With Abundant Hemp Hurd Coming to Market, How Important Is Quality?

hemp processors

By Eric Singular, Director, Hemp Business Journal

Coming off the 2021 harvest, the U.S. hemp market is about to be flooded with hurd — a short fiber material from the inner stalk of the industrial hemp plant which is commonly processed to manufacture goods like animal bedding, absorbents, flooring, insulation, construction materials, and various other wood-based products.

But not all fiber processing or resulting materials are created equal. Since the 2020 harvest, many new fiber processors have become operational in states like Alabama, Texas, and Kansas. Given the nascence of the U.S. hemp hurd market, a robust understanding of the material grades, properties, and specifications is lacking, yet remains crucial in the successful manufacturing and adoption of hurd as a renewable, alternative wood material.

Operators are concerned that some processors will try to undercut the market with cheap, subpar material. Melissa Nelson, co-owner of Kansas-based South Bend Industrial Hemp and Research Scientist for Performance Crop Research, warns that while financial solvency is important in the short term, focus is also required for the longevity of the industry. “Otherwise,” she says, “we are just going to have a repeat of the CBD market, because the flood of subpar hurd and fiber being produced from processing facilities is going to undercut current market prices. While you make the quick buck, manufacturers are going to want to source quality products for their lines. Eventually, you will phase yourself out. Quality will rise to the top. Because this industry is in its infancy, we are setting the standard for what consumers can expect when receiving hurd or fiber. When buying hurd, ask questions. Ask for samples, ask where they are sourcing their product. Transparency should be a requirement not a request.”

Peddling low-grade material could hurt the hemp industry at large, and undercut the adoption of hurd-based materials by manufacturers in the long term. New Frontier Data estimates that the average price for hurd produced in the U.S. between ¼” and ½” currently sells for $0.75 per pound for 1,000 pounds (i.e., one pallet), and for $0.50 per pound for 26,000 pounds (i.e., a full truckload of 26 pallets).

Nelson adds that “South Bend Industrial Hemp invests in our growers, processors, and ourselves to ensure we are being good stewards of the industry. We value and implement practices based on sound agricultural and business principles. My advice to anyone entering the industrial hemp space — grower or processor — is to focus on growing or creating a quality product. Invest the time, money, and energy to allow your business and this industry to develop to its full potential. Be remembered as being a force of positive change, while moving the needle forward and bringing hemp mainstream.”

While price parity is key to the widespread adoption of hurd as a renewable material that can be utilized in various wood-based products, the hurd supply chain must scale in lockstep. Nelson’s call for cooperation and transparency represents a foundational building block for the industry to leverage in reaching economies of scale pricing.

Yet, there’s another driving force propelling interest in hemp hurd. In the wake of the United Nations’ latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, there is growing interest in carbon farming, the application of agricultural methods to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that is released into the atmosphere. Many traditional agricultural practices (e.g., tilling the soil and allowing carbon to oxidize) release CO2 into the atmosphere. While the implementation of regenerative agricultural practices performs key functions in carbon farming, so may the production of industrial hemp.

Last summer, Darshil Shah, a senior researcher at the Centre for Natural Material Innovation at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., notably asserted (if without citing any studies) that hemp crops may capture atmospheric carbon more effectively than forests, estimating that industrial hemp absorbs between 3 to 6 tons of CO2 per acre.

The most-cited study about carbon sequestration in soil by growing industrial hemp was authored and submitted to the Australian government by GoodEarth Resources PTY, Ltd. (i.e., GoodEarth Resources), before the latter disbanded in 2014. The study claims that one acre of industrial hemp absorbs nearly 40,000 pounds of CO2 through its growing cycle.

According to the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance (CHTA), industrial hemp sequesters carbon through photosynthesis, storing it in the body of the plant and its roots. The CTHA states that approximately 40% of hemp biomass is carbon. While Shah and the GoodEarth Resources study address carbon sequestered in the soil from hemp production, the carbon in the stalk of the hemp plant equates to increased value by “permanently capturing” CO2 in long-life products (e.g., hurd-based concrete and cement). Those potentially carbon-negative biomaterials require comprehensive life-cycle assessments by qualified material scientists to quantify and spur that area of interest.

While farmers who grow hemp are eager to earn carbon credits that can be sold on voluntary exchanges to companies interested in offsetting emission taxes, considerably more research is needed. Currently, automotive manufacturers and rideshare companies like Lyft and Uber are the biggest consumers of carbon credits.

Meanwhile, this is the final week for stakeholders to advocate for inclusion of industrial hemp to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Climate-Smart Agriculture and Forestry Partnership Program as the agency finishes designing a grant program to fund pilot projects that can be tracked to measure carbon benefits.