Hemp Fiber – Finding Value in the Supply Chain

Progress report for ONE22-410

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2022: $29,465.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2024
Grant Recipient: University of Vermont Extension
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Dr. Heather Darby
University of Vermont Extension
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Project Information

Project Objectives:

This project seeks to develop hemp production practices that produces fiber suitable for a variety of markets. The benefits to farmers are improved fiber yield and quality and ultimately higher profitability.

Objective 1. Identify hemp varieties that maximize fiber yield. If successful, growers will be able to select varieties that help them reduce inputs and maximize yields.

Objective 2. To identify best harvest dates for optimizing fiber yield and quality. If successful, growers will adopt appropriate harvest windows to maximize yield and quality.

Objective 3. To evaluate the effect of different field retting durations on the properties of hemp fiber in Vermont’s climate. If successful, growers will become effective in identifying proper retting duration required to produce higher quality fiber.

These research and education objectives will result in the development of best management practices delivered to farmers and end- users through an extensive outreach program. The outreach materials will be delivered via guides, videos, web-based resources, and outreach events.

Introduction:

While the market for hemp flower and cannabidiol (CBD) products has developed rapidly in the Northeast, the market for fiber from the hemp stalks has had a much slower start. This is due in part to CBD oil from flowers commanding a much higher value than fiber from stalks.  In addition, significant investment is required to setup processing infrastructure to take the stems and convert it to fiber components that can be used in manufacturing.  However, a new processing facility was recently purchased and developed by Zion Growers (https://ziongrowers.com) in St. Johnsbury, VT with start-up planned for summer of 2022. These are promising signs for Vermont’s nascent hemp fiber market which is poised to participate in this new marketplace.  According to Hemp Industry Daily’s 2021 projections, “the USA hemp fiber market –a broad category that includes textiles as well as bast fibers and hurd products such as bioplastics, animal bedding and hempcrete – will grow from $209 million in 2020 to $482 million in 2025, a compound annual growth rate of 18%.” 

As hemp fiber markets start to emerge farmers are beginning to explore this new opportunity. In Vermont last year 2021, five farmers registered for growing hemp for fiber or grain, and this year 2022, twelve farms are registered to produce hemp fiber. Moreover, several more farmers are considering growing hemp for fiber since the start-up of Zion Growers. Zion Growers plans to process 500 acres of hemp in 2022 with hopes to expand to a thousand acres in 2023. Fiber product generated by Zion Growers will be sold into a variety of manufacturing channels including bedding and building materials.

The problem this project will address is the lack of region-specific hemp fiber agronomic and harvest information available to help the farmers adopt this new crop and meet the market requirements. At the 2022 UVM Hemp Conference, over half of the 202 attendees participated in the sessions focused on fiber production. When surveyed as to their top needs to successfully grow hemp, one farmer responded “I need to know everything! What varieties to plant, when and how to plant, and how to harvest.”? Of those responding to the post-event survey, 66% wanted more information on specific varieties and pest management options, 48% fertility requirements, and 98% were concerned about harvest equipment, timing, and retting of the crop. Although the needs of the farming community were diverse, it was clear harvesting was perceived as a major obstacle by nearly all the farmers.

Harvesting or cutting the fiber is actually very easy and only requires a sickle bar mower. However once mowed the material must be left in the field to rot also known as retting. One of the major processing steps that determines overall fiber quality is retting. Retting can be done by different techniques that each have their own advantages and disadvantages. The most economical technique is in-field retting. Moisture and microbes in the field degrade connective structures between the hemp fibers allowing them to be easily separated once they reach the processing plant. Retting duration is also of importance because under retting can result in fibers that are hard to extract or fibers that are very thick, making fine textile production very difficult. Over retting is also possible. This will damage the structural integrity and strength of the fiber themselves by degrading the cellulose in the fiber. On top of these factors, hemp cultivars, timing of harvest, and growing conditions greatly influence the fiber yield and quality of the plants as well. Once retting is complete the hemp stalks can be baled with a typical round baler found on many Vermont dairy farms.

