Harvesting Hemp in Colorado – The Birth of a New Industry?

By Ben Henderson
Glenwood Springs, CO
November 1st, 2013

Harvesting Hemp in Colorado – The Birth of a New Industry? 

Industrial hemp has great potential, but will require new processing and manufacturing facilities 

The first hemp harvest is underway in Colorado.  At only 55 acres, this harvest is more symbolic than a true reflection of the supply required for a potential new industry.  The big question is now that hemp is being grown in the state, what can our farmers expect to do with their crops?  Who will purchase them?  Who will process them?  What applications will hemp be readily available for?   

If industrial hemp is going to be successful in the US, we should first pause and look towards the mistakes the Canadians have made the 17 years since they introduced hemp.  While Canada is successfully growing hemp, the only viable Canadian product is seed oil, which wastes 80% of hemp’s raw materials.  

After nearly two decades of hemp farming and tens of millions invested in the industry, why aren’t we seeing more products from Canada’s hemp harvests?  When will we see this plant to produce its 25,000 known uses?   What exactly is holding us back?  Put simply, we lack the manufacturing infrastructure and the knowledge to transfer industrial hemp into suitable interim materials for product developers at industrial scale.  

After nearly a century-long ban, even our ability to produce rough hemp for rope and cordage is essentially lost.  However, advances in modern day farming and processing can now be applied to hemp production for the first time, providing an even greater natural resource than was previously available in the early 20th century.  New machinery, harvesting processes, grading requirements, and other systems will need to be advised and uniformly followed so that hemp can be introduced into the modern marketplace. 

While limited hemp production is seen as the single factor holding back the industry, a grading system for hemp-based materials for commercial applications has never been developed but will be available soon.  Without a verifiable grading system that includes stringent testing comparable to existing building materials testing, hemp will have a very limited adoption rate within industries where it should thrive.  For example, sustainable building materials provide a broad and encompassing use for industrial hemp, but are very much a niche industry at the moment.  

EnviroTextiles, a pioneering hemp company in Colorado, is completing a system for grading hemp for industrial applications.  Properly grading and testing hemp products is essential for commercial adoption to meet existing building codes requirements.  

In addition to grading, the exact machinery to produce these new materials does not yet exist for large scale commercial applications.  Modifications will need to be made to existing machinery to alter the raw hurd to manufacturer’s specifications.  EnviroTextile’s technicians are finalizing a suite of custom machinery suited to process hemp materials accordingly to the newly designed grading specifications.  

A primary base material for building applications is hemp hurd.  The hurd is the inner core of the stalk, a woody material that should be free of the outer skin (bast fiber) before it is ready for processing.  The hurd is typically broken down into small chunks for animal bedding as this process is cheap and requires no special equipment.  This process is very rough, similar to a pulse blast with a food processor, producing odd sizes and shapes of hurd that often still contains some or all of the fiber from the skin in the final product. 

Hurd can potentially be used for thousands of products once it is available to manufacturers as a standardized material for their applications.  Manufacturers will then be able to purchase the grade required for their product development, from larger hurd for items such as pressed wall board, to extremely fine grains for plastic composites. 

Barbara Filippone, founder of EnviroTextiles, is currently working with Canada to develop a grading system consisting of several grades grades of value added raw materials suited for multiple applications. 

 If hemp is to gain status as a commodity level base material, the hemp industry must overcome the processing and manufacturing requirements immediately.  Processing machinery, grading systems, and infrastrucutre must all be put into place in order to provide proof of concept that hemp can be a profitable crop which serves stable, significant markets.  Only then will farmers recognize the incentive to plant industrial hemp so that it can be properly introduced into the marketplace and compete with existing products and base materials.  

A note about hemp textiles and fabrics – Utilizing hemp fiber for fabrics has been done for thousands of years, and many hemp enthusiasts are excited to start production in the US.  Unfortunately, depending on the species of hemp planted, only 15% (maximum) of the plant is usable fiber.  After processing, only 5-7% of the fiber remaining will result in finished fabric.   The process from field to fabric includes harvesting, retting, inspection, degumming, spinning into yarn, the entire process of weaving, dye and finishing, and then final inspection.  The viability of hemp for fabric and textile production in the US is not going to be an option for the foreseeable future.  China and Eastern Europe will remain the two sources for hemp textiles.