Illinois hemp farmers call market the 'Wild West': 'The sky is the limit'
Growing hemp, a plant that was illegal in the U.S. for more than 70 years, is now akin to the Wild West, two northern Illinois farmers said.
Once the 2018 federal farm bill legalized hemp, farmers across the state and country rushed to plant it. Growers were getting several hundred dollars per pound of biomass to produce cannabidiol oil, said Stacy McCaskill of Woodstock.
She and her wife run Hempstock Pharm on West South Street Road and began farming hemp in 2019.
With too many farmers planting hemp at first, "the market crashed ... and it crashed bad," McCaskill said. "Overnight, it became worthless."
There are not enough processors for growers and not enough buyers for crude CBD oil, she said.
Neither are there many processors turning hemp fiber into some of its uses -- textiles, biodegradable plastic, rope or paper -- Phil Montgomery of Kirkland said.
He runs AM and PM Hemp Farm with his wife, Amanda Montgomery.
Always a researcher, Montgomery said he got into hemp and CBD "for the health benefits" and decided to plant a few acres of hemp on their DeKalb County corn and soybean farm.
How many farmers have given hemp a try?
According to a February 2022 USDA report, in 2021 there were 255 acres of hemp planted in Illinois. Of that, 210 acres were harvested.
Across the country, 54,152 acres were planted in 2021, with 33,480 acres harvested, according to the USDA.
Some have had more success than others.
Since the Montgomerys planted their first 20-acre crop, Phil Montgomery has given up his day job to run their hemp business.
He hopes that Amanda also can leave her day job soon, Montgomery said.
McCaskill spends her days touting her line of CBD-infused products at county fairs, farmers markets and community festivals. On Saturdays, the Hempstock Pharm store is open at 4023 W. South Street Road.
A former executive director of the Sauk Valley Community College Small Business Development Center, McCaskill started researching how to promote and grow hemp shortly after legalization. She found workshops to learn about the plant and potential markets, becoming an evangelist for CBD and its uses.
Both Montgomery and McCaskill were selling products made from hemp grown on their farms during the McHenry County Fair.
McCaskill has 13 acres and just one planted with hemp, entirely for the CBD oil.
Montgomery has less than three acres in CBD hemp, and 17 acres they are growing for fiber.
"The sky is the limit" for what hemp fiber, and future markets for it, can do, he said.
"But the infrastructure is not there. That is the biggest hindrance to the fiber side," Montgomery said.
The "lack of processing bottlenecked the market," Phillip Alberti said. He is researching hemp for the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.
That bottleneck is evidenced by the difficulty in finding companies to distill hemp biomass into crude CBD oil or process the fiber, he said.
With the glut of CBD on the market, Alberti has seen a shift from cannabidiol hemp -- the plants processed as CBD oil -- and toward grain and fiber plants of industrial, Alberti said.
"There is more research and education funneled into that avenue of production," he said.
Fiber plants can be found in ditches around the country.
During World War II, the federal government allowed hemp farming to make rope. Plants escaped their fields and began to grow wild. Often called "ditch weed," states have spent decades trying to eradicate the plant, although it had very low to none of the THC that gives users a high.
"That is the stuff that we want to hold onto and put it in our program -- 70 years of natural selection and it thrived without human interaction," Alberti said.
The University of Illinois Extension service has planted a variety of trials to determine which plants do well here and published a Midwestern hemp database to help farmers decide which varietals to grow.
One potential use for hemp is animal feed, Alberti said.
Growers are waiting on the Food and Drug Administration to rule on whether or not that will be allowed use, he said.
There are market estimates that suggest "approval by the FDA for use as an animal feed would increase [hemp's] scope by fourfold," Alberti said.
But still, Montgomery said, there is a lot of misinformation about hemp, CBD oil and its relation to marijuana.
Both he and McCaskill use third-party testing to ensure their CBD-only products -- from roll-on lotions to pet treats -- have 0.3% or less THC as mandated by the federal government.
When CBD products began showing up in stores, there were "a lot of non-quality products" out there, he said. "They would claim to have CBD [in them] and don't" which left a bad impression on consumers.
Because of hemp's formerly illegal status, there was little research into the effectiveness of CBD oils for any ailments. FDA approval and additional research would change that, Montgomery said.
"I feel this is such a new thing, and there are a ton of questions. The war on drugs skewed perceptions and left it with a ton of stigma," McCaskill said.
"Fight the stigma ... it is about healing and a better alternative," she said.