The highs (and lows) of hemp

While the rest of the world is stockpiling toilet paper, California is buying marijuana. Sales from licensed retailers have spiked in the last week as users worry about future shortages and a lockdown. 

Unfortunately the spike in marijuana demand is having no effect on the price of hemp; it has fallen by 90 percent or so in the last few months.

Although the same plant, hemp is different from cannabis in the amount of the psychoactive substance THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) that it contains. Hemp plants contain no more than 0.3 percent of THC, while marijuana typically contains 5 to 20 percent THC. This means that cannabis plants with 0.3 percent or less of THC are hemp, while those with more than 0.3 percent THC are marijuana.

I talked with Charlie Stephens, the only hemp trader I know. Having started his career with Gavillon, Charlie, together with his brother Watt and fellow partner Jack, now runs Halcyon Thruput, a hemp drying and processing operation in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, that was recently acquired by Generation Hemp.

The hemp harvest kicks off mid-October and goes through to early December. Charlie told me that once harvested, hemp has to be processed and dried within a couple of hours; if not it starts to combust. His facility works 24 hours a day during the two months of the harvest, with farmers allocated two hour slots in which to deliver the crop.

“The primary product that we are left with after drying,” he continued, “is the biomass from which the CBD oil is extracted. The co-product of that process is bast fibre, the stock and stem material that can be used for fibre for clothes.”

The number of US acres under hemp has increased 100 fold (to 146,000 according to the USDA) since the crop was first partially legalised in 2014. (It was finally fully legalised in the 2018 Farm Bill.) That acreage increase has been driven by two factors: first, the US farmer’s need to diversify away from traditional crops that weren’t paying the bills; second, the expectation of a sharp increase in hemp demand for the production of Cannabidiol (CBD) oil.

Although CBD oil made from hemp contains virtually no THC, it is still believed to have a number of health benefits such as anxiety and pain relief.

“All the soft drinks and food companies had been expecting FDA approval for their products,” Charlie told me, “but the FDA came out and said they weren’t going to do anything, that they were sceptical of the health benefits of CBD, and that they wanted to do their own testing. That really threw a wrench in the market.

“Prices were $60-70 per pound last year, and have now fallen to around $6 per pound. The expected demand spike for CBD oil has not happened, and farmers are left with no choice but to sell their hemp for fibre and seeds.

“I believe that CBD demand is still growing,” Charlie told me, “but there is a lot of noise in the market and we all struggle to keep track of it. The big health companies are doing some serious testing as to health benefits, so we could have some progress there.

“I really believe that hemp will eventually develop into a mainstream commodity. It is an easy crop for farmers to grow. It is pretty much organic. It requires less water than cotton. It acts a sponge in the soil, sucking up all the heavy metal content, and for the lack of a better term it cleans the soil, which means it is nice plant to add into your rotation.”

“So you are bullish for the future?” I asked him.

“On the demand side the clothing companies want to trial it, to blend it with cotton. The clothing brand Patagonia recently announced that they will be making hemp blue jeans.

Meanwhile, Hempcrete is really taking off and there is a lot of potential for it as a building material. The cement industry is the second biggest GHG emitter in the world, and hempcrete is an alternative.

“One problem is that there is little infrastructure in the middle of the supply chain, and no one wants to build capacity without greater certainty on both ends. Another problem is that hemp has to be cheaper to compete. Production will need to be mechanised, industrialised and done at scale.

“I have just got back from Colombia where the government is encouraging farmers to switch from coca to hemp. Because of its climate, Colombia can grow hemp year round, which means that the industrial infrastructure can be used year round. This obviously reduces costs enormously. So I am particularly bullish on production in Colombia.

“As for the US market, it is difficult to find liquidity. Panxchange are doing a good job both as a trading platform and as a PRA (Price Reporting Agency), but a lot of the time no one has any idea as to what the price should be. And when you do find transparency the bid / offer spreads are massive.

“I believe that there is a huge opportunity for some of the bigger trade houses to get involved, but so far they are hesitant. Maybe they need more transparency and liquidity to get involved. It is a chicken and egg problem. They are waiting until the market takes off, but it will be hard for it to take off without them.”

PS If you would like to talk to Charlie directly, please contact me using the feedback or comments buttons, and I will put you in touch.

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