The year of hemp jubilee has arrived, roughly 80 years after Uncle Sam locked the maligned cannabis variety in the federal attic. U.S. farmers can officially play the hemp game, so says the 2018 farm bill, and as of January 2019, 41 states have given hemp a green fl ag. The spectrum of legal leeway is noteworthy, with Colorado at full commercialization, Kentucky running a close second, Minnesota allowing a relatively progressive policy and a host of other states permitting various levels of production or research.
Over time, Michael Bowman, chairman of the National Hemp Association, thinks U.S. hemp production will surpass 1 million acres, which is quite the increase from the mere 75,000 acres planted in 2018 and basically zero in 2013. Standing in the way is seed availability, genetics, infrastructure and education.
For prospective growers facing a litany of hemp management questions, answers are found in fellow farmers’ fields. Whether cannabidiol (CBD), seed or fiber, hemp growers are all learning on the go.Here’s what you said:
CBD: Darling of the Day
“Everybody wants to know how to farm hemp,” says Joseph Sisk, “but they don’t realize everyone already growing hemp does it differently.”
Located in Kentucky’s Christian County, Sisk, 45, grows 5,000 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat. For the past three years, alongside his farming partner, Todd Harton, Sisk has grown hemp for CBD, a highly desired cannabis compound that accounts for 40% of the plant’s extract.
The duo grew 200 acres of hemp for CBD in 2018, and typically apply 125 lb. to 200 lb. of nitrogen, spread prior to planting and through an over-the-top application in July. “So far, we’ve seen hemp’s fertilizer needs parallel corn,” Sisk says.
Planting typically falls between the third week of May and into the first week of June. Hemp clones are provided by an in-state processor (each season begins with an established processor contract) and transplanted into 40" rows on fl at ground with multiple four-row tobacco setters spread over a 10-day period. Planting population varies between 1,500 and 4,000 plants per acre, contingent on the variety requested by the processor.
After planting, Sisk and Harton make sure the hemp has adequate moisture to set roots. They used drip irrigation their first hemp season, but rodent issues required daily labor to walk lines and fi x holes.
“When you’re pod-building in beans or finishing corn, moisture in soil is good, but that’s not the case with hemp,” Sisk notes. “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 it responds to better soils like any crop. 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 squatty (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, Sisk says: “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 drop in CBD concentration.
“We have to pay attention and make sure there are no males with pollen sacs,” Sisk says. “We pull them up immediately when we find them and get them out of the field.”
After 100 to 120 days, Sisk and Harton hope for a field of female plants heavy with CBD content stored in flowers and biomass, yet below the 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) level to prevent 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,” he says. “The state department of ag pulls tissue tests to make sure the hemp is below 0.3%, and then we harvest.”
Harvest crews need roughly five weeks to bring in 200 acres, and Sisk estimates one man for every five acres. He equates hemp harvest to killing snakes: just go do it.
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. Drying operations are diverse: Warehouse floors, dehumidifiers, fans, tobacco barns, sheds, greenhouse heat, racks, direct to processor and mechanical dryers. Sisk believes mechanical drying will prevail as the method of choice.
When weather cooperates and provides strong heat, plants are dried on racks in 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,” Sisk says. “If you introduce the whole plant then your CBD percent drops.”
The size and variety of the plants make yield a tricky proposition. “A lot of people hope the entire plant weighs in excess of 1 lb.,” he explains. “Processors usually pay by CBD content, plant material, whole plant or pounds of oil.”
Like crop and livestock commodities, prices are volatile. “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,” Sisk says.
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 know 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 who can grow high-quality crops and actively manage labor, then you can get a leg up on hemp.”
Sisk urges prospective growers to avoid business-altering acreage. “Begin with tiny acres and get an idea of scalability and processor reliability,” he says. “Can you tolerate financial hiccups? In most ways, you’re going to be on your own.”
No Males Allowed: CBD Requires All-Female Production
Chris Adams, 31, farms a diverse crop roster on 9,000 acres straddling the North Dakota–Minnesota line in the fertile Red River Valley. He 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 with CBD hemp on 3½ acres.
Adams purchased clones in Colorado and ahead of planting, spread 100 lb. of nitrogen per acre and laid 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 in early June. “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.”
By mid-September, as the flowering plants reached 6' to 7' high with 2" to 3" diameter stalks, 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. 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,” he says. “Just say each plant produces a half-pound of fl ower material that’s 18% to 20% CBD. That gives you 2,000 lb. of biomass. Sold at $100 per pound, 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.
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