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Hemp Biodiesel: When the Smoke Clears

Hemp literally produces a "green" product when it's used to make biodiesel. Despite the allure of the green-hued fuel, a close examination of the controversial crop reveals several barriers for its use as a biodiesel feedstock in the near future. However, as movers and shakers attempt to legalize hemp farming in the United States, those barriers could go up in smoke.
By Holly Jessen | January 24, 2007
Today, high demand within the food market, limited production and low yields per acre make industrial hemp unattractive as a viable option for biodiesel production. That could change, however, if states like North Dakota can overcome federal road blocks to produce industrial hemp in the United States.

Paul Bobbee, a Canadian hemp grower, knows firsthand that under current market conditions, using industrial hemp as a biodiesel feedstock just wouldn't pay. Hemp farming has been legal in Canada for about six years, while in the United States farmers are having difficulty getting the proper approval from the federal government to produce hemp. Because only limited acres of hemp are being grown at this time, it's considered a niche crop and garners premium prices for use in products for the human health food market. "Every pound that's being produced goes into the food chain," Bobbee tells Biodiesel Magazine.

Bobbee is in a unique position to understand the positives and negatives of hemp as a feedstock for biodiesel. In addition to owning and operating Midlake Specialty Food Products, which grows hemp near Arborg, Manitoba, he's involved with Bifrost Bio-Blends. Bifrost is a 2 MMly to 10 MMly (0.5 MMgy to 2.6 MMgy) proposed biodiesel plant that investors hope will attract the financing necessary to produce biodiesel sometime in the beginning of 2007. The plant's main feedstock will be locally produced canola.

If it were economically viable, Bobbee could get more excited about making biodiesel from hemp. Several years ago, when the Canadian hemp industry wasn't as well-established as it is now, Bobbee found himself with a surplus on his hands. A large hemp purchasing company went bankrupt, and suppliers like Bobbee were faced with low prices and few marketing options. The situation was particularly dire because hemp seed deteriorates after about a year in storage. The seed that Bobbee was stuck with was starting to go rancid. Since it could no longer be used in the food market, he took 20,000 liters (about 5,300 gallons) of hemp oil and turned it into biodiesel. Not only did the biodiesel have wonderful properties-better cloud point and cetane value than biodiesel made from canola or soy oil-its distinctive green color was a great marketing tool.

That experience turned Bobbee into a fan of hemp biodiesel. Still, he's a realist. As long as he and other hemp growers can get better prices from the food markets, they'll continue to pursue that avenue. At current values of CAN$1,000 for a 45-gallon barrel of hemp oil, it just wouldn't pay to make biodiesel out of the product. "It would be too cost prohibitive at this moment," he says.
The only way Bobbee's hemp seed would end up at the Bifrost Bio-Blends plant is if it didn't meet food-quality standards or if there was ever a surplus of the seed.

Arthur Hanks, executive director of the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance, agrees that there are too many factors working against the use of hemp as a biodiesel feedstock. "People talk about it, but there's not really anything happening with that right now," he tells Biodiesel Magazine.

Price is the big issue, Hanks says, echoing Bobbee's sentiments. The human nutritional market pays well for hemp seed. Currently, conventionally grown hemp seed brings in about 45 Canadian cents a pound, he says. Certified organic seed garners 85 Canadian cents a pound, or nearly CAN$40 a bushel.

Then there's the hurdle of limited supply. Although healthy demand has increased hemp production numbers in Canada, there's just not enough quantity to go around. In 2005, 24,000 acres of hemp were planted in Canada, more than doubling to 50,000 acres in 2006. "That particularly, is very much an issue of economies of scale," Hanks says. "We are still very much a specialty crop."

Finally, there's the relatively low oil productivity of hemp. Hemp seed does have a relatively high oil content of about 33 percent, compared with canola at about 40 percent. However, it has a low seed per-acre yield. Typically, an acre of hemp yields about 700 pounds of seed, although some farmers have enjoyed production numbers as high as 1,200 pounds an acre in good years, Hanks says. Canola growers, on the other hand, can reap a crop of anywhere from 1,500 to 2,600 pounds an acre.

Fight for the Right to Grow Hemp
Though many confuse hemp with its more sinister relative marijuana, hemp has only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the hallucinogenic drug that makes marijuana illegal to grow and smoke. Hemp seed is used to make a variety of nutritional food products, while the plant's fibers are used in everything from car parts to construction materials, according to Adam Eidinger, communications director for Vote Hemp, a nonprofit organization that promotes a free market for hemp.

