U.S. hemp industry still hazy on market potential

Hemp industry taking root in USDavid Williams, right, speaks to media after a small plot of hemp was harvested at a University of Kentucky farm near Lexington, Ky., in this Sept. 23, 2014 file photo. (AP / Dylan Lovan)

Kristen Wyatt, The Associated Press
Published Saturday, May 30, 2015 1:44PM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, May 30, 2015 5:02PM EDT

FORT LUPTON, Colo. — The newly legal U.S. hemp industry is entering its second growing season with some big questions for producers experimenting with marijuana’s non-intoxicating cousin.

The federal government has allowed limited imports of hemp seed — in Colorado’s case, this month — for research and development purposes. Companies trying to create a U.S. hemp industry are seeking investors not only for unproven products but for a plant that is still classified under the federal Controlled Substances Act with marijuana and thus cannot be patented.

As a result, it’s too soon to tell whether hemp will become a boon for farmers or stay in mostly boutique products that use imported hemp.

At least 22 states allow hemp cultivation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, though most are limited to experimental testing, not commercial industry. Officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture say they’re not sure how many states are growing hemp or how much is being produced.

Two hemp facilities in northern Colorado underscore the crop’s uncertainty.

A biomass factory about an hour’s drive north of Denver is processing hemp into pulp, sugars and lignin. PureVision Technology CEO Ed Lehrburger is also experimenting with hemp stalks, sensing potential for a broad array of industrial uses but unable to secure enough to see whether it could replace wheat, corn and wood as raw materials for use in things like plastics, fuels and packaging.

“We don’t have enough hemp to process,” said Lehrburger, who created a subsidiary, PureHemp Technology, but concedes the hemp business is a few years from taking off. He’s paying $500 a ton for the scarce commodity, compared to $65 for a ton of corn stalks. More at Source

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