VERSAILLES – One interesting nugget to come out of the 2019 Indiana General Assembly was the go-ahead to legally produce hemp in the Hoosier state.
Jim Benham, owner of a 500-acre farm in southern Ripley County's Brown Township, was one of a few dozen producers statewide who got the memo.
"Hemp is the buzzword," states Benham, a lifelong farmer who, as president of the Indiana Farmers Union, serves on the board of the National Farmers Union.
"(The IFU's) hemp chapter hosted a meet-and-greet and the place was full," he adds. "Margins are the driving force, people trying to make a living by farming on a small scale. This is an opportunity. How long it will last, I don't know, but it's here."
Similar bills had popped up in the past, he explains, but with them came negative pushback. In the general public's eye, the product is most closely associated with the federally-banned cannabis, a drug gaining in legality on a state-by-state basis. One stipulation in the new market is that plants may not exceed .03 percent of THC levels, the psychoactive element contained in cannabis.
"It's really difficult to educate folks that hemp is different," explains Benham, married to Donetta with three daughters and six grandchildren. "I haven't found medical folks anywhere with real objections to it. The governor will be appointing folks to make rules for the product. A drawback is, the Legislature has good intentions, but too often the leaders have no agriculture background."
For almost every Hoosier – approximately 60 licenses were initially issued – starting this venture, there are a number of unknowns. The first question to be decided is which form of the plant to grow, whether for the more lucrative option of extracting CBD oil (cannabidoil), the processing of fiber (approximately $700 return per acre), or harvesting of seeds.
"It's going to be a year of learning," Benham acknowledges. "We have to figure out exactly what's required to make it work. I chose fiber, the cheapest and simplest to raise. My hope is, as they develop more products for fiber, the demand will go up."
He admits the CBD route is where the money is ... for now.
"A farmer could gross $10,000 per acre," says Benham, semiretired and supplementing his ag income through a real estate business. "It's all the crave now, but, like in Colorado where more people growing marijuana makes it less attractive, I do think the market will flood with CBD oil at some point."
He also points out several unproven variables in CBD production.
"There's a lot of physical labor for what you're trying to achieve," he notes. "You have a small window to harvest and get the plants into the barn, where you have to keep them from hanging too close, keep mildew off and strip the leaves without damaging the bud.
"What I find most shocking is with the big profit margin, I've seen people wanting to raise 1,500-2,500 acres of hemp and never farmed in their life," he goes on. "That's a learning curve that won't go away. Each farm is different and you better understand your soil and its drainage, along with Mother Nature."
The first part of Benham's own trial has come without errors to date.
First, he had to go through a brief licensing period as the state and Purdue University reviewed his application. Next, a contract was signed with Sunstrand Sustainable Materials, Milton, Kentucky. The firm provided the seeds and will reenter on the back end to purchase the finished product.
"You spread it like soybeans," Benham describes. "We mixed with fertilizer as an application and used a fertilizer spreader, then came back with a rolling basket and filled it in. That worked really well."
The 10-acre field was sown May 8, with initial costs from nitrogen, phosphate, potash fertilizer and micronutrients. No sprays are needed as weed control is minimal. The plan is to use a sickle bar mower to reap the plants Aug. 29. A monthlong retting period follows, in which the plants lie in place to allow moisture to soften the fibers. Benham likens it to bamboo.
"This is all about the stem," he details. "What I know about the processing plant, they strip all the silk from the inner part. That's what's used to make rope or weave into clothing. Actually, there are 120 uses for the product right now, including structure wood, hempcrete and pressboard."
Ideally, the plants will grow to a height of 10-12 feet, depending on where they're situated.
"A deciding factor is how well drained your soil is," he says with a look at the smaller sprouts languishing in June's puddles. "If you have a level field that lays wet, it can stunt growth. Some are waist high, but in the wetness only 5-6 inches."
Historically, according to Benham, Indiana had a thriving hemp industry before it was outlawed. During World War II, the state was a leading producer for ropes used in shipmaking.
But that's the ancient past and producers are banking on the future.
"The concern we always have in ag is supply and demand," the farmer offers. "If we produce a little too much, it's absolutely devastating. If you produce a little less, you'll get a fair price. Somewhere there needs to be production limitations in order to stabilize the market.
"Long term, it can be a win-win for farmers," he points out, "as you take enough acreage out of corn and soybeans to have more demand for those as well. The most exciting part is it's been so many years since we had return on investment with commodities."
Benham lives in the homestead originally built by his grandfather in the 1800s. Every generation since, he says, has added acreage to the farm. One of his major contributions was the production of tobacco for about a 30-year period that ceased early this decade.
Now, in 2019, he still holds the license for all 500 acres, but rents out segments to other farming families. A son-in-law was a vital partner for the better part of 30 years, but tragically suffered a fatal heart attack during the 2018 planting season.
"Farming has its advantages," he reflects. "It's a stressful, but good life. You can get most of your work done in six weeks or so and have time for leisure. But the most stressful part is your whole income is based on those six weeks, and every (additional) day that goes by give you a lesser chance of getting optimal yield.
"It's an honorable life," he concludes, "rewarding in the respect you're doing something good for the country."
Will Fehlinger can be contacted at email@example.com or 812-934-4343, Ext. 112.