Over the past 3 years, Dr. Darby and her team have been investigating hemp varieties suitable for fiber. A range of yields have been observed depending on the variety and the year. In 2021, the average fiber yield was 9,732 lbs of dry matter per acre. However, yields ranged from 7,549 to 13,225 lbs of dry matter per acre. This study did not determine fiber quality but clearly indicates that variety selection is an important factor to maximize yield.

This project proposes to continue evaluating varieties suitable for hemp fiber production in the region to help farmers maximize yield and quality. An additional critical research component is to begin to develop information and tools to help farmers learn about in-field retting and gain skills to know when the process is complete. There is currently no information available on average duration that hemp needs to ret in the Vermont climate. Video, photo guides, and visual ques will be documented as well as fiber chemical qualities to help farmers become more familiar with this critical aspect of fiber production. Lastly, research to determine trade-offs in fiber quality from harvesting at different plant maturities will allow farmers to balance their workload and meet fiber market needs. Extensive outreach and education provided through interactive events will further build farmer knowledge on the infrastructure, equipment, and fiber quality specifications required in hemp manufacturing.

 Our project will contribute to the Northeast SARE’s outcome statement: “Agriculture in the Northeast will be diversified and profitable, providing healthful products to customers. Farmers and the people they work with will steward resources to ensure sustainability and resilience, and foster conditions where farmers can have high quality of life and communities can thrive” by:

  1. Helping farmers build skills and knowledge to successfully add hemp fiber to their farm.
  2. Helping farmers meet the specifications of a value-added market.
  3. Helping farmers grow a crop that is known to have sustainable attributes and produce sustainable fiber product alternatives.
  4. Contributing agricultural product to a growing industry that will also help to build rural communities.

 

 

 

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Alex Escher - Technical Advisor
  • Susan Hodgson (Educator)
  • Steve Kostell (Educator and Researcher)
  • Mark Mordasky - Producer
  • Roger Rainville - Producer
  • Travis Samuels - Technical Advisor (Educator)
  • Stephanie Smith - Technical Advisor (Educator)

Research

Materials and methods:

REPORT 2022 - The project was initiated on September 1, 2022 so thus far little has been completed thus far in terms of research. However, winter months will be used for organizing research for 2023.

This project seeks to evaluate numerous components of hemp fiber production systems including varietal selection, fiber harvest timing, and in-field retting duration. In 2022, an in-field weather station was setup to record temperature, humidity, and precipitation throughout the project period.

Hemp Fiber Variety Evaluation Trial

Objective 1. Identify hemp varieties that maximize fiber yield. If successful, growers will be able to select varieties that help them reduce inputs and maximize yields.

Hypothesis: If growers select varieties best adapted to Vermont, then hemp fiber yield and quality will be maximized.

A hemp fiber variety trial will evaluate available cultivars and their suitability for fiber in the Vermont climate. The trial will be conducted in 2023 at Borderview Farm and the experimental design will be randomized complete block (RCBD) with four replications. An approximate 10-15 varieties of hemp suitable for fiber production will be secured from seed companies. Varieties considered dual purpose and fiber specific will be considered. Soil tests will be taken to determine fertility needs and amendments incorporated prior to planting. Planting will occur in late-May at a seeding rate of 40 seeds sq ft and plots will be 5’x20’.

Early season data to be collected includes time to emergence, germination rate, and early season stand counts. Pest scouting will be conducted every two weeks through harvest. Ten adjacent plants will be scouted within each plot. Plants will be evaluated for incidence (number affected) and severity (% total damage) for each of the diseases and arthropod pests observed. Diseases that will be evaluated include foliar leafspots, powdery mildew, gray mold, caused by Botrytis cinerea, hemp canker or white mold Sclerotinia sclerotiorum. Arthropod pests that will be evaluated include aphids, spider mites, leafhoppers and corn borer. These pests have been prevalent in the cool humid northeast, but others may be present and will be noted.

