Where Does the Hemp Fiber Sector Stand in 2023?

Where Does the Hemp Fiber Sector Stand in 2023?
Photo: Blue Sky Hemp Ventures
June 14, 2023

In 2022, fiber hemp was the only type to see year-on-year gains in planted acreage in the U.S., while production of cannabinoid and grain hemp contracted. Many stakeholders see fiber ultimately developing into the largest sector of the hemp industry, but significant hurdles remain. Still, for all the ongoing concerns about the economic pressures on the U.S. hemp market, two stakeholders in the hemp fiber industry remain optimistic and even excited about where their sector is heading, given enough time, research and development, and investment.

Local Declines Reported

Melissa Peterson is Managing Member at Global Fiber Processing. Headquartered in Nebraska, the company works with hemp farmers and processors. It also has a processing facility for hemp hurd and fiber. Its subsidiary, Formation Ag, develops industrial scale technologies for the hemp industry, from planting to decortication.

While business has been booming for the company, which expanded its processing facility in Colorado to two shifts last year, Peterson said she’s seen a local decline in hemp fiber planting this season. Her own company, she noted, has reduced its acreage of hemp fiber to around 830 acres this year, compared to 1,100 in 2022.

“It’s not easy in our area,” she told Hemp Benchmarks. “Moreso because we were running into issues with other commodity prices [being relatively high] and our regular farmers don’t want to be fingerprinted and background-checked,” a common complaint for those attempting to work with hemp’s regulatory restrictions.

A Better Picture, Nationally

William Brill is Vice President of Business Development at Hemp Processing Partners (HPP). The engineering company, based in Colorado, focuses on hemp flower, fiber, and grain separation and processing issues.

In an email to Hemp Benchmarks, and in contrast to Peterson’s outlook, Brill said he is seeing an increase in hemp fiber and grain production this year, compared to last season. “Definitely more acres going into the ground [versus] 2022,” he wrote. “One producer we spoke with last week has a 17% increase in the ground this year over last. We know [of] added acres in South Dakota, tests in Arizona, for example, that will be helpful.”

That increase, he said, is due to a wide variety of reasons. First off, according to Brill, the remaining surplus from the 2019 CBD hemp boom has finally been diminished, while the supply chain issues and other negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are also fading. Brill noted that HPP is “still processing floral hemp with dwindling inventories left over from 2019 – 2021 for hurd, bast fiber and we still do quite a bit with seed cleaning, sorting, and separating.”

There’s also been more information available to people in mainstream agriculture regarding hemp. “Farmers and the markets are more educated on the differences of fiber and grain versus flower,” he said. “Investors and entrepreneurs are more educated on the emerging markets that [industrial hemp] can develop into and / or replace products that are not as sustainable and climate friendly.”
Another important factor, according to Brill, was the approval of hempcrete and other hemp construction materials in late 2022, at a hearing overseen by the International Code Council. During that meeting in Kentucky, hempcrete was also included as an appendix in the 2024 International Residential Code, which governs U.S. residential building codes in 49 of the 50 states. Because of that change, Brill noted, architects have started to include hemp-related products into their designs and blueprints.

Plant Genetics an Ongoing Issue

Another big issue for hemp fiber stakeholders is selecting varieties with the genetics suited to creating a consistent and productive crop. Global Hemp Processing’s Peterson says her company is testing the Yuma variety this season, “because it yields a better stalk, a bigger stalk, for hurd.”

HPP’s William Brill said a growing number of producers are bringing more hemp fiber and grain-specific varieties to his company for research and development. In terms of the genetics hemp fiber cultivators are now using, Brill said that stable, approved fiber varieties like Futura, Yuma, and X59 are popular. “We actually need increases in production so we can continue our R&D,” he added. Brill also believes that the widespread use of longer hemp fiber varieties for use in textiles is “still a few seasons away” when it comes to the North American market.

“The test plots that are going on with many universities – New West Genetics, Global Hemp Association – to name just a few, [are] helping,” Brill said, “as they have been able to plant in different regions to gather specific regional and soil response data. More is still needed of course and I believe we will get there.”

The Need for More Infrastructure

Both Peterson and Brill acknowledged that the U.S. hemp fiber sector has a long way to go, and needs to catch up on a wide variety of fronts.

“We don’t have any U.S.-based genetics yet; we’re not even close to having enough processors,” Peterson said. “I think people get really frustrated with the pricing of other commodities and the fact that we’re not selling fiber at full scale. [That’s] stopping us from being able to really compete. I think the government needs to step in and help supplement that, because it’s coming out of our pockets. Investors want to see growth and movement. But then you get all these reports out there, talking about the decline in overall hemp acreage, which we all know includes CBD.”

According to Peterson, those needed changes are slowly underway. “One of the manufacturers I talked with asked me to put together what I think the next five years will look like in a proposal,” she said, “Because they are serious about it, and they are wanting to invest into the industry. We’re not even close to having enough [hemp fiber]. I mean, just for one of the projects that [our company] is working on, we would need a million acres and 2,000 processing facilities.”

“I was hopeful we would see a little more acreage this year in the USA.” Brill wrote, “but it will come. The pandemic and floral biomass crash along with politics and legislation has a way of delaying market expansion.”

Major Corporations Waiting in the Wings

One potential positive for hemp fiber’s future expansion is a growing consumer demand for more environmentally friendly and sustainable products. “We are constantly amazed at new applications that industry experts are applying their craft and resources to this plant as a solution for cleaner and more sustainable product applications,” Brill said. 

Peterson said that the hemp fiber industry is well-positioned for the future, especially as the federal government looks for the “eco-solutions that hemp can provide, as building material, [with] the amount of carbon sequestration.” She added that some major manufacturing companies, “corporations that you would recognize by their logos,” are focused intently on incorporating hemp fiber into their inventories. In the interim, she added, “I think everybody’s just got to hang tight, if they can.”

Peterson added that hemp fiber producers were hoping the textiles industries would lead the way for hemp fiber demand, “but we just don’t have the infrastructure to get it cleaned the way it needs to be for textiles.” However, she said, her company has been approached by a wide variety of companies and corporations about hemp fiber for potential use in car moldings, paper, to-go boxes, and other products.

For his part, “I’m just happy to be on this journey called industrial hemp,” Brill said. “We are making up for 80 years of prohibition [when] we could not work with the plant, and we are finally getting that long overdue opportunity. I firmly believe we are at the beginning of a five-decade business cycle, and that keeps us learning and excited to keep growing this global industry.”

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Hemp Industries Association Midwest Hemp Council National Hemp Association