By Noah Baustin
Scott Thellman loves to experiment on his farm. So when Kansas opened up the Industrial Hemp Research Program in the winter of 2019, Thellman applied to join.
“We kind of said, ‘Why not?’ And we just jumped in,” he said.
Growing hemp was illegal in the US for decades. But recent changes in federal law have opened the door to growing the crop, though what that looks like varies a lot state by state.
Thellman is sitting out the hemp growing season in 2020 because other crops are more lucrative-- he currently grows about 70 crops. And he says with more people eating at home due to the coronavirus outbreak, there’s a bigger market for his kale, tomatoes, bell peppers and other vegetables.
Thellman also cites uncertainty in the fledgling hemp industry as part of his reason to hit the pause button. But he says he would try hemp again, and his experience last year as a hemp newbie still offers valuable lessons.
For starters, he said, get ready for a whole lot of paperwork. He had to submit a research proposal to the Kansas Department of Agriculture (KDA) and the state required background checks for everyone who would be working with the hemp.
Thellman’s application was eventually approved and his next step was to find seeds. But the major seed companies don’t offer hemp varieties. Thellman put in an order with a Colorado company and was surprised by the makeshift packaging for the seeds.
“They came in a little mason jar overnighted on Fedex. I just opened it up and there's a jar of dope seed and it's just like, ‘Oh, ok, I guess this is how this industry works,’” he said.
Thellman’s team started the hemp plants in a greenhouse, then transplanted them into the field with a water-wheel transplanter. In a lot of ways, Thellman found that growing hemp was similar to growing vegetables.
“If any of you guys are good at growing tomato plants at home, it's not too much different,” he said.
Thellman grows his hemp for cannabidiol, commonly known as CBD. CBD is a high-value product that can be extracted from floral varieties of hemp. But hemp can also be treated more like a row crop and grown for its fiber or seed.
Hemp is a variety of the same plant species as marijuana: Cannabis sativa. Both hemp and marijuana have CBD. But the major difference is that hemp has much lower levels of Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. THC is what gets people high when they use marijuana. Hemp has so little THC that it is impossible to use it to get high.
Even so, the government has strict requirements that hemp crops stay below .3% THC. So as Thellman managed his hemp to maximize CBD production, he kept his fingers crossed that the THC levels wouldn’t end up above the limit.
“I know a few guys in the state of Kansas have tested hot, which essentially has required them to either have a sheriff or KDA or some official there as they destroy a crop,” he said.
Fortunately, Thellman’s THC levels stayed low and by September, he was ready to harvest. Before he could pull the plants out of the field, though, he had to get a harvest permit from the state. Once the permit came through, he had to finish the harvest within ten days.
“Well, out of those ten days, about eight of them it was raining. So we really only had about two days and we couldn't drive in the field,” Thellman explained.
His plan to use his combine for the harvest was out the window. So Thellman and his crew fired up their chainsaws and cut the plants out of the field one by one.
Would Thellman recommend growing hemp to other farmers? It’s still too soon to say. On one hand, it was a fun experiment he got to try out on a few extra acres. On the other hand, the hemp took up space during a year when the farm was hit hard with flooding.
He says after the floods, he was “kind of wishing we had that acreage in vegetables.”
For farmers who haven’t already been accepted into a hemp program, there’s the question of legality. The federal government legalized commercial hemp growing in the 2018 Farm Bill, but it’s up to states to develop their own regulations for the crop. As of January 2020, you can grow hemp in most states. But you’re going to need to apply for a license and there are going to be limitations on how you grow and sell the crop.
To hear Scott Thellman’s full story, plus a discussion of hemp’s future, take a listen to A Farmer’s First Foray into Hemp on the Field Work podcast.