Montana-based U.S. processor plans decortication facility

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An independent hemp operator in the U.S. state of Montana says it will build a multi-million dollar decortication factory to turn out raw materials for textiles, insulation and composite plastics.

IND HEMP, based in Fort Benton, Montana, said it hopes to take advantage of interest among major automakers who are experimenting with natural fibers in some car components as an alternative to petroleum based fibers.

“Ford Motor Company, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, BMW all use plant based fibers. Hemp is one of the strongest fibers and has many more applications than some of these other natural fibers,” Ben Brimlow, the company’s lead agronomist, told the Great Falls Tribune after a ground-breaking ceremony for the new factory last week.

French technology

A family business, IND HEMP already operates a food-grade hemp seed processing facility in Fort Benton that employs 15 workers. The decortication factory, expected to go online in 2021, is planned for processing up to five tons of hemp stalks per hour. The factory will create 35 new jobs, the company said. IND HEMP sources its hemp from a group of family farms in central Montana.

French machine maker LAROCHE, a specialist in fiber processing technology, is supplying the production lines for the planned Montana facility. LAROCHE makes processing machines for spinning, bedding and furniture, automotive, acoustic and thermal insulation, geotextiles, filtration and wipes.

Local officials see the new factory as a positive signal for Montana’s farm sector. “I can’t say enough how big this is,” said Rick Morris, Fort Benton’s mayor. “Stuff like this just doesn’t come along for rural Montana. We’ve been searching, searching and searching, and to have this come along and show up . . . is truly a big deal.”

Research needed

Montana has been growing hemp primarily for grain and CBD. Fields in the state dropped off significantly this year, with estimates that only 11,000 acres (4,450 hectares) were licensed – a decrease of 75% from the 45,000 acres (18,200 hectares) recorded in 2019. State agriculture officials have said Montana is still at the point where it is trialing various hemp seed to see which varieties grow best in local climate conditions. State Agriculture Director Ben Thomas has suggested that state universities should be enlisted to expand research and development for the industry.

Montana Sen. Jon Tester praised the planned fiber processing facility. “We’re seeing hemp production in the state skyrocket,” Tester said. “To be able to have a fiber plant here, I think, is really going to encourage folks to be able to put this crop within the rotation,” he said.

State plan on hold

Montana’s state hemp regulatory plan was agreed with the federal U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) this past spring, but farmers and processors in the state continued to operate this year under rules of a pilot program under the 2014 Farm Bill. Some lawmakers and industry stakeholders have asked that implementation of new rules under the 2018 Farm Bill be delayed to avoid associated costs in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Montana’s hemp interests are also participating in a federal commodity checkoff program that collects funds from producers for use in research and marketing aimed at expanding the hemp market generally. The program is managed by the USDA.

Montana’s total 58 million acres (23.5 million hectares) in farms makes it the second biggest in farmland among all states in the USA behind Texas. The state’s primary crop is wheat, but farmers also grow a wide range of grains, fruits and vegetables.

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