ST. CLOUD — The number of hemp growers in Minnesota increased from six to 343 since it became legal to grow industrial hemp five years ago.
Whitney Place, assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, called those growers “pioneers” at a conference in St. Cloud on Tuesday.
“A lot of the people in this room really took a chance,” Place said. “And they’re building an industry from scratch.”
As the industry grows, there is an increasing need for hemp processors — businesses that can convert the versatile plant into fiber, food, fuel, feed for animals as well as CBD, or cannabidiol, products.
Recent changes in federal regulations free up the movement of hemp seed, cannabis plants and processed hemp products across state lines.
It is an exciting time for hemp, with upcoming challenges and opportunities, said Joe Radinovich, executive director of the Minnesota Hemp Association, which put on the Minnesota Hemp Conference and Expo Tuesday.
The event drew about 450 farmers, processors, retailers and other supporting business reps to the River’s Edge Convention Center in St. Cloud.
Environmental activist and hemp grower Winona LaDuke brought what she believes is the first hemp rope produced in the state in 70 years, made with hemp from her farm on the White Earth reservation in northwest Minnesota.
“From my perspective this plant is magical. It’s a magical plant,” LaDuke said during her speech at the conference.
Every part of the plant can be used for different products.
What can you build with hemp?
Todd Mathewson wants to see hemp building blocks constructed in Minnesota.
Mathewson is a regional sales representative for the Canadian company BioFiber Solutions, which will open a facility in Alberta, Canada, to build the modular building blocks with hemp.
They look like big Legos and fit together in the same way. They’re mold resistant, non-toxic and sequester carbon, according to Mathewson’s presentation.
“My personal goal is to have Minnesota be the first production facility in the U.S.,” Mathewson said.
Minnesota could also follow the lead of a company in Kentucky and use hemp to make “classy flooring,” said Harold Stanislawski, project development director for the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute.
“Oak is out; hemp is in,” Stanislawski said.
The Agricultural Utilization Research Institute published a report this fall on the future of the hemp industry in the state.
And the institute bought a hemp decorticator to help entrepreneurs with research and development, Stanislawski said.
A decorticator separates the fibers of the hemp stalk, and they’re expensive.
How can hemp become fabric?
Looking for a decorticator is like looking for a unicorn, said LaDuke.
Minnesota used to be home to 11 hemp mills, LaDuke said. But there aren’t any now.
LaDuke got a decorticator in China and has used it to process some of her crop.
She doesn’t want to make boutique products from hemp fabric, she said. She wants to see hemp production scaled up in Minnesota so that hemp could be used for canvas boat covers rather than blue plastic wraps.
She wants to see hemp clothing made here, rather than in China.
LaDuke became interested in hemp because of her activism with water issues. Hemp uses a fifth of the water that cotton requires, and it’s natural compared to the petroleum fibers in synthetic fabrics.
Processing hemp into fabric provides an opportunity to work together, LaDuke said.
“We’re going to need some co-ops,” LaDuke said. “Not everyone needs a decorticator.”