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Council Bluffs contractor touts the many uses of industrial hemp during Ernst visit

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Hempcrete is exactly what it sounds like — concrete mixed with hemp.

It exemplifies the promise of materials made with industrial hemp, according to a local contractor who extolled the cash crop’s many uses during a Council Bluffs visit by U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst.

Tamara Brunow, owner of Brunow Contracting, has been interested in using hemp in her contracting and construction work for a number of years.

“The uses are pretty fantastic and the strength of hemp is notable and I just think there’s so many applications,” Brunow said.

Hemp is one of the most versatile, underutilized materials in the country, and Brunow thinks it’s ready for a popular resurgence. In addition to the pain relief properties of cannabinoid, or CBD, oil derived from hemp, the plant itself can be used to produce everything from paper to textiles to biodegradable plastics and insulation.

“The myriad of products with the right team and the right integrated supply chain, can create a wide breadth of products that are economic and differentiated and sustainable,” said John Carpenter, president and CEO of Bastlab, a biotechnology company based in Omaha that engineers, manufactures and commercializes high-performance products using bio-based materials, focusing especially on industrial hemp fiber.

Brunow met Carpenter a few years ago and really latched on to the research and development that Bastlab was doing with hemp.

Iowa already has hemp farmers, thanks to the Iowa Hemp Act, which Gov. Reynolds signed into law in 2019. The law allows farmers to purchase licenses to grow up to 40 acres of hemp, which is fine if you’re just looking to harvest the CBD oil, but if you want to use hemp plants to make insulation or clothes, you’re going to need more. A lot more.

“We can’t pull enough fiber off of 40 acres,” Brunow said. “We’ve got to get these Montgomery County farmers who have 4,000 acres planting for us.”

Being allowed to farm that much hemp would require changing the 40-acre limit set by the Iowa Hemp Act or introducing a separate bill specifically for industrial hemp, Brunow said.

Being able to locally source industrial hemp would be a huge benefit, Carpenter said. Bastlab currently gets its hemp from India.

“We spent four years over there, three months at a time, just vetting the different suppliers and getting it stood up,” Carpenter said. “We did it thinking, ‘it’s gonna take quite a while for the know-how to come over here and for the regulations to change or whatnot.”

Industrial hemp fibers can also be treated to be flame-resistant and hypoallergenic, which opens the door to even more uses.

“When I went to the Defense Logistics show years ago … the biggest ask at that time, from the buyers for the government were, ‘we want a flame-retardant, hemp-based fabric for our uniforms,’” Brunow said.

Brunow and Carpenter want to know why the government is importing industrial hemp-based fabric from other countries when it could be manufactured right here in Iowa.

Carpenter imagines a research and development facility in close proximity to hemp farmland where the crop can be processed. This would cut transportation costs and the international supply chain wouldn’t be as much of a factor.

“It creates not only an additional crop for farmers, but it also creates jobs in the rural communities,” he said. “I think it’s gonna happen in the United States in different places. I think Iowa could be well-suited for it. You have a lot of USDA grants, you have a lot of research.”

Ernst left the meeting enthusiastic about the possibilities of industrial hemp farming in Iowa and the crop’s potential uses.

“I think it’s just wonderful what you’re doing and I love it,” Ernst said. “I just remember, when you talk about the textiles, I’m so glad that you’ve engaged in that as well. I remember, as a young girl, my mom, she loved to sew. I mean, she sewed all of our clothes and just, it was her thing. I kind of have always been fascinated by fabrics or textiles that are made of other types of products, not just cotton or polyester, but there’s so much out there that we should be looking at.”

Ernst was in Council Bluffs as part of her annual 99 County Tour, a statewide pilgrimage she has undertaken every year since she was elected to the Senate in 2014. Ernst uses the yearly tours to speak with and listen to Iowans from across the state about their concerns and ideas.

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