For Melisa Nelson-Baldwin, data is key. And what this trained crop research scientist sees is hemp is a great crop for Kansas farmers.
So much so that Nelson-Baldwin and her partners, husband Aaron Baldwin and brother-in-law Richard Baldwin, are ready to build a hemp fiber manufacturing plant in Great Bend – the first one in Kansas.
"We want to be up and running by the end of the year," Nelson-Baldwin said.
The Baldwins grow both industrial cannabidiol oil and fiber hemp at their farm, South Bend Industrial Hemp, in Barton and Stafford counties. Aaron and Richard Baldwin are fourth-generation farmers in Great Bend, while Nelson-Baldwin grew up on a farm in Holton. The three work with both forms of industrial hemp on 55 acres of their traditional grain farm.
"My brother and I were looking for other avenues to diversify the farm," Aaron Baldwin said.
Industrial hemp, used for CBD, CBN, rope, fabric and grain, is a variety of the same species of plant as cannabis; however, this crop – industrial hemp – yields low levels of THC at .3%, the chemical known to make humans "high" or place them in an altered state. CBD and other cannabinoids come from a different plant than hemp fiber.
This is the second season industrial hemp is allowed to be grown in Kansas. The state monitors the crop and tests it for THC levels before it is harvested. If the crop has too much THC, it must be burnt, and the farmer loses their crop.
Once the crop is approved for harvest, the farmer must cut their crop within a 10-day window. After the plant is harvested, the Baldwins conduct third-party testing for their CBD crop. They also dry their own plants.
Aaron and Richard Baldwin figured out how to make a low-cost drying unit. And because the brothers like to mentor, they helped others make their own units.
"We’ve gotten to practice our ingenuity skills," Aaron Baldwin said. "This year we had a lot less unknowns."
After drying the product to a 10% moisture level, their CBD crop heads to Wichita to be extracted. South Bend Industrial Hemp markets CBD oils, CBD-infused Kansas honey sticks, CBD for pets and salves from their farm’s product.
"We try to keep everything as local as possible," Nelson-Baldwin said. "We touch every part of the process. It stays in Kansas from start to finish."
In 2019, 90% of Kansas farms that harvested hemp grew the CBD variety. The rates in 2020 were similar. But, growing industrial hemp for fiber is more like growing other crops.
When growing for CBD, only female plants are viable. During pollination, if a male plant gets near a female, the whole crop can be ruined. When growing for fiber, either male or female plants will do.
Along with hemp needing less water than many other crops, just about 6 inches annually, according to Nelson-Baldwin, standard farm equipment can be used on this crop. Fiber hemp produces about 200,000 plants per acre, and unlike flower hemp, it does not need to be handpicked.
"People can’t afford to buy a half-million-dollar specialty equipment," Nelson-Baldwin said. "We used the same equipment we used on our other crops."
Hemp fibers are dustless and more absorbent than other commodities. These fibers also can be used in biofuels and pet bedding.
"The fiber and grain can be extremely profitable," Nelson-Baldwin said. "The flower market has crashed. The prices have dropped significantly."
While growing their own crops, the Baldwins educate Kansans on where to buy seed, where to grow and how to make a profit. They also explain how farmers can use equipment they already have and how to build a $20,000 drying unit.
But most importantly, they will supply hemp fiber farmers throughout the state with a place to sell their product.
"We just want to support the ag industry," Nelson-Baldwin said. "There’s room at the table for everybody. We want to see all areas of hemp move forward."