Hemp is the belle of the crop ball in 2019, with farmers lined up for a chance to dance—but desire does not necessarily translate to know-how. From seed to harvest to processing, U.S. growers are asking a litany of hemp questions.
The year of hemp jubilee has arrived, roughly 80 years after Uncle Sam locked the maligned cannabis variety in the federal attic. American farmers can officially play the hemp game—so says the 2018 farm bill—and for prospective growers facing a chain of hemp management questions, invaluable answers are found in fellow farmers' fields. Whether seed, fiber or cannabidiol (CBD), hemp growers share a colossal commonality: They are all learning on the go.
CBD Labor Pains
"Everybody wants to know how to farm hemp," says Joseph Sisk, "but they don't realize that everyone already growing hemp does it differently."
Located in western Kentucky's Christian County, Sisk, 45, grows 5,000 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat. For the last three years, alongside farming partner Todd Harton, Sisk has grown hemp exclusively for CBD, a highly desired extract of cannabis and present darling of the hemp industry. By 2022, the overall CBD market value is projected to approach $2 billion, according to New Frontier Data, with $646 million of the total exclusive to hemp-derived CBD.
The Kentucky duo grew 200 acres of hemp for CBD in 2018, and typically apply 125 to 200 lb. nitrogen, spread prior to planting and through an over-the-top application in July. "We've seen hemp's fertilizer needs parallel corn, but I have to emphasize three years of data is not solid," Sisk says. "Murray State University and the University of Kentucky are both looking hot and heavy at fertilizer use. Who knows the right amount? Nobody, yet."
Planting typically falls between the third week of May and into the first week of June. (Sisk also cites an exceptional instance of notably late-planting on July 15 with no faltering of the crop.) Hemp clones are provided by an in-state processor (each season begins with an established processor contract) and transplanted into 40" rows on flat ground with multiple 4-row tobacco setters spread over a 10-day period. Planting population varies between 1,500-4,000 plants per acre, contingent on the variety requested by the processor. "This is all so young that we grow whatever varieties our processor wants. Right now we don't need to choose on our own and get rejected in the end," Sisk explains.
Hemp for CBD is a young crop with a younger market, and prices change by the month, sometimes by the week. "Marketing is done a thousand different ways. Some people buy their own genetics and find a buyer at the end, but most people are connected with a specific processor. It seems like everyone has a different deal," he adds.
After planting, Sisk and Harton make sure the hemp has adequate moisture to set roots. They used drip irrigation during the first hemp season, but rodent issues required daily labor to walk lines and fix holes. "Hemp needs enough water to continue its life cycle, but you can't push water to it as you would with corn," Sisk notes. "When you're pod-building in beans or finishing corn, moisture in soil is good, but that's not the case with hemp. We only add water if the dirt really gets depleted. Hemp likes sunny, hot weather."
Initially, Sisk believed hemp for CBD was conducive to any soil, even marginal ground.
Multiple years of experience have taught him otherwise: “It responds to better soils like any crop.” Once hemp starts, grower options are severely limited—no herbicides, insecticides or fungicides allowed. Weeding requires vigilance, with either row cultivation or hoes. “You have to get things right from the beginning, because there are no chemicals allowed, and if something goes wrong, all you can do is watch,” Sisk describes.
In general, the plants grow at an incredibly fast rate for the first 60 days. By the beginning of August, the varieties show distinct phenotype differences from short and squat (3’ wide x 3’ tall), to tall and fat (6’ tall x 5’ wide). Chopping crews combat weed presence. From pillar to post, hemp for CBD requires considerable labor, according to Sisk: “Across an entire season, this is incredibly labor intensive, even more so than tobacco.”
When the hemp reaches sexual maturity, vigilance is required to check fields for male plants. CBD production is strictly a no-males-allowed proposition. Even a few males in a hemp field can pollinate an entire crop, triggering seed production in females, diminished flower set, and a reduction in CBD concentration. “We have to pay attention and make sure there are no males with pollen sacs. We’ll pull them up immediately when we find them and get them out of the field.”