At least one of the barriers to hemp biodiesel could potentially be reduced if farmers in the United States were able to grow it, thereby increasing production numbers overall. Rather than fearing the competition for Canadian farmers, Hanks would love to see that become a reality. Though the hemp debate is over in Canada, the crop still has a connection to marijuana in the minds of many in the United States, he says. If hemp production was allowed in the United States, the unfair stigma directed toward the crop would dissipate, Hanks says. That would be good for the whole industry. "It would help regularize hemp in America, and help to increase markets," Hanks says.

The battle to raise hemp in the United States has raged for many years, Eidinger says. Seven states-Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia-have all passed legislation clearing the way to legally grow hemp commercially or for research purposes. The catch in all those states is that final approval from the federal government is required, something the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has, so far, been unwilling to provide.

There are also barriers at the state level. For example, this summer California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill legalizing hemp production in his state. The bill, which had significant support in both the house and the senate, was the only state law that would have authorized hemp production without federal approval, Eidinger says.

North Dakotans Press On
With the hope of industrial hemp production dashed in California, proponents are turning their attention to North Dakota, the next state in line with a shot at legally growing hemp. Over the past 10 years, the state has passed a half half-dozen laws that favor hemp production, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson says. However, without the cooperation of the DEA, progress has been slow. "We've never been able to implement any of [the hemp laws]," he says.

Now, a set of rules has been put in place that should take care of that issue. At press time, the agency planned to have license applications available for North Dakota producers by Jan. 1, Johnson says. However, farmers still must apply for and receive permission from the DEA, so hemp seeds probably won't be planted in the 2007 growing season.

The best case scenario is that the DEA will grant North Dakota farmers permission to grow industrial hemp, Eidinger says. However, if the federal agency chooses instead to reject the applications or simply refuses to acknowledge them, the next step could very well be a federal courtroom.

North Dakota has been ignored by the DEA in the past, Johnson says. When the state provided funding for hemp research at North Dakota State University a few years ago, the DEA stopped communicating with the researchers, effectively ending the project.

The DEA's actions have caused frustration among farmers who want to add hemp to their farming operations. North Dakota hemp supporters just want a chance to show the federal government they're not "wackos," Johnson says, adding that the farmers are just interested in growing a legitimate crop, not being a part of a drug conspiracy.

David Monson, who farms more than 700 acres of cropland in northeastern North Dakota, concurs. Monson, a member of the North Dakota House of Representatives, planned at press time to be first in line in January to apply for a license to grow hemp in North Dakota.

A solid, respectable citizen, Monson goes a long way toward dispelling the myth that hemp supporters secretly want to light up. Among his many responsibilities, Monson is the superintendent of schools in Osnabrock, N.D., as well as a member of the North American Industrial Hemp Council. As a state legislator, he's labored since 1997 to make hemp farming legal in North Dakota, he says.

It's frustrating for Monson to see farmers in Canada, just 25 miles north of his Cavalier County farm, earning $300 to $600 an acre for growing hemp. That's a much higher value than the wheat, barley, soybeans and pinto beans Monson is growing.

Hemp would also be valuable as a rotational crop. In the northeastern corner of the state where Monson farms, it's been difficult to break the hold of fusarium head blight, or scab-a crop disease that attacks cereal crops and reduces yields. Other crops, such as sugar beets and potatoes, can't be produced in that area due to the rocky soil. Growing hemp would also provide significant environmental advantages, Johnson says. The crop grows rapidly with little or no need for pesticides.

Considering all the positives and the fact that there is a demand for hemp, Johnson doesn't understand why North Dakota farmers shouldn't have the option to grow it. "To me, it's just a question of, 'Why not?'" he says.

North Dakota has "bent over backwards" in an effort to address the concerns of the DEA, Johnson says. For example, prospective hemp producers would be required to consent to a criminal background check and have their fingerprints taken. All hemp fields must be identified using geopositioning (GPS) instruments. Hemp seed planted in North Dakota must contain less than three-tenths of 1 percent of THC. Officials would need to have 24-hour access to all fields, Johnson says. If a field is out of compliance with the state's rules, it will be destroyed. "Any realistic person would look at this and say, 'My God this is a case of significant overkill,' but there is no way that the DEA would allow this without these things as a minimum," Johnson says.

Holly Jessen is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach her at hjessen@bbibiofuels.com or (701) 746-8385.
 

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