Just prior to harvest plant height and stem diameter from 10 plants per plot will be recorded. These plants will be cut and removed from the field to determine bast and hurd fiber content for each variety. The 10 plants will be weighed and passed through a small-scale decorticator (built by Roger Rainville at Borderview Farm). The weight of the bast fiber will be recorded and the weight of the hurd will be determined by subtracting the total weight – bast fiber weight of the 10 plants. From this information the percentage of bast versus hurd fibers will be calculated for each variety.

Final stand counts will be made in a square meter and the number of male and female plants recorded. Hemp plots will be mowed when the male plants are in full-flower and/or the female plants just begin flowering. Varieties will be harvested with a walk behind BCS sickle bar mower when they reach the proper maturity. Plants will be collected, weighed, and a 5-plant subsample taken for dry matter and yield determination.

Hemp Fiber Harvest Timing Trial

Objective 2. To identify best harvest timing for optimizing fiber yield and quality.

Hypothesis: If growers harvest timely fiber yield and quality will be maximized.

The trial will be conducted in 2023 at Borderview Farm and the experimental design will be randomized complete block (RCBD) with split plots and four replications. Two hemp varieties (Bialobrzeski and Futura 75) will be planted as main plots. Hemp harvest timing starting from full male flower an occurring every two weeks until seed maturity will serve as the split plots.  Soil tests will be taken to determine fertility needs and amendments incorporated prior to planting. Planting will occur in late-May at a seeding rate of 40 seeds sqft and split plots will be 5’x20’.

Just prior to each harvest time plant height and stem diameter from 10 plants per plot will be recorded. These plants will be cut and removed from the field to determine bast and hurd fiber content for each variety as described above.

Final stand counts will be made in a square meter and the number of male versus female plants recorded. Plots will be harvested with a walk behind BCS sickle bar mower, plants will be collected, weighed, and a 5-plant subsample take for dry matter determination and chemical analysis.

Chemical analysis of the fiber will be conducted by DairyOne laboratory in Ithaca, NY with the methods described by Van Soest et al. (1991). Hemp fiber will be sent for wet chemistry analysis for various fiber components that influenced by variety and maturity including lignin, cellulose, hemicellulose, and pectins.

Hemp Fiber Retting Duration Trial

Objective 3. To evaluate the effect of different field retting durations on the properties of hemp fiber in Vermont’s climate.

Hypothesis: If growers become effective in identifying proper retting duration fiber quality will be optimal for the available markets.

The trial will be conducted in 2023 at Borderview Farm (Alburgh, VT) and Mordaksy Farm (Brandon, VT) and the experimental design will be randomized complete block (RCBD) with split plots and four replications. Two hemp varieties (Bialobrzeski and Futura 75) will be planted as main plots. Hemp retting duration will include 0, 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, and 42 days after harvest will serve as the split plots.  Soil tests will be taken to determine fertility needs and amendments incorporated prior to planting. Planting will occur in late-May at a seeding rate of 40 seeds sqft and split plots will be 5’x20’.

Each variety will be mowed at optimal harvest maturity as determined by male and female flowering periods with a walk behind BCS sickle bar mower. Plants harvested were turned regularly (once a week) on the ground to homogenize the retting of the stems.

After harvesting, weekly manual collection of the samples during retting will occur. At the time of sampling, plant biomass will be collected, weighed, and a sample taken for dry matter determination. As described above 10-plants will be removed from the field to determine bast and hurd fiber content for each retting duration. The color of the retted hemp will be photographed and documented using the D1925 yellowness index system developed by the American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM). To limit variability, 10 stems measuring at least 1-meter in length will be collected for further chemical analysis. Chemical analysis of the fiber will be conducted by DairyOne laboratory in Ithaca, NY with the methods described by Van Soest et al. (1991). Hemp fiber will be sent for wet chemistry analysis for various fiber components that influenced by variety and maturity including lignin, cellulose, hemicellulose, and pectins. Retting duration will be considered optimum when the cellulose increase halts and possibly starts to decrease (Liu et la., 2015).