After 100-120 days, Sisk and Harton hope for a field of female plants heavy with CBD content stored in flowers and biomass, yet below the .3 psychoactive THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) level to remain clear of regulatory violations. “There are so many different opinions about when to harvest according to maturity, but we rely on our processor to tell us when it’s finally ready. The department of ag pulls tissue tests to make sure the hemp is below .3, and then we harvest.”
Harvest crews need roughly five weeks to bring in 200 acres, and Sisk estimates one man for every five acres. By necessity, harvest is haphazard and a constant learning process without standards. Sisk equates hemp harvest to killing snakes: just go do it. “Nobody, and I mean nobody, has figured out the harvest process yet. Whatever works is currently the right way. At the point of harvest, nobody is doing it the same. We’re all trying to figure out the best way regarding labor and logistics.”
Sisk and Harton have built and experimented with several harvesting machines, but their labor crews hand-cut plants at ground-level with tobacco knives or shears. The plants are dragged down the rows to wagons or trailers, and hauled indoors for drying. At the drying point, variation between operations is even more diverse: Warehouse floors, dehumidifiers, fans, tobacco barns, sheds, greenhouse heat, racks, direct to processor, and mechanical dryers. Sisk believes mechanical drying will ultimately prevail as the method of choice: “Harvest and afterward is a total free-for-all and a puzzle needing a solution. As growers, we all share with each other to try and find out what works, but we’re all making it up as we go. There is no authority to ask.”
When weather cooperates and provides strong heat, plants are dried on racks in roughly two weeks. After drying, plants are stripped of all green material and run through a hammer mill. “Most processors want 10%-plus raw CBD oil. If you introduce the whole plant then your CBD percent drops.”
After three years, yields have jumped across the spectrum. The size and variety of the plants makes yield a tricky proposition: “A lot of people hope the entire plant weighs in excess of 1 lb. I’ve seen plants that were big and looked great, but it doesn’t really matter. Some processors pay by CBD content, plant material, whole plant, or pounds of oil. Again, it’s different everywhere.”
The 2018 farm bill opened the door for crop insurance, but the details are yet to surface. Sisk emphasizes the risks of growing hemp for CBD. “You better look it right in the eye and no there is no guarantee financially. Your biggest consideration is finding someone reliable to work with on the processing end. If you’re the kind of farmer that can grow high-quality crops and actively manage labor, then you can get a leg up on hemp.”
Sisk urges prospective growers to start small and avoid business-altering acreage. “Begin with tiny acres and get an idea of scalability and processor reliability. Can you tolerate financial hiccups? In most ways, you’re gonna be on your own.”
Chris Adams, 31, farms a diverse crop roster on 9,000 acres: sugarbeets, hard red spring wheat, hemp, soybeans, and six varieties of edible beans. Adams works land on both sides of the North Dakota-Minnesota line in fertile Red River Valley soils, and was an early adopter of seed hemp in 2017, growing 300 acres. In 2018, he increased seed hemp to 750 acres, and made a test run at CBD hemp on his Minnesota ground.
“I jumped in with about three-and-a-half acres, regardless of the market. It’s so huge that I wasn’t worried about finding a buyer. I was more concerned with normal weather risks and making sure my product was under the .03 THC level—some varieties flirt closely with that number.”
Adams purchased clones in Colorado and prepared to plant in early June, spreading 100 lb. of nitrogen per acre and laying down 4’-wide plastic mulch strips every 6’. Spaced 5’ to 6’ apart in each row, Adams’ crew hand-deposited roughly 1,500 plants per acre. “We then came back with a tank and hose, and watered twice daily for four days in a row. Then we left them alone to grow. You can add nutrients and micronutrients but we just let the soil do its job.”
By mid-September, as the flowering plants reached 6’-7’ high with 2”-3” diameter stalks at the cusp of harvest, Adams found 2,000 impostors carrying pollen sacs in the field. His clone purchase in Colorado was fraudulent because half his crop was male—an absolute disaster in CBD hemp which requires all-female production. Boiled down, he lost an entire crop. (In addition, the CBD level of the plants was 1.5%, drastically lower than Adam’s minimal target of 15%.)
“I had 4,000 plants ready to harvest. Just say each plant produces a half-pound of flower material that’s 18% to 20% CBD. That gives you 2,000 lb. of biomass to sell. Sold at $100 per lb., that totals $200,000. Basically, my potential to sell went from $200,000 to zero.”
