The legalization of industrial hemp sparked a boom in hemp cultivation across the United States. Here we’ll take a look at hemp’s new legal status and how farmers are cultivating this cash crop.

Unlike highly potent strains of cannabis that are rich in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), hemp varieties of cannabis contain negligible amounts of this mind-altering cannabinoid. And while high-THC cannabis strains are often grown for recreational and medicinal use, hemp has long been favored for its numerous industrial uses.

Despite its utility and lack of mind-altering THC, hemp has been effectively illegal in the United States since 1937 with the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act. However, attitudes towards hemp have slowly evolved over the last century. Beginning in 2014, the U.S. Congress has created a new legal framework under which hemp cultivation has been allowed to thrive, first with state hemp research pilot programs followed in 2018 by the descheduling of hemp.

Growing Hemp: Different Methods for Different Applications

Hemp’s new legal status has many farmers across the country eager to cash in. The most popular uses for raw hemp are:

  • CBD oil: an extract rich in the non-psychoactive cannabinoid CBD that’s taken as a supplement and touted for its ability to relieve anxiety and other ailments
  • Hemp seed: a nutritious superfood packed with micronutrients and omega-3 and -6 fatty acids
  • Fiber: derived from the plant’s fast-growing stalks for use in a wide range of products including textiles

There’s no one size fits all prescription for hemp cultivation. The exact variety and methods used by farmers can vary greatly depending on where their hemp is destined. For example, hemp grown for the purpose of producing CBD-rich oil is typically planted at 1,000 to 1,600 plants per acre. In contrast, traditional hemp grown for its fibers are planted much more densely at 400,000 plants per acre.

Traditional hemp is planted from seed using drilling, a mechanized method for sowing seeds, while CBD-rich hemp varieties are often planted from clones. Traditional hemp varieties grow tall. The tops can be harvested for seed production while the stalks can be used for fiber or other industrial purposes.

CBD-producing hemp varieties have been specially bred to produce larger amounts of cannabinoid-rich flower. Hemp plants bred for this purpose may look and smell more similar to high-THC marijuana plants than traditional varieties of industrial hemp, however, they differ significantly in their ratio of THC to CBD. Regular testing for THC during the flowering stage is recommended so growers can ensure their crop meets the legal threshold for THC concentrations (less than 0.3% by weight) before harvesting.