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Cannabis in Minnesota slow to germinate

Low seed supply slows industry growth.

Kevin Schulz, Editor

June 25, 2024

4 Min Read
hemp plant on sunny day
NEW DAY DAWNING: Like it or not, it is now legal for adults to use cannabis in Minnesota. Currently, there is no fear of the crop replacing corn or soybeans as a major cash crop. GeorgePeters/Getty Images

As of Aug. 1, 2023, Minnesotans over the age of 21 are allowed to possess, use and grow cannabis, but don’t expect this crop to replace corn, soybeans or small grains across the state’s landscape.

Still in its infancy, Minnesota’s legal adult-use cannabis is experiencing growing pains similar to what more traditional farm crops experienced in the past.

Anthony Cortilet, Minnesota Department of Agriculture section manager of Seed, Noxious Weed, Hemp and Biotechnology, says that once the new Office of Cannabis Management has completed rulemaking for the recently passed law, people will start getting licensed for commercial production of adult-use products, including cannabis cultivation.

The comprehensive bill passed by the state Legislature and signed by Gov. Tim Walz on May 30, 2023, created the OCM, and since then the OCM has created an implementation team with permanent OCM staff and state agency experts for the new state agency. They are developing the operational and regulatory systems for Minnesota’s new cannabis industry. The agency expects to hire up to 150 people by the time the office is fully operational.

What needs to come first is a reliable supply of seed, and Cortilet has had a front-row seat to that development.

“We’ve already been through this with hemp as far as seed goes,” he tells attendees at the annual meeting of the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association. “We started seeing all kinds of stuff coming in. No proof where it came from — farmers were buying seed in the spring (this is hemp seed) from somebody at $5 a seed — mostly for this cannabinoid hemp industry. And when they went to plant it, not only was it not feminized, as it said it would be, half of it didn’t germinate.”

Germination may be the key word when speaking about the burgeoning cannabis industry in the state, especially when it comes to the availability of seed. Michael Merriman, supervisor of the seed and biotech unit at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, says that availability — or lack thereof — of seed is a hurdle.

“Until the OCM develops a cultivators license, we’re not going to be able to see that level of production for cannabis seed producers. And that does create a lot of challenges for my group as the regulator of seed,” Merriman says. “Because companies need to produce a lot of seed in order to be able to do what we require by law for our seed regulations. A lot of these smaller businesses that are trying to get started aren’t able to have that production yet. We’re working on educating to compliance right now, and to help people since everybody really wants to get a jump on this.”

A need for seed

Just as with corn, soybeans, cannabis seed needs to be tested for purity, noxious weeds and germination. Normally, representative seed samples of 500 grams are required for proper testing, but due to the lack of seed, the seed lab is accepting 25 grams of cannabis seed through 2024.

“It’s still a challenge for the industry. We’ve got a ton of pushback about us having this testing requirement and at the same time, they’re supposed to keep a file sample as well, which should be enough for a full test,” Merriman says. “If you purchase some seed and tried to grow it, and it was like a weed seed that wasn’t cannabis, or if it didn’t germinate, you could send a complaint to us and we might ask for the file samples. So the reason why these labelers need to keep records is to protect customers.”

Merriman says larger seed lots allow for better overall testing, as there can be replication to determine overall quality. In the event that a grower is dissatisfied with seed germination “or it wasn’t the quality as advertised, they can submit a complaint to our program and we can investigate to the extent of the Minnesota Seed Law.

Merriman’s office works with labelers, which have to be permitted with the state of Minnesota. “One of the two keystones of our seed regulatory program is to keep a fair marketplace. So we’re trying to keep the same requirements for the cannabis seed industry as we would for corn, soybeans, grass and everything else in Minnesota,” he says. “Consumer protection is the other important part of the program, to make sure that you’re getting the quality advertised on the label; and if you have any issues, you can send us a complaint.”

As with any new industry, legalized cannabis faces challenges, and Merriman sees the biggest challenges are similar to those of the developing Office of Cannabis Management, and that is to see businesses survive.

“We’re seeing all different types of people in businesses trying to get into cannabis, and we do want to support small business, but it’s important for them to also follow the regulations and to develop the infrastructure to keep a fair market to protect the customers,” he says. “At the end of the day, this is the seed industry regulated by the Minnesota seed law that the cannabis industry needs to fit in to. We need to work together so that we can meet that common goal of a fair marketplace and protecting the customers. And I think that’s at the end of the day what everybody wants.”

About the Author(s)

Kevin Schulz

Editor, The Farmer

Kevin Schulz joined The Farmer as editor in January of 2023, after spending two years as senior staff writer for Dakota Farmer and Nebraska Farmer magazines. Prior to joining these two magazines, he spent six years in a similar capacity with National Hog Farmer. Prior to joining National Hog Farmer, Schulz spent a long career as the editor of The Land magazine, an agricultural-rural life publication based in Mankato, Minn.

During his tenure at The Land, the publication grew from covering 55 Minnesota counties to encompassing the entire state, as well as 30 counties in northern Iowa. Covering all facets of Minnesota and Iowa agriculture, Schulz was able to stay close to his roots as a southern Minnesota farm boy raised on a corn, soybean and hog finishing farm.

One particular area where he stayed close to his roots is working with the FFA organization.

Covering the FFA programs stayed near and dear to his heart, and he has been recognized for such coverage over the years. He has received the Minnesota FFA Communicator of the Year award, was honored with the Minnesota Honorary FFA Degree in 2014 and inducted into the Minnesota FFA Hall of Fame in 2018.

Schulz attended South Dakota State University, majoring in agricultural journalism. He was also a member of Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and now belongs to its alumni organization.

His family continues to live on a southern Minnesota farm near where he grew up. He and his wife, Carol, have raised two daughters: Kristi, a 2014 University of Minnesota graduate who is married to Eric Van Otterloo and teaches at Mankato (Minn.) East High School, and Haley, a 2018 graduate of University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She is married to John Peake and teaches in Hayward, Wis. 

When not covering the agriculture industry on behalf of The Farmer's readers, Schulz enjoys spending time traveling with family, making it a quest to reach all 50 states — 47 so far — and three countries. He also enjoys reading, music, photography, playing basketball, and enjoying nature and campfires with friends and family.

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