SYCAMORE – Ted Simpson farms hay and some timber on 17-acres near Newark and wanted to see about another crop in order to diversify.
As other farmers in northern Illinois did he attended a seminar to learn about industrial hemp. Among its many uses, hemp is a versatile cash crop that can take the place of other industrial materials such as plastic.
Simpson learned he probably wouldn't get involved with hemp right now, but he thought it was a good way to spend an afternoon.
"The soil conditions on our land aren't great [for hemp,]" said Simpson. "To play with it would be expensive."
Hemp has been making a comeback in certain agricultural sectors after the 2018 Farm Bill authorized farmers to begin growing it again. In Illinois, it is regulated by the Illinois Department of Agriculture under the rules of the Industrial Hemp Act and those interested in growing it must get a Hemp Grower's License through the department.
Simpson and 20-some other farmers learned about industrial hemp, the difference between hemp and marijuana, and the uses of hemp.
Steve Faivre, DeKalb County board member and former farmer who was at the seminar, said he thought industrial hemp would add to DeKalb County's crop diversity.
"Ultimately, the grain and fiber versions, in my opinion, are just another agricultural crop," Faivre said.
Faivre said hemp fiber has the highest value and that its impact would be more on the farmers than the county.
"It adds to the income of the farmers in the community," he said. "They tend to buy local more than most people do. It will generate a little more economic activity as it gets rolling."
Hemp fiber can be used for forages like hay, grain can be used for small grains like wheat and CBD (cannabidoil) can be used for specialty crops like tomatoes.
Field selection is important. The soil must be well-drained, highly productive and have low weed pressure. Weed pressure can increase the costs of weed management in row crop production, according to the University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture, Food and Environment Cooperative Extension Service.
Simpson said the price of seeds is a drawback.
He also noted his age.
"I'm 70 years old," Simpson said. "I don't want to be involved in a labor-intensive crop."
But, even with those drawbacks, Simpson said he wouldn't be averse to experimenting with hemp.
As far as diversifying his crop though, he'd rather turn to one that buzzes.
"I'm more likely to do the bees than hemp production," Simpson said about working with beehives for honey.
Another drawback is what farmers can do with it once they've grown and harvested it. Without a place to process hemp, Faivre said it would have to take some major players to bring a plant to the county.
"The state could step up and coordinate that," he said. "Getting those things started is tough."
At the seminar, Philip Alberti, extension educator for community agriculture at the University of Illinois Extension office that serves Jo Daviess, Stephenson and Winnebago counties, taught the class that while hemp and marijuana come from the same Cannabaceae plant family, they are not the same thing.
Alberti explained the difference using the Rutaceae family, which splits off into the different citrus fruits. It also splits off into the types of citrus fruits – sweet and sour. Like with the Rutaceae family, Canabaceae splits off into hemp and marijuana.
Hemp also has many uses, according to Alberti's research. It can be used as an efficient biofuel, building materials, consumer products – shoes, and food, amongst other things.
Alberti said the hemp-made food can have more protein and less fat than non-hemp produced food.
Faivre said as far as DeKalb County goes, he doesn't think anyone opposes it.
"I haven't sensed anybody in the county who would even be neutral," he said. "I think most recognize we need more crop diversity."