Undaunted, Adams intends to buy planting machinery in 2019 and plant legitimate clones on 20 acres.
(For more, see Hemp Fraud Hits Farmer With Clone Scam)
Seed Hemp: Perfect Planting
In the rolling hills of North Dakota’s Grant County, Clarence Laub grows 2,400 dryland (15” rain annually) acres of corn, hemp, soybeans, sunflowers, and wheat on predominantly sandy loam soil, alongside a 300-head commercial Angus operation. Despite an unsteady feel of isolation, Laub, 25, gathered what little information he could find and grew 10 acres of hemp for seed in 2016. In 2017, he ramped up to 240 acres, but after dealing with the whims of a capricious market, dropped to 60 acres in 2018.
Weather permitting, Laub plants hemp at the tail-end of corn, around May 20 to June 1. He used an air drill in 2016 on 10” rows, but experienced a significant amount of seed cracking, and seed depth irregularity beyond his .5” target. In 2017, the problems spurred Laub to switch to a no-till box drill on 6” rows that “worked great and provided accurate seeding depth.”
The tighter 6” rows were an improvement, particularly on a crop without herbicide options, according to Laub: “The close rows make it canopy so much faster and avoid weed issues. My planting population is 6 to 12 plants in a square foot—dense. That is really thick when you’ve got a 7’ crop a few inches apart.”
Laub hasn’t experienced plant disease or insect issues, and with few management angles, the stand is the story, Laub explains. “You need to try and get perfect planting. There are no chemicals to rely on, so what you’ve got is what you’ve got. At least in my experience, getting a good stand is the hardest part.”
In 2018, Laub planted a relatively small (5’-7’) Canadian variety, Hemp Genetics International CRS-1: “There was no blowover in the wind even with some 80 mph gusts. The stalks are seriously strong, kind of like flax on steroids. Once the field is harvested, you don’t dare jump down from the combine into the hard stalks without being careful.”
Laub harvests at the beginning of September when the plants are fairly green with the same equipment he uses for small grains: a draper head and a standard combine. In 2016 and 2017, Laub used a shredder and vertical tillage to take care of post-harvest biomass. However, he used a haybine in 2018 to cut biomass for baling, storage—and a market down the road.
Hemp seed prices have subsided, a downward trend Laub hopes will reverse. Seed brought $1 in 2016, he recalls; 50 cents in 2017; 40 cents early in 2018, but 30 cents closer to harvest. Laub’s seed yields averaged 1,500-1,600 lb. per acre. “We’re still learning, and I know the Canadians are getting 1,800-2,000 lb. per acre.”
Cutting is best at 18-20% moisture, according to Laub; lower moisture carries the risk of plants dropping seed. Laub benefits from the dry climate of southwest North Dakota, but says hemp seed is problematic for storage. “You can store at 9%, but 6-7% is even better. A grain dryer is definitely an investment to consider if you go with significant hemp acreage.”
And 2019? If the market moves up, Laub may jump to 400 acres of hemp for seed. No matter the market hitches, he will grow at least some acreage: “Even if prices drop further, I’ll still plant 20-30 acres so I can keep building and learning.”
“I don’t have many options for processing, and my best bet is contracting with the Canadians. We need infrastructure and people working together, because you always feel alone. As farmers, we have to be open, move forward together and share information.”
“Right now, hemp for seed is not a highly profitable crop, but it could be a great income source with infrastructure. For anyone starting, just go 20 acres or less and get to learning. When processing arrives, you’ll be ready for large acreage.”
Fiber: The Easiest Hemp?
Twenty miles northeast of Louisville, Ky., Steve Rutledge operates Professional Land Management as president and owner, and oversees corn, forage crops, hemp, soybeans and wheat on numerous operations. Over the past three years, four of Rutledge’s clients have grown hemp for either CBD, seed or fiber. Through trial and error, Rutledge has learned the ins-and-outs of fiber management. Hemp for fiber, with a 60-day turnaround, is similar to growing a forage from the standpoint of planting and cutting, but the complications begin soon after, according to Rutledge. Overall, he describes fiber as the “easiest form of hemp farming.”
