In early 2019, Rachael and Jesse Smedberg took a leap of faith and bought a corn farm in Beecher. A corn silo remains on the 65-acre property that is now Tulip Tree Gardens and Wellness Farm, but corn is no longer grown there.
Instead, the Smedbergs operate a boutique-style farm stand and grow heirloom vegetables, flowers and hemp on just 10 acres at 1236 E. Eagle Lake Road. They sow the remainder with cover crops of rye grass and small grains as part of a seven-year effort to restore the soil.
“Hemp provides 85 percent of our income, but it’s not 100 percent of what we do,” said Jesse Smedberg, who shelved a career in heavy machinery and automation to take up sustainable farming.
So far, the Smedbergs have derived the bulk of their income by focusing on hemp for its derivatives, which are believed by many to relieve insomnia, regulate metabolism, reduce pain from arthritis and discourage seizures in those who suffer epilepsy.
Tulip Tree Gardens is also developing a lightweight, highly absorbent cat litter made from hemp leaves and stalks.
While the growing popularity of hemp relates to its purported healing properties minus the hallucinatory effects of marijuana, for centuries hemp was grown to produce rope, textiles, oils and livestock feed. Hemp also removes heavy metals from soils.
Though hemp comes from the same cannabis plant species as marijuana, a plant strain can only qualify as hemp if its THC content is less than 0.3 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. State grower licensing and crop monitoring measures enacted in 2018 enforce the differentiation between marijuana and hemp producers.
The protocols came as a result of the 2018 Farm Bill signed by President Donald Trump, which legalized the commercial cultivation of hemp.
For decades, federal law did not differentiate hemp from other cannabis plants made illegal in 1937 under the Marijuana Tax Act. Hemp, along with marijuana, also was deemed a controlled substance under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act.
The value of hemp could not be denied for the World War II effort, said Phillip Alberti, University of Illinois extension educator, commercial agriculture. For a brief period during World War II, farmers were encouraged to grow hemp for rope, textiles and oil needed by the U.S. military.
The Smedbergs belong to a new generation of hemp farmers involved in a recent resurgence of the crop in Illinois, according to Chris Berry, chief operating officer of the Illinois Hemp Growers Association.
Berry and his wife, Rachel Berry, CEO of the association, established the lobbying and education group in October 2018. It already boasts 600 members including hemp growers, procurers, retailers and environmentalists.
The association also maintains a blog on pertinent legislation, plant genetics, processing and other hemp-related topics.
“I think we’re definitely helping growers and a lot of people who have no idea where to start but want to become involved,” said Chris Berry.
However, he cautions new members to mind the steep learning curve.
“We tell people to scale back expectations,” he said. “When they say they want to start with 10 acres, we say, ‘How about two?’”
In 2019, 17,000 acres were licensed for growing hemp in Illinois, but only 5,200 were successfully harvested due to challenging climate conditions, Alberti said.
Tulip Tree produced only small quantities of hemp last year, but the farm is still gaining a foothold with hemp because it has an onsite system that extracts cannabinoids from the plants.
“Unlike many growers, Tulip Tree is a vertically integrated operation,” said Rachael Smedberg, a former social worker. “That sets us apart from other growers. Last year, several ended up with hemp but no way to process it.”
She markets Tulip Tree’s hemp derivative products, such as hemp bitters, hemp oil, hemp salve, smokable hemp flower and hand sanitizer. She also works with other hemp producers to extract the cannabinoids and develop branding for their products.
As July, National Hemp Month, drew to a close, so did a call for participants in a University of Illinois Extension study related to cannabinoid development and the performance of industrial hemp varieties. The study, coordinated by Alberti, involves the University of Illinois, Purdue University, Michigan State University and the University of Wisconsin.
The study will measure cannabinoids found in varieties of industrial hemp grown in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan. Besides THC, cannabinoids include CBD, CBC and CBN. They also include terpenes, which give hemp and marijuana their distinct aroma.
By offering sample analysis at a reduced rate to growers and sharing results for different seed varieties, the study also aims to shed light on which varieties and growing practices yield the most promising results.
“This will provide a baseline as to where to invest resources for further development,” Alberti said.
The Smedbergs have already discovered that the variety of hemp they’ve chosen grows best in healthy soil. The largest and tallest plants for this year’s crop occupy an area already benefitting from their soil remediation measures.
As plants mature at Tulip Tree Gardens, Jesse Smedberg will examine the flower heads in preparation for harvest. He’ll also select samples to submit to University of Illinois Extension for study.
“Hemp is a truly remarkable plant with thousands of applications,” Alberti said. “But it will take study and private investors to make these products work.”