Where past is future: Industrial hemp takes root again in Renville County
Two brothers have launched Prairie PROducers to process industrial hemp raised by farmers in Renville County. Tim and Paul Seehusen have contracted with farmers to raise the crop and will process the hemp to sell to end-use manufacturers.
OLIVIA — Two brothers see the future of industrial hemp in its past: As the source material for products both practical and common in our daily lives.
Tim and Paul Seehusen have launched Prairie PROducers LLC in Olivia to process locally raised industrial hemp into the fibers, biomass and grain that can be further processed into products ranging from clothing and biodegradable bottles to high-protein oil.
They planted a two-acre test plot with four different varieties of industrial hemp May 6 behind their facility on the west edge of Olivia. They have contracted with six farmers to plant 155 acres of industrial hemp and sell what they harvest to Prairie PROducers.
“We’re just focusing on getting it to the next step,” said Tim Seehusen as the two brothers outlined their plans to bring back industrial hemp as a crop for Minnesota farmers.
In the 1940s, farmers in Renville and surrounding counties raised hemp for its fiber to make rope and other products needed in the war effort. Processing plants operated in both Bird Island and Lake Lillian, according to a file on the wartime effort kept by Nicole Elzenga, director of the Renville County Historical Society. Farmers were licensed by the government to raise what was improperly termed “Indian hemp,” according to those records.
The Seehusens and the farmers raising hemp today operate under the auspices of a federal pilot program. It allows them to raise industrial hemp that contains less than 0.3 percent of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana that makes it a controlled substance.
Hemp has seen a resurgence in interest in recent years, due in part to the demand for the CBD oil that can be extracted from it. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture reported that 7,353 acres were licensed for hemp cultivation in the state last year. It also reported that prices for CBD oil have steadily declined.
But it’s almost anything but CBD oil that motivates the Seehusens. There are literally thousands of products that can be made from the hemp plant, especially its fibers, they said.
By summer’s end, they intend to have a machine called a decorticator installed at their Olivia facility. Hemp raised by the six farmers will arrive as bales and be fed into the machine.
It will separate the stalks of the plant into two types of fibers. The outside, or bast fiber, is stringy and ideal for making everything from clothing and fabrics to ropes and car panels. The inside, or hurd fiber, is best suited for use in making biodegradable and plastic-like products. It could be used to make biodegradable soft drink bottles, for example, or used in 3D printers no differently than an injectable plastic.
The Seehusens said they are currently in the process of working with potential buyers for the fibers. The buyers will manufacture the fibers into the different end-use products.
The manufacturers all have different needs from the raw material. Prairie PROducers will likely need to install a hammermill to meet some of the needs, the Seehusens said. It may be necessary to fractionate the hurd fiber into very tiny sizes, they explained.
They also intend to separate the grain and biomass from the baled plants. The grain can be processed into a high-protein oil. They said they may store the biomass as pellets.
The brothers’ late father, Jim Seehusen, had founded and led Pro Equipment Sales of Olivia. It was one of the region’s leaders in developing on-farm storage bins. The brothers said they began pursuing this venture after learning that their father’s longtime associate and the company’s longtime manager, Jim Kodet, was planning to retire.
They took over the facility, giving them a building and a place to operate, and began researching industrial hemp and making contacts in the industry.
This is just a starting point, and it’s somewhat smaller than they envisioned. The brothers had hosted a meeting in February to gauge interest by area farmers in raising the crop. They found a lot of interest. The interest waned some as the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded.
“COVID-19 put a lot of farmers on their heels,” said Tim Seehusen.
He pointed out that growers cannot obtain traditional crop insurance on industrial hemp in the first year they raise it.
While there’s caution out there, there’s also a track record for hemp production in the county. They pointed out that one of their growers, sugar beet producer Greg Steffel, is the grandson of William Steffel, who had a license to grow the crop in Renville County in 1943.
In the long term, the brothers said they hope the Olivia operation proves to be just the first of other hemp processing plants they would like to develop in the state.
The test plot they planted earlier this month will help them and farmers find the varieties of industrial hemp best suited to Minnesota. They are also aiming to develop a variety that provides the best overall yield of both fibers and grain.
The Seehusens said they are confident that as more farmers take interest in hemp, they will help realize the full potential of this crop.
“Farmers in Minnesota are professional. They know exactly what to do to get out of their land, their crop, exactly what they want. They are going to figure this out for us,” said Tim Seehusen.