Rutledge’s pre-planting protocol is light tillage behind soybeans from the previous fall. He prefers no disturbance to the soil, but says seeds fare better after preparation with a light disc. “I like no till, but the results have been mixed because the seeds don’t like compaction.”
After dropping a 75 lb. mix of NPK, he uses a no till drill on 8” rows to plant shallow at an eighth of an inch. With a 50-60 lb. per acre seeding rate, the soil shades quickly (herbicides are out) and weed suppression is not an issue, according to Rutledge. “We’re talking thick fields, with stalk sizes about thumb in diameter or a little smaller.”
Although Rutledge targets May 5-10, he’s never been able to plant before May 25 due to seed availability and import logistics. “It’s paperwork heavy and takes time. Seed stock genetics aren’t available to just go out and plant. You need the right variety at the right time and there’s lots of room for error dealing with foreign countries.”
Seed quality can be filled with trapdoors, and Rutledge has experienced the highs and lows of the spectrum. In 2017, he purchased seed advertised as 75% certified, but after testing, discovered the rate was significantly lower—60%. “We were down to 40 lb. per acre to actually germinate in the field. These things are a reality that growers must consider.”
In his first year of hemp for fiber, Rutledge paid $7 per pound for seed—an amount that doesn’t allow for profit. “It wasn’t affordable; you can’t survive in hemp for $7, but seed costs have gone down and I’m hoping they settle at around $2 per pound.”
If a grower gets field conditions, variety and seed quality in sync, post-planting management is minimal, he explains. “If you’re low in nitrogen, you can top dress, but after planting, you pretty much watch the field until it’s ready to cut. That’s why starting right is crucial.”
The plants grow rapidly, and approximately 60 days after planting, the hemp for fiber is ready for harvest. (As soon as flowering starts, preferably before forming seed, the hemp needs to be cut, according to Rutledge.) After officials from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture test and ensure the THC level is below .03, harvest kicks off—and complications thicken.
Rutledge was advised to use traditional hay equipment, but he says the tough, fibrous nature of hemp makes it an entirely unique harvest beast. “Use any machinery with rotation, pickup heads, or rolling bearings, and hemp can easily wrap to the point where you’ll have to cut or burn it out,” he warns.
After a haybine produced weak results, Rutledge switched to a disc mower, but the hemp balled on the ends. He found a solution by cutting hemp with a sickle bar mower and leaving it on the ground to dry for 30 days (drying allows the fiber to separate easier), and flipping it with a rotary rake. A round baler with knives in the chamber is used to prepare the hemp for storage, prior to shipping to a processor via flatbed trailers. “The key is to get as much baled as possible, but you’re always going to have some field loss with broken hurd (fiber). Other countries in the world have this down to a science, but we don’t in the U.S. Equipment is expensive and not readily available anyway, because we’re not yet at the point where scale merits such investment.”
Due to seed availability issues and weather vagaries, Rutledge hasn’t experienced an ideal growing season in any of his three years of hemp production, but has hit yields between 1-2.5 tons per acre. His ultimate goal is 5 tons per acre. “There have been test trials showing 5-ton yields, but we don’t have access to those proprietary varieties.”
Despite the yield variation, hemp for fiber must pencil out to be economically viable. “Payment ranges from 7-11 cents per pound, or sometimes a minimum guarantee per acre, whichever is larger,” Rutledge describes. “Also, you can try to negotiate a deal with your processor to share in seed costs. Another thing, we believe we’re seeing a yield response in grains behind hemp, but we’re still looking and need more time for data to pile up.”
Rutledge highlights three major hemp-for-fiber considerations. One: Nail down the processor and the payment amount. Two: Identify the source and quality of seed. Three: Make sure the right equipment is available to handle the crop.
“There is a big, big learning curve, and you have to start getting educated by talking to people in hemp and going to field days, and then seeing what you learn on your own ground at a small scale of about 10 acres.”
Rutledge also urges caution whether a grower is planting hemp for CBD, seed or fiber: “There is so much misinformation out there and you have to be careful. Hemp farming of any kind is trial, error and observation—classic learning on the go.”
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