As hemp farming rises in popularity, one university now offers it as a course

After being banned by the federal government in 1970, the industrial production of hemp in Illinois was made legal again in 2018.

Updated: August 15, 2021 - 12:13am

The University of Illinois sees a booming future in hemp farming, so it is offering a course in it.

Dr. D. K. Lee will teach a 400-level online course on hemp cultivation for students, farmers and anyone else who would like to know more about the crop.

“There are opportunities for small farmers, small indoor growers and big growers,” Lee said. “There is so much misinformation. This course is designed to teach students cannabis biology for proper crop-management practices.”

After being banned by the federal government in 1970, the industrial production of hemp in Illinois was made legal again in 2018 when the legislature approved it. For several years now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been promoting the growing of industrial hemp, Lee said.

Hemp is used in hundreds of different products – from textiles and construction materials to animal feed and skin care lotions based on cannabidiol oil.

Hemp is used to reinforce concrete and other construction materials. Textile manufacturers use it to produce durable fabric. It is used to make paper. The seed has high protein and high oil concentration, making it very good for animal feed.

“I see big opportunities if Illinois approves hemp seed for animal feed,” Lee said.

He said he believes that more Illinois farmers will come to use hemp as a crop that they rotate with corn and soybeans.

Another promising use for hemp is making biodegradable plastic. Plastic made from petroleum does not decompose when it is thrown away. The alternative is natural plastic or bioplastic. Unfortunately, bioplastic does not have the strength of petroleum-based plastic. Reinforcing bioplastic with hemp can give bioplastic the durability that it lacks.

“Hemp fiber is very strong. We can reinforce bioplastic with hemp fiber and it would be very beneficial for human society,” Lee said.

When farmers today ask him if they should start planting fields of hemp, Lee says he hesitates. There are a number of considerations. Farmers can only grow hemp plants with very low levels (0.3 percent) of THC. THC is the chemical that gives users the “high” that recreational marijuana users seek. If a farmer’s crop in Illinois exceeds the government’s very low 0.3-percent THC limit, the whole crop would have to be destroyed.

Another hurdle for Illinois farmers who are considering growing hemp is lack of processing facilities, Lee stated.

“Some other states are already processing the fiber. Other states have approved using hemp grain as animal feed,” he said. “Growing hemp for animal feed is not too much different than current agricultural practice. We can plant the hemp and use a combine harvester for the seed. That is an easy process.”

For indoor operations, there are a lot of job opportunities, Lee says. However, there is also a steep learning curve. Growing hemp to produce CBD oil is nowhere near as simple as buying petunia plants to get flowers, Lee said.

“It is very complicated – particularly if you are growing indoors,” he said.

Starting on July 22, members of the public can sign up for Lee’s online class: Crop Sciences 480: Cannabis Classification and Management Crop Sciences. The class will provide basic information about plant biology, seed selection, fertilization, nutrition, humidity control and the tricky process of light management for indoor growing. The cost for the 3-credit class is $1,200.