HEMP COULD BE
CASH CROP OF FUTURE
Don Briskin, University of Illinois professor of plant physiology, has a passion for doing research on hemp - not variations that produce marijuana, but hemp with legitimate and potentially lucrative agricultural uses.
If hemp can get past a few remaining legislative hurdles in Illinois, Briskin believes it could have a future as a cash crop for farmers, useful in the manufacture of construction materials, fabric, paper and even composite plastic.
Legislation allowing agricultural research on hemp passed the Illinois General Assembly recently and awaits Gov. George Ryan's signature. The measure still needs funding and potentially also clearances from drug control agencies.
But Ryan's signature would be the first step toward two years of hemp research at the University of Illinois and Southern Illinois University. Briskin hopes to be the lead researcher on the project.
“There are many unique qualities of hemp fiber that make it ideal for construction materials,” said Briskin. “Hemp fiber can actually make a stronger and lighter composite plastic than fiberglass. And when hemp fibers break, they don't shatter like fiberglass, making a safer product, say, for the interior of a car. Hemp fibers break bluntly, so it may be less likely to cause an injury.”
Hemp fiber also has been shown to improve home building materials, such as particleboard and shingles.
“Hemp could become a sustainable replacement for many forest-based lumber products,” said Briskin. “In Europe, manufacturers are already making wallboard from hemp fiber. 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 paper that is stronger and less polluting to produce than wood pulp. And it has been used to make various fabrics.
Hemp plants, which grow quickly, can reach 15 feet in height and usually are planted densely. They can be harvested using a specially modified hay baler.
“It almost looks more like bamboo,” Briskin said of hemp in the field. “The fiber is in the stem, and to harvest it, it's cut off at ground level. The fiber encircles the outside area, and those fibers are removed in processing.”
He believes the first processing step, removing those fibers from the center of the stem, should be done close to production fields.
“I see hemp production adding to rural economic development in Illinois,” said Briskin.
But before farmers can think about converting their soybean drills to plant it, there are a few weeds in the legislative jungle to overcome.
“Well, first the governor has to sign the legislation,” said Briskin. “And then it has to be funded.”
Getting to this point has put the new crop under attack.
Opponents, including anti-illicit drug activists, link hemp to marijuana. Industrial hemp does contain small amounts of the compound THC, the substance that gives users a “high.” That leads some opponents of Briskin's research to contend that the legalization effort is really a subterfuge to ultimately make marijuana legal.
Supporters of the research plan say that industrial hemp variations have relatively miniscule THC content, and they emphasize that the focus for now is research, not production.
Briskin proposes elaborate security measures to protect research plots, and he would have to apply for research approval from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.
Ryan has said he wants to hear from representatives on both sides of the issue before he decides whether to sign it.
Canada allows its farmers to raise hemp, and it has become a lucrative alternative crop, offering triple the profits of corn.
“A substantial amount of hemp was grown in Illinois prior to and during the World War II era,” said Briskin. “So this is an ideal climate for hemp production. And it is an ideal crop to use in rotation with corn and soybeans.”
As the third crop in a rotation with corn and beans, hemp could ease insect and disease problems, such as soybean cyst nematodes or corn rootworms. Previous research on hemp indicates that it can cut soybean cyst nematode populations in half after one year in the rotation. It also is competitive with weeds, eliminating herbicides needed to raise corn and soy beans.
“I've been pushing the idea of using hemp as the non-Bt buffer zone,” said Briskin, referring to buffer zones needed to keep a certain type of genetically modified corn separate from unmodified hybrids.
It would make it easier to keep separate GMO (genetically modified) seeds than growing a non-GMO corn hybrid. This might work because hemp was an earlier host of European corn borers.”
Briskin also hopes to look into the best production techniques for producing hemp, the best varieties for industrial use 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.
Written by: Charlyn Fargo
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