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Ohio farmers still learning how best to grow, process, sell hemp a year into legal cultivation

Posted at 5:27 PM, Feb 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-03 19:40:06-05

CLEVELAND — Farmers and researchers across Ohio are learning some of the most basic agricultural information about hemp after the state’s first year of legal cultivation.

Unclear growing conditions coupled with unpredictable market forces mean even if farmers successfully grow a crop they sometimes don’t know much about, processing it into products that consumers can buy could be prohibitive to running a business.

“[Hemp] grows well in Ohio,” said Sano Ti Amo co-owner Karen DeLuca. “We had great success in our field even though it was an experimental field, but you need a place to take it.”

Hemp plants dry in a barn near an experimental field of hemp in Ohio.

She and her business partner Paul Ammoroso planted a three-quarter-acre hemp field during the first legal hemp growing season this past summer into fall. They experimented with a variety of hemp strands so that they’d be able to find out what might grow well in Ohio for their line of hemp pain relief products for humans and animals that are part of their Healing Heros with Horses non-profit.

“That actually worked out really well because some of them really did horrible,” said Ammoroso, referring to some of his strands.

Ammoroso and DeLuca have also been working with a network of other people working to build up the infrastructure in the hemp industry.

“From the seed to the harvest to the end product and also the regulation piece,” DeLuca said in an email. “They are making great strides with each of the end-use industries.”

Sano Ti Amo grower Morgan Rodehorst shows the first few steps of processing the hemp plants before they are turned into CBD oil.

Hemp and marijuana both come from the cannabis plant. The major difference between the two is the amount of THC, the compound that gets marijuana users “high” that each type of cannabis contains. Cannabis can only be Hemp when it has less than .3 percent THC, not enough to create any psychoactive effect.

Hemp proponents say that allows the plant to be used to make CBD products that treat pain and inflammation, among other ailments.

Ammoroso and DeLuca are generally happy with the return they got from their initial 1,000 plants, the state-minimum number for the roughly 200 cultivators who have permission to grow Hemp in Ohio. The problem starts, according to DeLuca and Ammoroso, when farmers harvest Hemp.

“There are not a lot of places to process it,” said DeLuca. “The infrastructure’s not there. The other businesses you need to support it is still forthcoming.”

Grinded hemp leaves sit in a bin waiting to be processed into CBD products.

It’s a problem that even experienced farmers might not have realized until it was time to apply to be a cultivator, if they saw how the hemp market fluctuated in other states, or until after they put hemp plants in the ground. After what farmers say was a lot of excitement before the hemp cultivation application process in 2020, fewer than 200 Ohio farmers received permission to grow hemp after 207 across the state applied.

Processors turn hemp flower into other products that people can buy, like oil, lotions, or edibles. But Ammoroso says Ohio’s Hemp program is so new that most processors are out of state and expensive, making farmers hesitant.

“They didn’t realize how much money they would have to invest themselves to turn it into products and that’s not how most farming happens,” said Ammoroso.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture says about 160 farmers planted hemp, but of the 2,076 acres approved for hemp growing last year, farmers used only 630 acres — that’s less than a third.

Ammoroso and DeLuca's experimental 3/4 acre field where they grew various forms of hemp is covered with a cover crop outside the growing season.

An Ohio Department of Agriculture spokesperson says the disparity might be because cultivators got much more land approved for hemp growing than they intended to use, at least for the first year.

The uncertainty about how to turn a hemp field into profit makes it an uphill battle for Ohio’s hemp industry to get stronger, especially when it revolves around a crop that has been illegal to grow for generations.

“That’s why we’re at this really fundamental stage in agronomy in trying to figure out what the crop needs,” said Central State University Research Assistant Professor of Natural Products Dr. Craig Schluttenhofer.

Sano Ti Amo hemp plants wait to be processed.

He and Dr. Brandy Phipps have received federal grants to learn more about how hemp plants impact the soil it grows in and how those products impact our bodies.

“We do not have the data about what is in these products to start with and, more importantly, what is in these products when they’re smoked or when they’re vaped,” said Dr. Phipps.

Despite the fact that the medical community has done little medical research about the impact of cannabis on the human body, hemp and CBD products are easy to buy at a variety of locations in Ohio.

The researchers say they don’t take a stance for or against hemp because they are filling in the knowledge gap for the federal government and farmers like Ammoroso and DeLuca.

“Our goal is to be part of the hemp industry in every form and fashion,” said DeLuca.

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