Could Farming Hemp Save Water?

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Amber waves of grain may soon be replaced by towering stalks of industrial hemp as farmers across America begin growing this newly legalized form of cannabis.  As of May 10th, 2018, Arizona became the 36th state to take on the task of converting this formerly controlled substance into a commercial commodity.1 Will all the hubbub be worth it?

It may be if it improves our state’s economy while reducing overall water usage.

There’s no doubt that Arizona has one of the best climates for growing crops in the country. Plenty of sunshine, warm temperatures, and fertile soil abound, but looming water worries may place a damper on agriculture. Farms served by the Central Arizona Project (CAP) will experience water restrictions once Lake Mead’s level reaches an elevation of 1075 feet and shortage declarations go into effect. That reality is closer than most people would like to believe.2

In the meantime, growth proponents point to the burgeoning market for cannabidiol (CBD) oils. Over-the-counter (non-THC) CBD oil tinctures range from $40 for 750 mg to $200 per 1,000 mg.3 Both hemp and medical cannabis strains produce roughly the same amount of CBD oil per equivalent dry weight.4

Some farms have reported revenue of $90,000 per acre for hemp used to manufacture CBD oils.5 Compare that to $600 an acre for alfalfa or $700 per acre of corn.6,7 Even high water use almonds generate only $5,000 per acre.8 With revenue like this, you can bet there’s money to be made by everyone involved – the state included.

There are other reasons for farmers to have high hopes for hemp. It’s a simple crop to grow and it has an abundance of uses. Some sources report 25,000 different products can be created from the plant.9 The 2016 U.S. market for hemp products was estimated at $688 million which included foods, textiles, supplements, industrial applications, personal care products as well as CBD oils.10

You might consider hemp the hard-working ‘farm boy’ of the cannabis family. It can be planted as a row crop, “tolerates a wide variety of soils and temperatures, requires no pesticides and grows extremely fast, soaring to as much as 20 ft in 100 days.”11 Even better, its rapid growth may allow up to four cuttings per year which could maximize crop yields. One added bonus for Arizona and arid western states is hemp is “one of the most drought-tolerant crops on the planet.”12

Now consider hemp’s ‘high-class sister’, medical marijuana. It’s typically grown in specialized grow houses under tightly controlled conditions, with lush watering needs ranging from 1 to 3 gallons per plant per day.13 Generally, there’s only one harvest per year.14

Compared to its upscale sister, hemp is a water-wise no-brainer, but will it stay that way?

The answer depends upon the end product. Industrial hemp can easily grow outdoors in arid conditions but many hemp farmers are looking to ride the CBD oil profit wave. Some are even changing their growing techniques from outdoor fields to indoor grow houses which may increase water use if cultivators decide to pamper their plants for maximum profit.

However, with proper knowledge of water-efficient irrigation even indoor grow houses can cultivate hemp with reasonable water use. The Shell family in Kentucky converted a portion of their struggling tobacco farm to cultivate hemp indoors. They’re watering smart by using drip tape running beneath plastic mulching to keep their plants healthy.15

Certainly, Arizona farmers have the experience and knowledge to turn hemp into an extraordinary cash crop. If they choose water efficient irrigation strategies, they will help conserve Arizona’s precious water resources while maximizing their own profits. A win-win opportunity for us all.

 

References:

  1. Fischer, Howard. “Ducey Signs Bill to Allow Hemp Farming.” Arizona Capitol Times, 15 May 2018, http://azcapitoltimes.com/news/2018/05/14/ducey-signs-bill-to-allow-hemp-farming/.
  2. Press, The Associated. “Arizona, Nevada And Mexico Face Better-Than-Even Odds For Colorado River Cuts.” Colorado Public Radio, http://www.cpr.org/news/story/arizona-nevada-and-mexico-face-better-than-even-odds-for-colorado-river-cuts.
  3. “The 20 Best CBD Oils for 2018.” Rave Reviews, 15 May 2018, http://www.ravereviews.org/health/best-cbd-oil/.
  4. “CBD from Hemp Oil vs. CBD from Medical Marijuana.” Medical Marijuana, Inc., Medical Marijuana, Inc, 11 Oct. 2017, http://www.medicalmarijuanainc.com/cbd-hemp-oil-vs-cbd-medical-marijuana/.
  5. Weiser, Matt. “Hemp Legalization Poised to Transform Agriculture in Arid West.” Oceans, News Deeply, 11 May 2018, http://www.newsdeeply.com/water/articles/2018/05/16/hemp-legalization-poised-to-transform-agriculture-in-arid-west.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Schnitkey, Gary. “Revenues Below $700 per Acre Possible with Corn in 2017.” Farmdoc Daily, 18 Apr. 2017, http://farmdocdaily.illinois.edu/2017/04/revenues-below-700-per-acre-possible-corn-2017.html.
  8. “Farming in California’s Drought: ‘Almonds Take More Total Water than Any Other Crop’.” The Splendid Table, http://www.splendidtable.org/story/farming-in-californias-drought-almonds-take-more-total-water-than-any-other-crop.
  9. Johnson, Renée. “Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity”, Congressional Research Service, 10 March 2017, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL32725.pdf.
  10. “2016 Annual Retail Sales for Hemp Products Estimated at $688 Million.”  7606 of the 2014 Farm Bill – Legitimacy of Industrial Hemp Research, http://www.votehemp.com/PR/2017-4-14_2016_Annual-Retail-Sales-for-Hemp-Products-Estimated-at-$688Million.html.
  11. Weiser, Matt. “Hemp Legalization Poised to Transform Agriculture in Arid West.” Oceans, News Deeply, 11 May 2018, http://www.newsdeeply.com/water/articles/2018/05/16/hemp-legalization-poised-to-transform-agriculture-in-arid-west.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Weiser, Matt. “Big Unknowns: What Legal Marijuana Means for Water in Western States.” Oceans, News Deeply, 3 Jan. 2018, http://www.newsdeeply.com/water/articles/2018/01/03/big-unknowns-what-legal-marijuana-means-for-water-in-western-states.
  14. Podiak, Caitlin. “When Is Your Cannabis in Season? Factors That Influence Growing, Harvest, and Availability.” Leafly, 24 Aug. 2017, http://www.leafly.com/news/growing/when-is-your-cannabis-in-season-factors-that-influence-growing-ha.
  15. Bennett, Chris. “Hemp Profit Gets Real.” AgWeb – The Home Page of Agriculture, 29 Oct. 2017, http://www.agweb.com/article/hemp-profit-gets-real-naa-chris-bennett/.

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