Hemp: The amazing chemical factory with huge potential

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer
Hemp grain is highly nutritious, containing a complete protein profile of all 20 amino acids, which are the building blocks of all tissues in the human body.

Dr. Jonathan Vaught, CEO and co-founder of Front Range Biosciences describes hemp as "a pretty amazing little chemical factory."

Vaught was among six panelists at a hemp workshop during the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation (WFBF) convention on Dec. 2.

The plant produces at least 130-140 know cannabinoids. Outside of things like CBD that everyone talks about, the plant is full of other compounds, flavonoids, antioxidants, more than 500 unique small molecules in the plant, providing a "huge amount of potential" for dietary supplements and drugs, such as one approved drug for pediatric seizure disorders, Vaught described. 

The grain "has a pretty balanced amino acid profile for a plant-based protein source" and is well-balanced between Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, "which means it's balanced the same way your body is," Vaught said. 

Dr. Jonathan Vaught, CEO and co-founder of Front Range Biosciences, talks about industrial hemp at a Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation hemp workshop on Dec. 2 in Wisconsin Dells.

From a nutrition perspective, Vaught said, "We haven't even really begun to tap the potential there."

When considering hemp fiber, which can be used for construction material such as hempcrete, there is a "huge amount of potential across the board," Vaught added. 

The hottest area right now is CBD oil, but to grow hemp for that purpose and to harvest it and capture that value is challenging, Vaught explained. 

"It's not like growing corn," he described. "It's probably more like growing tomatoes. ... It's a specialty crop. It's a high-value crop."

Hemp could compete with soybeans, especially if the grain can be used in animal feed. Currently it is illegal to put hemp in animal feed for resale, according to Melody Walker with the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

"As of March 2017, the industry has not yet provided any information showing that ingredients derived from the hemp plant are safe and useful in domestic animal feed," said Walker. 

Colorado is leading an effort to provide research needed to allow hemp as an official feed ingredient, but Walker didn't know the status of that research. 

Vaught predicts prices for hemp will go down over time like any crop, but long-term, "as more infrastructure gets put in place and more farmers are going to grow it, the potential is huge," said Vaught. "I think this crop is here to stay."

Ken Anderson. founder of Legacy Hemp, is excited about the future of hemp in Wisconsin. He sees product innovation as the key. 

"Right now what we're doing with hemp is nowhere near what we can do with hemp," said Anderson. "I see product development in hemp as the area where Wisconsin is going to sine. Once the infrastructure is in place, Wisconsin is really going to shine in fiber.