October 23, 2021

Cultivating his niche

Summerhill farmer Peter Allis grows first fiber hemp crop in area

Travis Dunn/staff reporter

Peter Allis talks about the 10-acre fiber hemp crop that he planted earlier this year on his Summerhill farm. Allis is one of two farmers in the region with a permit to grow fiber hemp, which is distinct from the type of hemp grown for CBD oil.

SUMMERHILL — Peter Allis has wanted to grow fiber hemp for more than 50 years.

He’s 61, so he’s been thinking about it since he was a kid — when his grandfather would talk about the hemp crops he grew.

Now Allis, with a state-issued permit, is growing hemp himself, making him one of two farmers in Central New York growing hemp for fiber rather than CBD oil.

Before 1937, the year all kinds of hemp, including marijuana, were made illegal by federal law, hemp was everywhere and used for a multitude of purposes, including rope and textiles. But despite a stint during World War II, hemp agriculture remained illegal until only recently, gaining respectability as more states decriminalize or legalize marijuana.

That marijuana cultivation became legal before hemp is something that Allis finds amusing, but mostly frustrating. To him, the ban has never made any sense.

Allis is now growing a 10-acre crop of fiber hemp on his Summerhill farm, having obtained a $500 three-year permit from the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. He said he thinks there is only one other farmer in New York growing hemp for fiber, but that number is not available, because New York does not distinguish between the types of hemp, which include one for fiber, one for CBD oil and one for grain.

“All of them are different plants,” Allis said. “They’re as different as our sweet corn plants.”

Janice Degni, field crops specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Cortland County, puts the number of fiber hemp farmers as less than 5 percent of the total number of hemp farmers in New York.

The tallest plants of the type grown for CBD oil grow to a height of 5 feet. But fiber hemp plants, Allis said, can grow up to 15 feet tall.

A fiber hemp farmer can also grow more plants that generate far more biomass than a comparable crop of CBD hemp, he said.

For Allis, this first crop is an experiment. He doesn’t expect to make much, if any, money from it. His intent is to show how the crop can be used to improve soil both by “shading out” weeds and enriching the soil with nutrients.

Allis would like to sell fiber hemp as well, but for that to happen, he must find a buyer. After more than 80 years of hemp being illegal, there isn’t much of an industrial base to make use of it.

“There’s no market for it,” Degni said. “There’s a lot of good things about the fiber, and there’s a potential, but those industries have to emerge.”

So far, hemp growers in New York and other states are going for the profitable hemp crop.

“Most of the people growing hemp are growing for CBD,” Degni said. The last of the major fiber hemp processing facilities in the United States went out of business at the end of World War II.

CBD oil processing is another story — there are a number of facilities for that.

But for fiber processing, there isn’t much. One facility in Central New York, CNY Hemp Processing, makes hemp seed oil and “pelletized animal bedding,” but does not produce the kind of processed fiber that could be made into rope or textiles, or any of the thousands of products that Allis mentioned as he thumbed through his heavily annotated copy of Jack Herer’s pro-hemp classic, “The Emperor Wears No Clothes.” According to Allis, the owner of CNY Hemp Processing, Steve Halton, is also the other Central New York farmer growing fiber hemp.

Allis said he wants to be instrumental in getting fiber hemp started as an industry. If all goes well this year, he’ll expand his crop next year to all 25 acres of tillable land on his farm. He would one day like to see his hemp made into a variety of products.

“There (are) people making lumber and particle board and insulation,” he said. “You can basically make a whole house out of hemp products.”

Allis said he will continue searching for buyers and processors, but until then, he will continue trying to educate farmers about fiber hemp, particularly about its benefit as a soil-enriching cover crop.

“I’ve been trying to educate people about hemp for 50 years,” he said.