If farmers could harvest hype, they might have a bumper crop from a newly legal commodity in Texas — hemp — before the first plants are in the ground.
Widely circulated profit figures for hemp, a nonpsychoactive cousin of marijuana with a multitude of potential consumer and commercial uses, are eye-popping, ranging from $5,000 an acre and up. That would be well above the couple of hundred dollars per acre for cotton or grain sorghum that Texas growers clear in a good year.
Such numbers, as well as a rare opportunity in the agricultural sector to get in on the ground floor of a new industry, have been enticing farmers, ranchers and many other Texans who simply have a spare plot of land to turn out for hemp-related conferences and informational meetings statewide, after Texas lawmakers legalized hemp four months ago.
The state's initial hemp crop won't be planted until the first quarter of 2020 at the earliest, because a permitting process for growers and rules to regulate production still must be put in place.
But for some longtime observers of Texas agriculture, the excitement surrounding the buildup has echoes of another seemingly once-in-a-generation opportunity from three decades ago. Emu ranching — raising the 6-foot-tall, flightless birds native to Australia — was touted at the time as a golden ticket for landowners with the gumption to try something new. It didn't end well.
“I’m hearing that comparison a lot,” said Calvin Trostle, a professor and agronomist at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. "There was a massive amount of hype (surrounding emus), and people paid crazy amounts for breeding birds. Then they basically became worthless."
Trostle doesn't consider the analogy perfect — unlike the emu fiasco, for instance, hemp already has a big end market — but he and others at Texas A&M are concerned that growers with dollar signs in their eyes might dive headlong into the new crop without complete understanding of how best to cultivate it, where to sell it or how to navigate what is shaping up to be a complex regulatory framework surrounding it.
Texas was at the center of the emu investment boom during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when promoters were extolling emu steak as a healthier red meat than beef and talking up emu oil as a skin moisturizer and for other uses. Breeding pairs of the birds topped $25,000 each during the period, according to reports, but sales of emu products never panned out as hoped, and many would-be emu ranchers ended up absorbing big financial losses when the bubble finally burst.
Hemp proponents, by contrast, already can point to plenty of sales.
Significant economic opportunity
U.S.-grown hemp anchored a $1.1 billion market last year, according to cannabis market research firm New Frontier Data. Cannabidiol, or CBD, an extract of the plant that has numerous perceived health benefits, constituted the biggest portion of those sales, and CBD demand is widely expected to continue climbing.
Even if CBD plateaus, however, U.S. sales of other hemp components — such as hemp fiber, which can be used in textiles and industrial parts — are forecast to increase significantly as the market matures and processing infrastructure is put in place. Last year's U.S. farm bill set the stage for hemp production to become legal nationwide, but before then the plant could only be grown in 34 states participating in a limited federal pilot program, severely constraining investment and innovation in the sector. Texas didn't opt to participate in the pilot program.
“Where we see some of the most compelling opportunities and applications for hemp are actually on the industrial side," said John Kagia, chief knowledge officer at New Frontier Data in Washington, D.C. “Collectively, the diversity of applications for which hemp could be potentially used represents a very, very significant long-term economic opportunity.”
Trostle agreed with that assessment, saying that "prospects for hemp for industrial uses are promising" in the long term and that Texas "might be particularly well adapted" to grow strains suitable for fiber markets.
But the sky-high profit figures currently being bandied about aren't realistic, he said, because they're sums paid specifically for hemp grown to produce CBD oil — and at a time when only a small amount of hemp acreage had been planted and consumer CBD demand took off. In addition, hemp with high levels of CBD is expensive and labor-intensive to grow.
"Those prices simply aren't sustainable moving forward," Trostle said. "The acreage is going up, and the economics (even from a short time ago) are out the window."
Already, U.S. hemp acreage has tripled in the past year, climbing to an estimated 230,000 acres now from about 78,000 in 2018, according to Vote Hemp, an advocacy group.
But references to windfalls reaped by farmers who got in early elsewhere are nonetheless commonplace as Texas gears up to plant its first crop.
'It's not guaranteed'
Jeff Lake —president of a Kentucky-based company called Elemental Processing that is aiming to open a CBD extraction plant in Houston — told a Texas legislative committee earlier this year that farmers employed by his firm in other states "are expecting at least $5,000 an acre in profit" from hemp they grow for him. He noted later in the meeting that "the price of hemp as a commodity will level out like any other commodity" as production increases.
Potential Texas growers have reported hearing even higher profit figures — such as $10,000 an acre — during other meetings with out-of-state hemp processing companies that are interested in operating here and are encouraging a big crop.
"If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true," said Tillery Timmons-Sims, executive director of a new organization for farmers called the Texas Hemp Growers Association, one of several hemp groups that have formed around the state. "It's not an exaggeration that some people (in other states) have made a lot of money. But the question is whether (the extremely high prices) will carry over into Texas, and it's not guaranteed" that they will.
Timmons-Sims said she views hemp as an intriguing crop — noting that prices probably could fall quite a bit and still be financially viable — but she cautioned would-be growers to take measured approaches, learning all they can about the plant and how to cultivate it and getting signed contracts from buyers before putting seeds or cuttings in the ground.
Hemp grown to produce CBD "is like the gold rush," she said. But she described farmers in her Lubbock-based group as more interested in long-term prospects for fiber markets and in the potential for the plant to serve as a new rotational crop within their existing farming operations.
“As far as I'm concerned, if we have one Texan who loses (a lot of money on hemp), that is one too many," Timmons-Sims said. "But I think Texas farmers are pretty smart, (and) the farmers I know are not going to just go in and plant 1,000 acres next year."
So-called "hobby farmers," meaning people with get-rich-quick aspirations but little experience in agriculture, are most at risk of falling victim to hemp hype, she said.
Ben Williams, who operates a 35-acre tree farm in East Texas, said success in the fledgling hemp industry is going to take planning, patience and realistic expectations. He has attended hemp-related conferences around the state — including one in Austin in August — and intends to plant a small crop for the CBD market on portions of his tree farm, but probably not until 2021.
"It's a great opportunity, but there are people who are going to lose their shirts," Williams said. "I don't have my eyes set for the moon. I am going to stay right here on earth, with both feet on the ground."