Hemp Processing: How Industrial Hemp Is Processed Postharvest
A lot goes into the processes that occur between planting the first hemp seed of the year and selling one of the products made from it. But rather than trying to elaborate on the entire process (that could take days), we want to focus on how industrial hemp is processed postharvest.
Below you will learn what industrial hemp is, what it’s used for, and how some of it is processed postharvest.
What Is Industrial Hemp?
Industrial hemp is a variety of the Cannabis sativa plant that is grown specifically to make certain products. It’s one of the fastest-growing plants on the globe and can reach heights upward of 16 feet.
Hemp and the products made from it spread across several industries, making it a very valuable commodity that we still have a lot to learn about. Although similar in look and smell to marijuana, hemp has a unique collection of chemical compounds that make it different.
What Is Industrial Hemp Harvested for?
As we mentioned above, hemp has several uses across a variety of different industries. It’s applications can be found in things we use every day, and in things we’d never think were made using hemp.
Although the list of products that are made using hemp goes on for a long time, only a few make up the majority of revenue that is created by it. Some of the most popular include:
- CBD products
- Concrete (Known as hempcrete)
Harvesting Industrial Hemp
Believe it or not, there was a time when industrial hemp was harvested by hand. Luckily, in today’s world, there exists a multitude of different machines that can be used to carry out the process.
However, these machines can get pricey in a hurry, driving many small-time hemp farmers to gather a small team to help with the harvesting.
Hemp stalks are very sturdy, making them difficult to cut down. This takes the most time during the harvesting process, as the rest of it is a matter of collecting and separating the good and the bad.
As a general rule of thumb, the majority of outdoor-grown hemp crops are ready to be harvested between mid- and late-August; give or take a month depending on the strain being produced.
Once the hemp is harvested, it’s crucial for farmers to begin drying and storing it.
Drying and Storage
The drying and storage process is vital for industrial hemp postharvest because it determines the overall quality of the product.
Hemp that is harvested at the right time and dried quickly produces the highest-quality products. Hemp that is harvested at the wrong time is typically really wet, making the drying process longer that results in lower-quality products.
Because of all this, it’s important for hemp farmers to have an updated hemp drying facility that makes the process fast and easy.
Once the hemp is dried and quality-checked, it is put into storage where it awaits to be sold to a processor or be used by the farmer again.
Fiber and Seed Production
The correct time for harvesting industrial hemp is dependent on what is being produced. Two of the most common uses are for fiber and seed production.
Hemp being used for fiber production should be harvested when the plants are between early bloom and seed-set, with extra precautions put in place to avoid damaging the stalk.
Once harvested, the components of the hemp plant are separated by a machine known as a decorticator. The decorticator separates the valuable fiber and inner core from the rest of the stem.
To make this process easier for the machine, many hemp farmers soften the fiber first through a process known as retting.
Retting can be conducted in several different ways:
- Field Retting- Uses moisture from the environment to soften the fiber over the course of 2 to 3 weeks.
- Water Retting- Softens the fiber through water immersion.
- Chemical Retting- Uses chemicals to greatly accelerate fiber production.
- Green Retting- Uses machines to separate components of the plant.
The different kinds of retting each come with their own perks in regard to saving time and money, and play a huge role in the quality of the final product.
Hemp being grown for seed production is harvested roughly six weeks after the plants begin to flower, or when the seeds are all ripe.
Harvesting seeds from hemp flower heads can prove tricky, especially with how sticky the resin is inside of it. This often requires farmers to manually clean their machinery during the operation.
The process of producing seeds must be done carefully as it’s easy to damage them. Oftentimes, the harvesters use low-speed machinery to ensure safety and thoroughness.
Once the seeds have been removed, the remainder of the plant material is ready for extraction.
Regulations dictate that CBD may only be extracted from the stalks and seeds of hemp; however, the leaves and flower heads allow for direct extraction and typically produce the most CBD.
There are several different extraction techniques that companies can use, such as:
- Ethanol extraction
- Olive oil extraction
- CO2 extraction
Of these extraction methods, the most popular and effective is CO2 extraction.
CO2 extraction is mainly a two-step process: Winterization and short path distillation.
During winterization, fats, waxes, and lipids are removed from the extract to help isolate CBD. However, during this process, nearly all chemical compounds are pulled from the plant, requiring further refining.
The mixture that needs reining is combined with 200 proof alcohol and stirred in until completely mixed together. After that, it’s placed in the deep freeze overnight.
After freezing overnight, the alcohol is removed by exposing the solution to high heat that evaporates away the alcohol. Once this is complete. Processors move onto short path distillation.
Short path distillation is similar to winterization because the process is the same: The extract is heated and compounds separate as they reach their boiling point. Eventually, they will have successfully isolated the CBD.
A lot of work goes into getting the highest quality CBD products on the shelves and into the hands of consumers. And this was only a brief runthrough of the process — the actual process takes a long time to complete, and unexpected complications extend this timeline.
Either way, knowing what goes into the process can help you appreciate the time, money, and effort that hemp farmers and producers put into growing the hemp and turning it into its eventual products. If nothing else, having a basic understanding of the process can help you make your first step toward starting your own CBD business. Thanks for reading, and stay safe out there!