Hemp Fiber: A Market in Search of a Viable Supply Chain

April 08, 2020

While hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) has gotten the lion’s share of attention from the financial markets and media in recent years, industry observers say industrial hemp – and the fledgling hemp fiber market in particular – is expected to expand rapidly as the crop becomes part of the national consumer landscape. The major challenge for hemp fiber, however, appears to be the lack of a consistent and established supply chain. That should change as the hemp sector grows and matures, but it may take a concerted effort by industry participants to cultivate markets for hemp fiber and its various applications.

New Technologies Mean New Uses

According to the USDA-funded Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, industrial hemp is usually marketed as a dual-purpose crop, consisting of fiber and seed. It is used for cosmetics, food products, paper, packaging, textiles, and clothing – as well as in auto parts and construction materials.

Traditionally considered a coarse material best suited for rope and sailcloth, recent technologies have radically changed some of hemp fiber’s applications. In 2019, clothing giant Levi Strauss, best known for their iconic denim blue jeans, announced their work on a new line of “cottonized hemp” clothing, using new technology that softens hemp’s texture. The Department of Defense and researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, meanwhile, are reportedly working on a project that could see hemp fiber textiles replace the polyester blends currently used in U.S. military uniforms, vehicles, and aircraft.

There is also a growing consumer demand for clothing and textiles made from hemp fiber. “We’re getting more requests for hemp products than ever before,” Kriya Stevens, marketing manager for econscious, a California-based apparel company, said during a recent interview with the Advertising Specialty Institute. “Retail companies like Patagonia and Prana have used hemp in their lines for a while, but now we’re seeing hemp content become more readily available in the imprintables market because there’s a real thirst for them.”

Fiber vs. Flower

There are some major differences between hemp grown for fiber and other industrial uses versus hemp grown for cannabinoid-containing flowers. Hemp grown for CBD or other cannabinoids is cultivated to be relatively short in size, with numerous branches laden with flowers. Industrial hemp plants, on the other hand, are typically tall and consist mostly of their primary stalks, somewhat similar in appearance to bamboo.

The scale of farming hemp for each application is quite different as well, due mainly to market prices for cannabinoid-rich versus industrial hemp. Hemp grown for cannabinoid production is more lucrative, leading a cultivator in the Pacific Northwest to tell Hemp Benchmarks, “a [hemp] flower farm can get away with five or ten acres,” whereas industrial fiber crops require more acreage to be viable. Despite requiring a larger scale, one veteran cultivator says an industrial hemp crop is the “easiest form of hemp farming.”

Post-harvest, industrial hemp requires specialized equipment for decortication: the process of removing the plant’s fibrous exterior from the hurd, the plant’s woody inner stalk, for use as hemp fiber. While there has been more investment in the hemp decortication process, one veteran hemp cultivator based in the Mid-Atlantic states, who now advises other growers on hemp supply chain issues, is concerned that the nation’s hemp fiber sector suffers from a broken supply chain. “There’s a lot of raw material in the ground all over the U.S.,” he told Hemp Benchmarks. “There’s multiple decortication and manufacturing facilities around the U.S. now, but none of them are operating in a supply chain fashion.”

Creating a Long-Term Market

That lack of a functioning hemp fiber supply chain, he suggested, comes from investors and companies being reluctant to move forward without a large and established market. “The larger manufacturers aren’t going to switch material over to hemp [fiber] if they don’t feel comfortable that they’ll at least be able to produce a product in three years,” he added. “There’s enough hemp in the U.S. now, and there’s enough machines to do it.” He speculated that it will be necessary for larger buyers of hemp fiber to step in, in order to get the nascent supply chain up and running at scale.

He is also critical of some hemp industry advocates, who he said are not doing enough to create public and corporate interest in hemp fiber by helping to promote sustainable and innovative products, such as hempcrete and hemp paper, for example. That being said, he believes the hemp fiber market in the U.S. is “100% viable; we just have to get the ball rolling. There are a lot of opportunities now, more than in the past year, because of the different states that are coming on board with growing hemp.”

Hemp Industries Association Midwest Hemp Council National Hemp Association