A new series of tests involving 10 hemp fiber varieties, taking place at ten different locations around the United States, are expected to yield an unprecedented trove of information that could have a long-term impact on the hemp fiber industry’s future.
The trials, commissioned by the Global Hemp Association (GHA), began earlier this year, with their results expected to be published in mid-December. “I kept hearing over and over again from businesses in the industry [that had] a need for better data, or more consistent, better-collected data,” Mandi Kerr, GHA founder and CEO, told Hemp Benchmarks. “Data that could be presented across multiple states or regions, and that stands [up to] peer review. Also I kept hearing from the USDA and people around [hemp] policy for this need for understanding differences in the crop, around fiber and grain … . So we went in and focused on the fiber and grain production so we can look at harvesting, THC levels, and the differences for testing and policy, as well.”
The field trials have been overseen by Melissa Nelson, a field scientist and owner of Performance Crop Research, an independent crop research facility in central Kansas. She is also the co-owner of South Bend Industrial Hemp, a hemp fiber and grain-focused farmer group and processing operation. Nelson activated Kerr’s mission to conduct hemp fiber trials across the U.S.
“I’m really trying to collect the reputable data that farmers, processors, manufacturers were calling for,” Nelson told Hemp Benchmarks. “So we sat down and we, with a team, found 10 locations in 10 different states that we felt really represented the fiber industry, whether that be end users or large-scale acres that we knew fiber could be extremely productive, and allow farmers to really scale and diversify their farming operations. Places where we knew farmers could be productive, particularly the Midwest.”
The trials also used other independent crop researchers, found through the National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants, “because validity was extremely important to Mandi and I. And so we wanted research scientists doing this, and we wanted it to be done at the highest level possible.”
The project used ten hemp fiber varieties, using a mix of AOSCA (Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies)-certified seed and non-certified but high-performing seed, planted at the industry standard of 900,000 seeds per acre. Nelson said they used “reputable” seed sources and “did third-party testing to the seed before it even went out … so everything was done top notch. And then we sent these to each of the locations, so that way we knew consistency from batch to batch, exactly what seed they were getting. Our scientists were asked to all collect the same data, so that way we could really get an apples-to-apples comparison across the country and find what varieties really perform well.”
While the field trials are still ongoing, with some states still harvesting or preparing to harvest their hemp fiber varieties, Kerr said they had successful results with all ten hemp varieties planted. “Some regions did better, some simply because of the weather,” she noted. “Texas in some areas had massive rains and then shot to 110 degree temperatures. North Carolina had hurricanes, and there were some areas where pesticides and herbicides were in play due to surrounding crops. But none of the data we collected failed. We received fabulous data … that nobody had before, that wasn’t published.”
Nelson noted that other grain crops, such as corn and soybeans, have had decades of research and breeding to perfect factors such as consistent genetics and yields, while the legal hemp fiber industry is still in its infancy. “That’s what we’re doing,” she said, “We have to lay that foundation. They’ve been studying corn breeding since the 1860s. We started in 2020. We will get to that point and, because of the technology we have compared to what they had when they started corn breeding, we will get there faster. But it takes groups like crop research organizations to really lay that foundation and let this data be picked apart by a scientific community, because that’s what you want.“
As with all hemp, there are concerns that the crops could go “hot,” i.e., contain THC levels above the legal limit of 0.3% THC. According to Nelson every test sample in the trials went through the same sampling procedures for THC, which in turn created some interesting new questions.
“We did have a couple of locations that had a variety go hot,” she said. “It’s funny, because in other locations that variety did not go hot. When we get those final reports, that’s when you really dig into your soil, you dig into your weather, and see if you can find the correlation as to why that variety performed the way it did.”
GHA raised $100,000 through sponsors for the hemp fiber field trials. Kerr said those sponsors are currently receiving monthly updates from each of the 10 different locations. “Once the final harvest is done, then we have about 30 days to compile data, and then it is released to GHA members and our sponsors,” she added. GHA has also applied for more grant funding, for future three and five-year studies on hemp fiber. “This is the baseline to future studies, and bigger studies,” Kerr said. “This study gives us an opportunity to compare consistent data across multiple regions.”
Nelson is proud of the trials, noting that the hemp fiber report from her research facility in Kansas was 22 pages long. “We’ve put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this thing,” she said. “We really believe in this thing and have already started writing protocols for 2023. Mandi has a very clear vision of what she’s trying to accomplish.”
Kerr also expects the hemp fiber trials will help improve pricing across the industry. “As we improve scale and give more farmers and processors more knowledge about what grows where, it allows us to set standards of operation and practices,” she continued. “This trial itself is year one, remembering that [the] corn and soybean [industries] still do trials like this each year, even 60 years later.”