After years of struggling to make a profit, Brent Cornett, a 7th generation tobacco farmer in Kentucky, decided to abandon the crop three years ago. He went from planting 120 acres of tobacco in 2016 to zero acres this year, completely replacing it with newly legalized hemp.
“There’s basically no profit in growing tobacco anymore,” said Cornett, who now works with a Kentucky-based hemp production and processing company, Atalo Hemp Products.
Farmers across the country, irrespective of the crops they grow, have been grappling with falling incomes and rising debt. Between 2007 and 2012, the US lost over 95,000 farms, according to the 2012 United States Agricultural Census.
Prices of major crops like wheat, corn, and soybeans have been dwindling over the past few years while dairy farmers have plunged into a financial crisis – their woes made worse by the Trump administration’s trade wars. In the first three months of 2019 alone, 127 farms stopped dairy production in Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Production.
But Cornett, and many other farmers like him, see an opportunity in hemp to turn around their fortunes. Hemp is a type of cannabis plant that, unlike marijuana, has very low psychoactive properties and can be used for a wide range of industrial purposes such as in construction and automobiles.
“We can make from an average hemp crop what we can from an excellent tobacco crop,” said Cornett, “And it’s really hard to grow an excellent tobacco crop these days.”
He is expecting over a million dollars in returns on his hemp crop this year, as opposed to the $600,000 he would have made on a tobacco crop of the same size.
Hemp production has historically been hampered by its connection with marijuana. However, in 2014, the USDA allowed states to launch pilot programs for research on industrial hemp. More and more farmers began investing in the crop through state programs as a result.
Hemp acreage grew by 204 percent in just one year from 2016 to 2017, according to Vote Hemp, a Washington D.C. based hemp advocacy organization. And the 2018 Farm Bill completely legalized hemp allowing farmers to independently cultivate and market the crop.
The hemp industry is estimated to be valued at $1.9 billion by 2022 by the Hemp Business Journal, a Colorado-based market intelligence company. There is a growing global demand for hemp-based products in medicine, textiles, personal care, animal care, construction, automotive, and more.
“The cannabis plant in all has a lot to offer – both industrially and medicinally,” said Ben Dobson, who runs Hudson Hemp, a Hudson valley-based company that sells cannabidiol (CBD), a hemp-derivative, and hemp oil to wholesale partners in New York.
The company, in which Dobson is an equity-owner, partners with family farmers in the area to source hemp and create a supply chain network.
A lifelong farmer, Dobson had been waiting for the time hemp would be legalized.
“I’ve always been an admirer of the capabilities of cannabis as a medicine and looked to its positive culture,” said Dobson, “And I’ve been waiting for the time when we could incorporate into our farming practices.”
He feels that the real future of hemp is in textiles, paper, and construction, where it can replace unsustainable materials in the supply chain.
“We as a country need another major staple crop,” said Dobson, “We need to drastically reduce our acreage in wheat, corn, and soy in order for those market prices to go back up.”
However, hemp’s rapid expansion could be a problem for the emerging industry. Overproduction of staple crops has been driving down their prices globally.
And Cornett, the Kentucky-based farmer, worries that hemp could go the same direction as other crops if farmers produce more than there is demand for in the market.
“The American farmer does what they do best – they always overproduce,” said Cornett, the Kentucky-based farmer.
Both Cornett and Dobson insist that it’s necessary to ensure there are buyers available before cultivating hemp.
“You don’t put hemp into the ground if you don’t have a place for it go,” said Dobson.
Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, agrees. Despite acknowledging hemp’s potential to save ailing family farmers, he said people need to have realistic expectations about the crop.
“It’s not a miracle crop that can save farmers overnight,” said Steenstra, “It’s going to take some time for the market to develop.”
As for Cornett, the switch to hemp has been more than just an economic benefit.
“The fact that we can grow a high-value crop and be proud that we’re growing something that’s beneficial for society makes you really feel good,” said Cornett.