Mixed model analysis will be calculated using the mixed procedure of SAS (SAS Inst., 2008). All treatment factors in this experiment will be considered fixed with the exception of replicates. Mean separation among treatments will be obtained using the Least Significant Difference procedure when significant F-tests (P<0.10) are observed. Data will be interpreted into short farmer friendly research reports and other outreach materials.

 

 

 

Research results and discussion:

Research planning and organization will occur during the winter of 2023. Research will be initiated starting in the field season of 2023 and repeated in 2024.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

5 Consultations
1 Published press articles, newsletters

Participation Summary:

100 Farmers participated
30 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

REPORT 2022- As the project is just starting little progress has been made on outreach and education. Planning for the 2023 Hemp Conference is complete and it will be hosted on February 23, 2023. It will be a daylong virtual conference with a strong focus on fiber production.The final 2023HempConference Agenda is posted on https://www.uvm.edu/extension/nwcrops/2023-industrial-hemp-conference.

In addition, a blog post has been made on shifting regulations.

9/19/22 

Sunsetting of Vermont's Hemp Program and the Transitioning to the U.S. Domestic Hemp Production Program 

https://blog.uvm.edu/outcropn/2022/09/19/sunsetting-of-vermonts-hemp-program-and-the-transitioning-to-the-u-s-domestic-hemp-production-program/  

Dr. Darby’s extension program reaches a diverse group of farmers throughout the region. The team maintains a blog, social media presence, YouTube Channel and website that are all significant resources of information for farmers. All materials developed in conjunction with this project will be distributed through these web platforms.  In addition, in-person educational events will be hosted to further educate farmers on growing hemp for fiber. A detailed list of outreach deliverables is listed below.

Northwest Crops and Soils website (www.uvm.edu/extension/nwcrops) receives approximately 28,000 hits per year.

Outcroppings Blog ( http://blog.uvm.edu/outcropn) with 2,793 subscribers.

YouTube site (https://www.youtube.com/user/cropsoilsvteam) with 4,243 subscribers.

Facebook –(https://www.facebook.com/uvmcropsoil) with 2,900 followers.

Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/uvm_nwcropsoil/)  945 followers.

 

There will be 6 postings to our Outcroppings Blog to highlight the project, announce events, and project results.

A Hemp Fiber Production Guide will include general information on hemp growth, agronomics, pest management, harvest, retting, and storage considerations. 

A photo-instructive guide on hemp retting in the Northeast will be developed to accompany the video and information in the Hemp Fiber Production Guide.

Research reports will be generated at the end of the season from each experiment conducted.

Develop 3 short YouTube video on fiber hemp harvest, the retting process, and the making hempcrete bricks and/or building a wall assembly with hempcrete.

The Annual UVM Industrial Hemp Conference will highlight current research and hemp fiber production information will be presented by the team, industry and farmers. This event draws over 200 attendees.

The UVM Crop and Soil Field Day will be held at Borderview Farm. Workshops specific to hemp fiber production and harvest will be held. This event draws over 200 people from the region.

A field day will be held at Zion Growers, St. Johnsbury VT will focus on hemp processing, equipment, and fiber handling from field to factory. We expect 50 attendees.

A 3-part hemp fiber processing and design event will be held at the Borderview Research Farm in Alburgh, VT. The three-part educational sessions will cover: 

  1. Processing and fiber separation methods and equipment, both where basic farm equipment can be used and where specialized equipment such as a decorticator is needed.  A demonstration will show hemp fiber types and will showcase hemp fiber material properties and how they are used with other materials and equipment to make useable products.
  2. Design thinking and ideation for developing hemp fiber product types and product classifications with project team led by project collaborator Steve Kostell.
  3. Constructing one or two product prototypes, for example, hempcrete bricks and applications for end-market e.g., the residential building sector. Working with project collaborator Alex Esher, this project will build and demonstrate the use of hemp hurd for building.

Resulting product prototypes will be portable and can be displayed at other locations and venues including St. Johnsbury where our collaborator Zion Growers is located.

 

 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.