By Don Briskin, University of Illinois, College of Agricultural, Consumer & Environmental Sciences
Urbana, Illinois — Seventy-five years ago, soybeans were introduced as a potential cash crop and now they are second only to corn in importance to Illinois farmers. In the next few decades, industrial hemp may become the emerging cash crop for Illinois farmers, grown for use in the manufacture of construction materials, fabric, paper, and even composite plastic.
"There are many unique qualities of hemp fiber that make it ideal for construction materials," said Don Briskin, University of Illinois Professor of plant physiology. "Hemp fiber can actually make a stronger and lighter composite plastic that fiberglass. And when hemp fibers break they don’t shatter like fiberglass, making a safer product say for the interior of a car."
Hemp fiber has also been shown to improve home building materials such as particle board and shingles.
"Hemp could become a sustainable replacement for many forest-based lumber products. In Europe, manufacturers are already making wall board from hemp fiber," said Briskin. "There’s work that shows it makes a great shingle, too. Replacing fiberglass in a conventional shingle would triple its functional life."
Briskin says hemp also makes a wonderful paper that is stronger and less polluting to produce, and it has been used to make various fabrics as well.
Other countries, such as Canada, have changed their laws to allow farmers to raise hemp and it has been a lucrative alternative crop for them tripling profits over corn. Briskin says Illinois is an ideal location for hemp production.
"A substantial amount of hemp was grown in Illinois prior to and during World War II era, so this is an ideal climate for hemp production. And it is an ideal crop to use in rotation corn and soybeans."
Hemp, as a third crop in rotation with corn and soybeans, could help ease insect and disease problems that have grown in importance recently such as soybean cyst nematodes or corn rootworms. Previous research on hemp indicates that it reduced soybean cyst nematode populations in half after one year in the rotation, and it is very competitive with weeds, eliminating the herbicide component typical of corn and soybeans.
"I’ve been pushing the idea of using hemp as the non-Bt buffer zone, too. It would make it easier to keep separate GMO seeds than growing a non-GMO corn hybrid. This might work because hemp was an earlier host of European corn borers," said Briskin.
Since hemp is a bulky crop, it would seem to make economic sense to remove the fibers within a 50-mile radius of production fields. That promises to spawn rural economic development in states progressive enough to change the laws to allow farmers to raise hemp.
"The first processing step, removing the fibers, is most efficiently achieved close to production fields, so I see hemp production as adding to rural economic development in Illinois," he said.
However, the one big concern about hemp production is the complicating factor of its drug properties versus its fiber properties.
"Thousands of years ago, people started selecting hemp for its fiber production or its drug producing capacity. Over that time, the plant has evolved to be almost two separate plants. We’re obviously most interested in fiber production and these varieties have almost no drug-related derivatives."
Canadian hemp producers have reported virtually no drug related problems because each grower is licensed to grow hemp. The license states that drug officials can visit the production field at any time and sample the plants. Close official monitoring and hemp varieties devoid of the drug derivative have minimized this problem.
"Our contacts in Canada tell us that the drug connection is a non-issue," said Briskin.
But there are still a lot of research questions needing answers before farmers can raise hemp in Illinois. In-ground research is needed to determine the best production techniques for hemp, the best varieties, and the best rotation strategies.
"Farmers are pretty excited about the possibilities and that’s what has helped the recent legislative initiative to progress," said Briskin.
The Illinois Senate, in February, passed a hemp research bill by 49 votes to 9, and it is expected that, if passed by the Illinois House, Governor Ryan would sign the bill into law.
Copyright © 2000, Don Briskin, University of Illinois. All rights reserved.