ELKHART — Although lawmakers passed legislation earlier this year regulating the growth of industrial hemp, the work of creating a new crop and industry in Indiana has only just begun. 

Farmers and manufacturers alike are eager to get started. 

“Indiana has to be very careful with what it does, from a regulation standpoint – not to make it so disruptive that it’s not economically feasible,” Flexform of Elkhart CEO Greg Bambaugh said.

Flexform creates a high-end product using natural materials in lieu of fiberglass for the automotive industry. The company creates the substrate material such as door panel backings, rear package trays and car ceilings for companies such as Mercedes, BMW, Cadillac and Volkswagen.

Originally developed in Europe and Asia, hemp contains especially strong and durable fibers. Manufacturers like Flexform could use hemp in their products overseas but not in the United States. 

“In theory, by allowing the growing of hemp domestically, that should allow us to utilize the material,” Bambaugh said.

The company has been shipping jute from Southeast Asia and occasionally flax from Europe, both of which can present serious logistical issues.

“It would be much more convenient to pick up the phone and say, ‘I need a delivery tomorrow,’” he said. “These types of logistical issues can take up a lot of time and expense, whereas if you came into it domestically, you don’t have these problems anymore.”

For Flexform, hemp is the only local option.

“There is no equivalent material that is local,” he said. “We can buy material out of Europe, which is a little more expensive, or out of Southeast Asia, but then you’ve got logistical issues, political issues, even weather issues for that matter. It sure would be nice to have some alternatives.”

Luckily, northern Indiana might be one of the best places on the planet to grow industrial hemp.

During World War II, farmers in the area actively produced hemp for rope and other materials. But in the decades that followed, as science developed synthetic materials and lawmakers clamped down on marijuana, the tradition of hemp production ended. 

Modern farmers face a sharp learning curve as they begin planting their first crop of hemp at the end of this month.

One of the first in Indiana will be sixth-generation Millersburg farmer Aaron Rink.

“We have a responsibility to do this right and to prove to our legislators that we are doing this the right way,” he said. “If we screw this up, it looks bad for the whole industry.”

Laws for farmers related to hemp growth are stringent, but they’re designed to keep the psychoactive chemical THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, out of the crop. Levels of THC, tetrahydrocannabinol, increase in the hemp plant when temperatures get too high, for example. 

Farmers this year are growing hemp for industrial purposes or for the medicinal industry, where CBD has become a hot commodity.

“My first exposure to (hemp) was during the Indiana legalization of CBD oil,” Rink said. “It was a first for me. I learned where it came from, why it was so popular, what it does for people and the healing benefits of it. When I found out it was derived from the hemp plant, it piqued my curiosity as a product that we could potentially grow on our farm.”

Farmers will have to follow many laws surrounding their hemp crop, though, including gaining one of 100 special licenses to grow it, offering exact GPS coordinates of where the crop will grow, and partnering with a laboratory that will buy and process their product for their chosen niche.

Rink is risking a lot in choosing to grow hemp this year. Nearly 200 acres on his 700-acre corn and soybean farm will be replaced with a product he has never grown before, and without the tools he needs – including an industrial dryer, a special bailer and a mower – but he hopes the initial cost will be worth the risk.

“The commodity prices of corn and soy are pretty dismal,” he said. “It doesn’t give a farmer a lot to look forward to. Part of this whole thing, doing and learning hemp, is so that we can learn from our mistakes, fine tune it and become a resource for other farmers that see this as a way to save their farms. Giving farmers the option of something else they can grow is important to not only me but the whole farming community. We’re putting a lot into this. We’re going to give this everything we have to be successful.”

The 2018 Farm Bill forced states that hadn’t done so already to begin considering the production of hemp as a lawful industry or take on the federal government’s new hemp law. In Indiana, several senators were already fighting for agricultural hemp, including Sen. Blake Doriot, R-Syracuse, who co-authored Senate Bill 516, created by Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport.

“Here we’ve got this product that we can use but we can’t grow in Indiana,” Doriot said of the legislation following CBD legalization last summer. “We grew over 70,000 acres during World War II and Korea for fiber products. It has a vast usage and in colonial times you were suppose to raise hemp because it was used for so many things like clothing and medicine.”

Doriot said confusion began circulating in the 1920s and 1930s around the differences between hemp and marijuana.

“The plant is basically the same except for one molecule, which is THC, which is very low or entirely absent in the hemp plant,” he said. 

To ensure THC in the plants remains low, farmers like Rink, with help from heat-detecting drones, will have to separate male plants from female plants in order to keep CBD levels high and THC levels low.

They’ll also have to pay attention to the length of growth. The longer a plant stays in the ground, the more THC can develop, and if plants get too much THC, they’ll have to be destroyed.

Doriot didn’t seem to concerned about that, though, even adding that Indiana lawmakers might be overregulating hemp’s growth, as the law allows for only 0.3 percent THC within a hemp plant, while strains in Colorado are boasting nearly 30 percent.

“There’s no way anybody is ever going to get high on hemp,” Doriot said. “This bill has morphed into a much bigger animal than I thought it had to be, but that’s sometimes what you have to do to get things through.”

The future of industrial hemp in Indiana remains to be seen, though, as despite the recent progress in the Senate, regulations are still being developed through the Indiana Hemp Advisory Committee, which will sunset July 1, 2021.

“I’m glad that this bill has passed,” Flexform’s Bambaugh said, “but now the real work starts.”

Bambaugh is patiently waiting for the day when Indiana hemp is processed so his company can use it. Indiana is behind nearby states like Kentucky and Tennessee, which have been growing hemp since 2014 and 2015 and developing new and better ways to process hemp so it can be used for more purposes.

“I think there is going to be some growing this year, but I think it will take several years before you get processors in a place where you can take that material that’s grown and have it processed in a way that we can use it,” he said.

The process is not inexpensive, but Indiana farmers are ready to invest.

“You’ve got to start somewhere, and this is where we’re starting,” Rink said.

By the end of September, maybe even in August, farmers will determine how their first crop of Indiana industrial hemp has fared.

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