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Hemp Fiber Industry Slow to Start in Illinois, but Long-Term Hopes Persist

Tory Dahlhoff / WCBU
Rachel Berry, founder and CEO of the Illinois Hemp Growers Association, grows hemp with her husband Chris on their small family farm outside Princeton, IL.

On her small family farm outside Princeton, Ill., Rachel Berry, founder and CEO of the Illinois Hemp Growers Association, stands in front of a giant bale of hemp stalks that resembles an oversized bird’s nest. She pulls a small hardcover book from a basket full of various goods made from the fiber and woody pulp of hemp stems.

“This is the first hemp book to be made in 100 years, a book printed on hemp paper,” said Berry, before moving on to the next gadget: a 3D-printed children's toy made with a hemp-based printing filament.

Since the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill that allowed for the production of industrial hemp—which is cannabis containing less than a 0.3% concentration of THC—farmers and advocates like Berry have worked to bring hemp fiber and grain crops to more farm fields in Illinois.

The fiber and hurd material from hemp has many uses in the manufacturing of textiles, construction materials, car parts, and more. Hemp also could play a role in the regenerative agriculture movement with its ability to improve soil and water quality, increase farm crop diversity, and generate new revenue streams for farmers. 

“It is an incredibly, incredibly versatile plant,” said David Lakeman, who oversees cannabis regulation for the Illinois Department of Agriculture. “I think we’re just barely scratching the surface of what private industry is going to be able to do with this plant once, you know, the market is a little bit more established.”

The lack of a market stems from federal prohibitions that have discouraged hemp farming as far back as 1937. Needless to say, hemp missed out on the immense innovation and technological advances afforded conventional crops throughout the 20th century.

But there may be a silver lining to hemp’s decades-long ostracism from the mainstream. The reintroduction of hemp has opened a door to a new world of possibilities for young Illinois farmers like Rebecca Dwyer, whose family has farmed conventional corn and soybeans in Woodford County since the 1980s.

“It’s really, really, really difficult as a young farmer to try and get started in this business,” said Dwyer. “So that's why when my uncle said, ‘You know hey, let’s diversify, what do you know about hemp?’ I jumped on it. I don’t even think I gave him a chance to say no.”

After two years of field trials, Dwyer feels confident in her ability to grow the hardy plant in central Illinois where hemp growing conditions are ideal. But 2021 may be her last go at a hemp crop for a while, at least without some sign of a viable marketplace and the processing capabilities to get her there. 

That market may theoretically exist someday with a sustainably-minded manufacturer like Peoria-based Natural Fiber Welding.

“We could use hemp, but the issue for us is we need repeatable inputs, repeatability at least at that scale of hundreds of pounds.” said Luke Haverhals, founder and CEO of Natural Fiber Welding, a startup company that has expanded steadily in recent years with products like Mirum, a plant-based leather technology that has attracted investment from clothing companies like Ralph Lauren and Allbirds.

“We’re able to work with people who, if they can produce something repeatedly now and then they're scaling too, they'll be able to grow up with us.”

Despite the interest in hemp, Natural Fiber Welding sits on the opposite side of a critical supply chain gap from farmers like Dwyer. They are both waiting for meaningful progress for industrial hemp processing, a key step in delivering usable and repeatable materials to manufacturers.

Dwyer said, “It’s kinda the chicken and the egg and we laid the egg and now we’re waiting for the chicken to grow up I guess.

“Because we know we can (grow hemp), but we have to wait for that fully developed processor because I don’t have the time and my uncle doesn’t have the time for us to really process it ourselves on a large scale, profitable way.”

The development of sustainable markets for hemp fiber and hurd will take many years to develop, which in the long run may be for the better. The gold rush mentality that consumed the early days of hemp legalization predictably resulted in over production and disappointing prices for CBD products.

Rob Davies of Mississippi Fiberworks in Savanna, Ill., said the lackluster results of the rush by many to profit from hemp-derived CBD products should be a teachable moment for the development of the fiber side of the industry.

“CBD, quite frankly, I don't think has been really a very good success story for Illinois,” said Davies. “I’m not pointing any fingers, it was just something that just kind of fell over.”

Mississippi Fiberworks is one of numerous organizations in the state pushing for a measured and cooperative approach to hemp fiber development. Davies said industrial hemp stakeholders should not overlook the opportunity to create hemp markets that work toward a triple bottom line.

“Eventually, we get to the point where we’re bringing some wealth back to small rural communities and we're helping family farmers and of course protecting our watersheds and the environment by doing so,” said Davies.

Those are points that Berry agrees should remain at the forefront of industrial hemp development in Illinois.

“If you’re in this space to make money, you’re not going to have a good time,” said Berry. “Right now this is about building research and resources so that we can collectively work together...so that when it is time to expand we all know what we’re doing and hopefully we are all on the same foot as far as sustainable systems and stewardship.”

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