As Steve Carrell prepared to eat Indiana-grown beef brisket, he was thinking more about tilapia and hemp.
Carrell, owner of Ponderosa Aqua Farm near Spencer, raises fish in a greenhouse using aquaponics. Water from his tilapia pond flows into a pool where in the past few weeks he has started growing hemp. The roots of the plant look like floating kelp.
If he can get the right results, he’d like to use hemp to feed his fish.
“Our fish will grow faster and produce more,” said Carrell. “The theory is we can grow hemp faster than in dirt because we can manipulate the nutrient content.”
It’s the promise of commercial use that hemp supporters need in Indiana.
Currently hemp is grown on less than 5 acres in Indiana by four producers, including Carrell, under the banner of research through Purdue University. The Indiana General Assembly has barred industrial hemp from being sold commercially in the state.
Hemp can be grown for food, fiber and cannabinoids, among other commercial products.
“There needs to be some proponents for it at the state level,” said Ron Turco, agronomy professor at Purdue University who monitors hemp research. “The main thing we need is for products, materials to be able to go somewhere. We need an economic pull. We need somebody who says, ‘You guys grow, I’ll build a plant.’ If that happens, I think things will be different.”
Purdue is studying the seasonal nature of growing hemp and how it fits into crop rotation.
Kentucky recently approved 12,800 acres for industrial hemp planting this year for research purposes; applications came in from 209 growers. In 2016, 137 growers were approved to plant up to 4,500 acres. Program participants planted more than 2,350 acres of hemp in 2016, up from 922 acres in 2015 and 33 acres in 2014.
That’s why Carrell and 50 others ate Indiana-grown meals, including hemp seed-infused salads, at the Main Street Grill in Monrovia at a dinner hosted by Indiana Hemp Industries Association and Indiana Farmers Union.
One diner likened hemp’s taste to sunflower seeds “but less nutty.” Another said there was no noticeable flavor but said hemp is rich in healthy fats, minerals and protein.
The event kicked off the annual Hemp History Week, but its purpose was to get Indiana producers acquainted with the state’s diverse crops.
“It’s a week to celebrate the history of hemp, to advocate, to network, to build business and get the conversation going that hemp is back, hemp is here and to get people in the same room,” said Jessica Scott, executive director of the Indiana Hemp Industries Association.
The association stresses the industrial aspects of hemp while overcoming recent stigmas about marijuana use.
“People fondly remember hemp because not that long ago people could grow it,” Scott said. “Grandfathers used to talk about hemp for the war. Their families remember hemp as an all-American crop. A lot of Hoosiers fondly remember it and they don’t understand why it ever went away.”
“Two years we’d walk into a room and try to have a conversation on industrial hemp and 95 percent of it would be about marijuana,” said Justin Swanson, an IHIA board member who is a public affairs attorney with Bose McKinney law firm. “Now we’re at a point where lawmakers understand there’s a distinct difference between marijuana and industrial hemp.”