Since Illinois lawmakers authorized the production of hemp in the state last year with the 2018 Farm Bill, some central Illinois farmers have become curious about hemp as a possible cash crop.

To provide area farmers with information about hemp’s potential, the Illinois Agri-Women and the Illinois Central College (ICC) Agri-Business Club hosted a Hemp Discussion Panel Friday afternoon at ICC. Panelists for the forum included legislative activists, business founder, a hemp farmer and an alternative medicine practitioner. 

Maryann Loncar co-wrote Illinois Industrial Hemp Bill 1294 and the current Medical Cannabis Pilot Program in Illinois. She is a board member of Illinois Agri-Women and Co-Founder of The Women’s Hemp Alliance.

“The sky’s the limit,” said Loncar in lauding hemp’s potential versatility. “Even if it’s to clean your land, that has an oil spill on it, or toxic material from the steel mill that’s been left behind, hemp is the answer for all of it. We can all use it for myriads of things: not just for CBD.”

Panelist and legislative advocate Mike Graham briefly discussed procedures for submitting growers’ and processors’ license applications. Applications are simple to fill out, he said, and can be accessed online at the Illinois Department of Agriculture’s web site.

“We’re just trying to give the farmers of Illinois and Indiana and the rest of the Midwest the opportunity to … put another crop in a rotation,” he said.

Luke Haverhals, the founder and chief executive officer of the Peoria-based chemistry and technology company Natural Fiber Welding Inc., spoke next. His presentation focused on hemp’s role in the development of plant-based materials as alternative to petroleum-based plastics in textiles, packaging, automotive applications and more.

“You can manufacture in brand new ways with natural materials,” said Haverhals. “When you can do that, it short-circuits the need to go deep in the ground to get petroleum-based things. If farmers can grow hemp — and hemp fiber can, in a very efficient way, be turned into clothing and building materials and a variety of things — that’s a pretty radical (advance).”

Rachel Berry, the founder and chief executive officer of the Illinois Hemp Grower’s Association, elaborated on the theme of hemp’s versatility. She noted that its potential applications include an environmentally friendly alternative to petroleum-based plastics, medicine, textiles, a viable food source for both humans and animals.

“There are a lot of things that can be made with the stalk of the hemp plant,” she said. “Our homes can be built from it (and so can) furniture and textiles. Anything we can make out of plastic, we can make out of hemp instead.”

Indiana farmer and legislative activist Jamie Campbell Petty is the founder of Indiana Hemp Industries Association and has lobbied for industrial hemp legalization in that state since 2014. She is also treasurer of the Indiana-based advocacy group Midwest Hemp Council. She discussed her efforts to lobby for Indiana hemp legislation and to remove barriers to growing hemp for Hoosier farmers. She also spoke of Midwest Hemp Council’s desire to work with hemp producers and processors throughout the Midwest. 

“Our goal isn’t just about Indiana,” she said. “Of course, that’s where my heart is and that’s my primary goal. (Midwestern farmers) have to work together. These processing plants are not cheap. Right now, a large number of our members are on the Illinois and Indiana state line. Let’s get a processing plant where we are serving both our states. That is one of our many goals.”

Jennifer Sewell, a complementary alternative medicine practitioner, rounded out the panel. She has been involved in the cultivation and use of various medicinal plants and shared her knowledge of hemp from seed to harvest.

“When you plant the seed, you want to make sure it has water for the first two or three weeks,” said Sewell. “That’s important for germination but also to start the foundation of the plant. You don’t want to plant it more than a quarter of an inch in the soil. You have to wash it, you have to walk through the field and pull the male (plants) and, at harvest time, all of your friends” need to come and help.

Following the presentations, the panelists answered questions from audience members. Refreshments were served and the event concluded with networking opportunities.