Similar to other major agricultural commodities, industrial hemp can be harvested for its grain or seeds which has historically constituted one of its major use. Demand for hemp seed products within the United States has been increasing in the last decade with the US now the leading consumer of hemp seed products in their various forms, including whole seeds, hulled seeds, hemp seed oil, hemp seed meal. These products are found on a multitude of major retail shelves as well as specialty stores.
Currently, the United States imports the majority of its hemp seeds from abroad with an overwhelming majority of these imports originating in Canada. Now with section 7606 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 domestic cultivation can begin and many farmers in places like Kentucky and Tennessee looking to harvest hemp for the grain.
Hemp grown for seed occurs cultivation techniques are similar to those of other major cereal with the crop planted in rows with densities of around 300,000-500,000 plants per acres. Typically planted in early summer the crop will grow to a height of 5-10 feet depending on the specific variety with a sturdy, narrow stalk. The plant takes around 16 weeks to mature, flower, and produce seeds.
Harvest occurs in late September or early October after the crop has had a chance to dry to a moisture content of around 25%. While several harvesting methods exist, for large acreages adjusted combine harvesters are utilized to harvest the seeds in a quick and efficient manner.
The seed grows on the top third of the plant and the reel and cutter of the harvester are raised to this level to capture a majority of the grain. Moisture content is important at this stage because if they crop is too dry the fibrous stalk of the plant may get tangled in the harvesting equipment. Estimates of average world yields around 800 lbs/acre exist; however, Canadian varieties are boasting over 2000 lbs/acre.
Once harvested the seed must be immediately dried to a moisture content of 9%-10% in order to avoid spoilage. Following drying seed can be stored for over a year under cool, dry conditions in grain silos.
After harvest, hemp seed can be processed into three main products: hemp hearts, oil, or meal. Through a dehulling process, whole hemp seeds can have the hard outer shell removed to expose the soft inner core. This process has a typical yield of around 40%. At this point this inner core can be packaged for retail sale as hemp hearts. Fresh, cleaned hemp seed can also be cold pressed to extract the oil with hemp seed meal as the byproduct of this process. This oil can then be bottled for retail sale and is most closely related to olive oil in terms of its uses and nutritional profile. The byproduct of this pressing, hemp meal can also be packaged for retail sale or further refined to produce hemp protein powder. This protein powder features a 30%-40% protein content with a favorable nutritional profile that makes it close substitute to soy protein.
Canada currently boasts 76,333 registered acres devoted entirely to seed and fiber production, which places Canada act as the largest producer in North America as well as one of the largest in the world. The hemp seed industry in Canada currently exists within a high degree of vertical integration with three major players Manitoba Harvest, Hemp Oil Canada, and Hemp Production Services comprise the three largest hemp seed companies in Canada. This processors contract directly with growers to obtain the seed which is then shipped to processing facilities throughout the country where it is transformed into a variety of products. From here the product is shipped direct to retailers through custom orders to stores in Canada and the United States.
Pricing of hemp seed from the farm to the processor has remained relatively stable in recent years through the use of forward contracts with the price of organic seed receiving a premium over that of conventional.
Hemp seeds and its derivatives have a much more standardized and established production, processing, and retailing channels relative to other hemp derived products. This has allowed the hemp seed industry to grow and creates a model for emerging US producers to follow.