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Diversify with industrial hemp

Farm Progress Closeup of hemp plant
SPECIALTY CROP: Unlike crops that have been bred and grown for decades, industrial hemp is a new option for producers looking to add another crop into their rotation.
Adding hemp into your rotation as a niche market can lead to big profits.

If you’re interested in diversifying your farm with a specialty crop, hemp might be the way to go. Industrial hemp is a broadleaf crop that is gaining interest from producers in the region, with its strong niche market and ability to thrive in the Dakotas.

“People are still working to understand some of the basics, such as the different markets and oilseed vs. CBD, which are very different crops,” says Ryan Buetow, cropping specialist with North Dakota State University at the Dickinson Research Extension Center.

Where to start

Producers who are looking to add industrial hemp into their farm will have a few extra steps to start with. “The first step is to talk to the department of agriculture, to get background checks and other paperwork completed. All of that information can be found on their website,” Buetow explains.

Both North and South Dakota have requirements for producers interested in growing hemp, including applying for licenses. Find more details from the respective states, go to about North Dakota’s hemp site or South Dakota’s site.

After working through application processes, Buetow says the next step is crucial: finding a buyer. “You want to have somewhere for the hemp to go, just like any other crop,” he says. “Word of mouth is probably going to be the best route, talking with neighbors or anyone you know who might be selling it.”

Some producers in North Dakota have been growing industrial hemp for nearly five years and can be a knowledgeable asset to new growers in the area.

Hopeful producers should also take caution in the hemp varieties they select. “We’re working with different varieties and factors that can cause a THC spike and cause folks to destroy their whole crop,” Buetow says. “Genetics is one of the most important components, and research centers have variety trials across the state, so make sure to use well-tested varieties for our region.”

One of the main differences between industrial hemp, hemp for CBD, and federally restricted cannabis is the level of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and other cannabinoids, that the plant contains.

Agronomic abilities

Buetow says adding industrial hemp into a crop rotation can be easy, as it is similar to many crops already grown in the region.

As an oilseed crop, industrial hemp shares one pest problem with another crop grown in the Dakotas, sunflowers. “The downside is the birds just love it, just like they love sunflowers,” Buetow says. There’s going to be trade-offs with every crop grown though.” In addition to birds, industrial hemp has no herbicides approved for use.

“You don’t have many chemical options, and something to keep in mind is that if guys are organic, there are fewer inputs, and you can get paid more for organic hemp vs. conventional,” he explains. “There’s a really good market for organic hemp at the moment.”

A benefit of this is that industrial hemp can actually choke out weeds existing in fields without needing other weed control. “It can depend on your row spacing,” Buetow  says. “With narrow row spacing on the drill we use at the research center, if we have enough heat and moisture, it can really get going and get canopy closure to shade out anything that was there.”

Another consideration for producers is emergence and germination. “If you look at genetics of corn, soybeans, we’ve been breeding those for decades or centuries. Hemp’s germination isn’t as high as those yet, as we’re still getting the breeding program going, and it’s sometimes as low as 40%,” Buetow explains. This lower germination rate can be helped by planting later, and testing the emergence by observing in a small plot or even with a few plants.

As for why to grow this crop, Buetow says that even with some difficulties, industrial hemp can be worth the extra time. “If it was easy, everyone would grow it right? It’s one of those things where we only have so many growing seasons to learn and build our operations. This is an opportunity for people to try a new crop that a whole lot of people haven’t tried yet,” he says. “Start with a small amount of acreage, and realize there will be a few difficulties.”


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