Hemp grows in a field in 2022 near Waconia, Minn. Hemp seed may soon be allowed in chicken feed, opening a potentially massive market that could boost the industry here.

Egg cartons could soon boast a new green claim: hemp-fed hens.

Regulators recently gave hemp seed meal initial approval as feed for egg-laying chickens, granting hemp farmers access to part of the $85 billion U.S. livestock feed market for the first time.

More markets could engender greater confidence among Minnesota hemp farmers to plant additional acres, which the industry here needs for bigger scale and favorable prices.

Several major players in animal nutrition, including Cargill and Land O’ Lakes, are based in Minnesota.

Hemp remains a specialty crop grown on just a sliver of Minnesota farmland since 2016. While better known these days for being a source of CBD and THC, the plant has been used for food and fiber for millennia.

Hemp seed is high in protein, fat and fiber and contains a complete amino acid profile. Studies show that meat and eggs can be enriched when coming from chickens fed hemp seed meal and that no hemp cannabinoids end up in human food. The FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine vetted the ingredient and recommended the feed association approve its use in egg-laying chickens.

“One application like this has a lot of positive impacts,” Hemp Acres founder Charlie Levine said. “We’re really stoked about it.”

Waconia-based Hemp Acres, the nation’s largest wholesaler of hemp grain and fiber, expanded in 2022 anticipating higher demand for hemp products. The livestock feed market may be the key to unlocking that potential.

“The whole goal is getting more acres planted and yields up, and that can drive down the price of consumable good,” Levine said.

With the chance to sell to livestock feed producers and increasing consumer demand for regenerative agriculture, hemp advocates hope farmers will be more willing to regularly incorporate hemp in a crop rotation or grow some on spec. As it grows, hemp takes more carbon out of the atmosphere than trees.

“It’s an opportunity for farmers to diversify with lower risk for supply chains to become more sustainable, and for the entire agricultural community to reap the benefits of this versatile crop,” said Andrew Bish, head of the Montana-based Hemp Feed Coalition.

Last year Minnesota licensed a combined 223 hemp growers and processors, according to the state Department of Agriculture, and applications are still open to grow it this year.

Applicants, licenses and acreage have all been declining in recent years even as hemp-derived THC products became legal in the state in 2022. An initial boom-and-bust cycle of growers looking to cash in on the CBD market several years ago cratered prices and made hemp unprofitable, especially given added regulations.

“I think farmers in general would like to use it as a rotational crop, but they’re being cautious because they have a business to run,” said David Ladd, head of the Minnesota Industrial Hemp Association. “There has to be an end use market for it, and chicken feed is a step in the right direction.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation added a new policy goal for 2024 that would lift a huge regulatory burden for many hemp growers: “removing background checks and mandatory THC testing for industrial hemp grown for grain, fiber or industrial seed production.”

Hemp and marijuana are the same plant, except for laws that dictate hemp contain no more than 0.3% THC, the main intoxicating compound in cannabis.

Regulators and lawmakers have long been worried about higher-THC cannabis slipping through hemp supply chains unchecked. But due to how differently hemp for food and fiber and hemp for marijuana are grown, “no one is growing marijuana in a field like that,” Strohfus said.

Fewer regulations should help bring down the cost of hemp seed, giving it more viability for farmers and customers.

Some incentives wouldn’t hurt either, said Strohfus, who also grows sunflowers, buckwheat, sorghum and kernza.