One of the booths at this week’s Ark-La-Tex Medical Cannabis Expo was hosted by the Arkansas Hemp Association, a trade group founded to promote and expand non-intoxicating industrial hemp as an agricultural crop in the state. AHA Vice President Jeremy Fisher said the first licenses to grow experimental plots of hemp in the state should be issued by the Arkansas State Plant Board next spring.
Arkansas approved the issuance of licenses to grow experimental plots of hemp in March 2017, with the passage of House Bill 1778, which became Act 981. The bill empowers the Plant Board to license growers to participate in a ten-year industrial hemp research program. The Plant Board will administer the program, in cooperation with the University of Arkansas’ Department of Agriculture and the Cooperative Extension Service. The board will set the location and acreage of the test plots. Yields and acreage will be small in early years, but should be steadily increased if the crop proves itself viable.
An ancient crop that was historically grown for rope, sail canvas, fishing nets and clothing — George Washington grew the stuff at Mt. Vernon — industrial hemp differs from cannabis in that it’s low in THC, the active ingredient in cannabis that gets a user “high.” Under the law, strains to be grown as industrial hemp in Arkansas must contain less than .3 percent THC.
Fisher said the Arkansas Hemp Association was founded in August 2017, and will be a resource to help farmers get involved in the pilot program, which he hopes will lead to large scale hemp production in the state. Fisher originally started as a volunteer with Arkansans for Compassionate Care in 2014. After Issue 7, the ballot initiative pushed by ACC, was disqualified from the ballot, Fisher said medical marijuana advocates Gary and Melissa Fults asked him to help write a bill to try and get an industrial hemp pilot program for the state. With Nicholas Dial, who is now the president of the Arkansas Hemp Association, Fisher drafted the bill, which ultimately led to hemp being legalized by the Arkansas General Assembly.
“Writing the bill, we put it under a research pilot program where farmers, processors and businesses can conduct agronomy research, water research and things like that and also market research,” Fisher said. “It can help expand the business toward commercialization in the years down the road.”
Fisher said that unlike medical cannabis, which is often grown indoors under very strict lighting, nutrient and watering conditions to maximize its THC content, industrial hemp is grown outdoors like any other agricultural crop. “Similar to a weed,” Fisher said, hemp is naturally drought tolerant and pest resistant, and can grown in pretty much any soil type. The plants mature at between 90 to 120 days, Fisher said, and have over 25,000 uses. “The major markets right now have to do with food for the seed oil, the industrial oil for cosmetics and shampoos and lotions, things like that,” he said. “You can use the fiber to make fabrics, and also building materials.” Fisher said insulation, particle board and fiberboard can be manufactured from the sturdy hemp fibers, which can also be mixed with cement to form “hempcrete,” a strong and lightweight building material. Hemp can also be formulated into biodiesel.
One of the biggest potential markets for hemp — and one which could have a huge impact on the economy of Arkansas — is its use in making paper. Unlike trees, which can take 20 to 30 years to grow big enough to pulp for paper, a hemp crop can be grown over a summer. There are currently five industrial paper mills in Arkansas, and Fisher said they could likely be retrofitted to use or supplement with hemp fiber.
Fisher said that the support from the farming community for a new potential cash crop has been overwhelmingly positive. “Everyone we’ve talked to that’s either a farmer or supports the agricultural community is 100 percent for it,” he said. “They believe it’s a great, green crop that can help give farmers something else to rotate in. Instead of poisoning or degrading the soils they have, it can jump start a new economy that can start new businesses and new processes for hemp. It’s all support.”