Because hemp was only legalized on a federal level and removed from the Controlled Substance Act when the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 became law, the legal cannabis and hemp industry in the U.S. is relatively new. But with a heightened interest in hemp products now that it’s legal, it’s expected that there will be a surge in hemp companies to meet the demands of the industrial hemp market, including hemp farms and processing facilities.
The hemp plant is grown for fiber production, seed production, wholesale hemp biomass, and hemp oil for use in a wide variety of hemp products. From textiles and rope to building materials, industrial hemp can be incorporated into thousands of products. Because hemp varieties like hemp seeds are categorized as food, this means that food and drug administrations have enforced rules and regulations on hemp and hemp-derived products, particularly CBD hemp.
This means that many of those that grow industrial hemp and hemp processing facilities in operation today are still in the learning process. Best practices are still being established as hemp cultivators, and processors understand more about the different factors and conditions that may enhance or weaken the integrity of the product. And beyond streamlining processes, the equipment for processing continues to evolve to reduce wastage and product loss, while improving efficiency and product quality.
Preparing Hemp Materials for Storage or Processing
Traditionally, industrial hemp is grown outdoors, while hemp cultivated for the purposes of producing medical hemp or CBD products like CBD oils, CBD extracts, CBD distillate, or hemp seed oil are grown indoors in greenhouses.
To understand the best processing environment for hemp products, we must also consider the environment the crop is coming out of and where it’s being stored. The climatic difference between geographic locations can mean that crop in one state will suffer from too much humidity and rainfall, while hemp farmers in another state will worry their hemp harvest is not getting enough moisture. Therefore, each facility will likely have its own processes and controls when it comes to harvesting, drying the plant material, and storage.
Drying hemp thoroughly before storage or moving it to a processing facility is a crucial first step to reducing the risk of mold growth and maintaining the integrity of the hemp plant material. Hemp harvesters and processing facilities do this with approaches like environmentally controlled barns, aeration, and heated air dryers. If the harvested plant is not dried quickly enough, moisture will not only encourage mold to spread but also become contaminated with fungi and bacteria. The same can happen when the hemp is harvested too wet.
The Characteristics of a High-Level Hemp Processing Facility
As the industry grows and evolves, we learn more about hemp cultivation, processing, and manufacturing practices. However, there are hemp processing facilities in operation today that have set the bar high by investing in the best technology and equipment and implementing strict processes and controls. Here are the characteristics of a high performing hemp processing plant.
Adequate moisture content was crucial when growing the hemp crops; however, in storage or during processing, too much moisture can threaten all your stored products. Mold loves to grow in damp places. And because of the way mold reproduces, they will send more airborne spores to find more places to grow and spread, potentially ruining hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars worth of product. So when the processing facility is climate-controlled with minimal to non-existent temperature shifts, the threat of mold is reduced significantly.
Too little moisture can also threaten the integrity of the product. Therefore, mitigating degradation of the harvest also means checking humidity levels constantly to ensure the hemp’s moisture content is stable and not too high, which can allow the growth of mold.
Well-Ventilated with Quality Filter System
Whether it’s an extraction facility or processing plant, air movement and carbon filtration is paramount. Ventilation ensures the air doesn’t become stagnant, which results in pathogens like mildew. As mentioned, mold spreads through airborne spores that go seeking for damp places to grow and reproduce. This is why processing facilities shouldn’t just be climate-controlled, but they should also take special precautions and have high-quality filters and ventilation.
Well-ventilated hemp processing facilities help reduce the risk of uneven distribution of heat and humidity. They also prevent pest infestations, like spider mites, and the spread of bacteria. Proper ventilation is also important for the health and safety of the people working in the hemp processing plant.
Protection from Direct Sunlight and the Elements
Exposure to extreme temperatures and ultraviolet light can cause a healthy harvest to degrade. So, not only is the best environment for hemp processing climate-controlled with high-quality filters and ventilation systems, but it should also be in an enclosed space that protects the product from direct sunlight, extreme heat or cold from the outdoors, and elements that may break down the delicate parts of the hemp plant like its buds and seeds.
Beyond a highly controlled facility with state-of-the-art filter and ventilation system, the equipment being used for processing should also be designed to be dust- and contamination-free. This is why it’s not ideal to use traditional equipment like belt conveyors, screw augers, bucket elevators, pneumatic, and vacuum conveyors when moving industrial hemp materials around the facility. These types of conveying systems either have poor inlet designs or speeds that are so high that they cause the materials to separate or break, leading to degradation. They are also prone to temperature changes, which may cause the fragile parts of the hemp plant to break down due to the heat and friction.
Tubular drag conveyor systems not only work more efficiently at moving delicate materials such as hemp seeds, hemp pellets, and hemp biomass, but they were also designed to keep dust and contaminants out. Modern tubular drag conveyors have stainless-steel tubes made with either nylon or UHMW discs that have no screws or bolts where particles may accumulate. To maintain the utmost cleanliness, even its connectors are made of stainless steel. The system will likely have removable parts for easy cleaning or can be cleaned-in-place (CIP).
Because the tubular drag conveyor system has an enclosed tube for moving materials, hemp material is kept clean and safe, no matter where they are conveyed within the facility. This not only maintains the integrity of the product but ensures there is no spillage or product loss.
As the stigma surrounding cannabis and hemp decreases, more entrepreneurs perceive hemp as an economic crop and want a piece of the multi-billion dollar industry. However, because industrial hemp programs are still in their infancy in most states, the industry still needs some time to grow and establish whether or not the processes and controls they’ve put in place are enough.
To compete in the hemp marketplace, business owners need to be prepared to invest in advanced technology and equipment to ensure they are processing hemp in the best environment possible. This calls for a facility that is climate-controlled, well-ventilated with quality filters, and enclosed to protect the product from the elements. Lastly, both the harvesting equipment and the processing equipment should be of the highest standard, as they may be the last to touch the product before the harvested hemp is stored, packed for distribution, or proceeds to harvest processing to be turned into an industrial hemp product.