he calls “reefer madness.” He says that people from within that industry often experience pushback because of hemp’s association with marijuana.

“That’s part of our job as an association is to educate people about industrial hemp, how it’s great for the economy and the ecology, and why they should really embrace this plant,” Crabill said.

Hemp moving forward

Crabill says that for the industrial hemp industry, this first year is about “learning” and “doing it smarter next year.” He’s organized a trade expo for the hemp industry that will provide resources to farmers who are hoping to get started growing hemp, and help them find ways to process and sell their crop.

“There’s markets out there for this product — the CBD oil and the flower — and there’s people that want it right now,” Crabill said. “Now, it’s just a matter of connecting them with the Michigan farmers.”

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