Jason Crouch was well prepared for the labor demands of hemp before he transplanted the first set last spring. Multiple generations of tobacco production on the Washington County, Tenn., farm had labor, harvest experience and adequate storage and drying facilities already in place.
Still, Crouch admits he has much to learn about a crop that has attracted a lot of attention since the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 made it legal.
“Hemp does not need much water,” Crouch said, something he learned in this first year with the crop.
“We had it set up on drip irrigation and when it got hot and dry late, we put some water under it. We probably put too much, and I think that hurt it a little, got a little disease started in it.”
Crouch says hemp and tobacco production “have a lot of similarities. We’ve been growing tobacco on this farm for many years, so that helps a lot, especially with barn space.”
He will hold the hemp for a bit longer than he does tobacco. “With tobacco, we harvest and get it prepped for market and don’t have to wait long to deliver.
“We have a contract for the hemp, but we’re not sure when we will move it out.”
He says they completed harvest in mid-September. They cut the whole stalks with tobacco knives, packed it on a trailer, threaded the stalks on tobacco sticks and hung it in a barn. “It’s ready to come out now,” Crouch says. “It takes about four weeks to dry. We will start stripping the buds this week.”
Before they deliver, they have to strip the buds off the plant, another labor-intensive operation. “We hold the stalks and run our hands down the plant to pull the buds off. We end up with a lot of stalk material. We may run that through our silage chopper, cut it in smaller pieces and put it back on the land.”
He would like to find a biomass market for the residual plant material. “I’m not sure if this variety would be good for fiber or not,” he says.
Crouch says weather is a bigger challenge with tobacco than with hemp, “especially in the last two years. Last year was too wet and this year was too dry. Maybe hemp will be a good crop to adapt to weather, but maybe not when it’s wet.”
Labor biggest challenge
He says labor is the biggest challenge with hemp. Even with only 1 acre, “planting 1,300 plants by hand takes a lot of manual labor. Some farmers have been able to use mechanical planters, but we do not have a plant setter that will go through the plastic, so we manually set it.”
Crouch adds that the first few weeks after transplanting also require labor to control weeds. No herbicide has been approved for use in hemp production. “We have to cultivate to keep the weeds out,” he says. “That means with a hoe.”
His father, Larry, also went a bit old school and repurposed some horse-drawn cultivators to take out weeds.
“We attached two old cultivators to the tractor drawbar. Two people followed behind the tractor to handle the plows to cultivate. These plows had not been used for more than 50 years.”
They bring in a rotary tiller to cultivate when the hemp stalks get too tall to run the tractor over.
“We are able to use chemicals for worms late in the season — tobacco budworm, armyworm and earworm. We used fungicide to control disease late in the season.”
Harvest is also labor-intensive. “Cutting the thick, woody stalks is tough,” Crouch says. “Sometimes we have to hit them two times.”
He says labor is the biggest challenge, but one he was prepared for. He and Larry plant 45 acres of tobacco. “We are fortunate to have good labor on hand for the tobacco operation,” he says.
Next year a go
Yield looks good, Crouch says, but he will not be certain until the buds are pulled.
He’s positive enough about the crop to plant again next year. “We may plant an acre and a half,” he says. “We don’t want to go too big yet.
“We will probably use the same plot next year, but if we expand a bit, we will need to find another location for the additional acreage.”
He says they got into hemp on the recommendation of a hemp company representative they knew from the tobacco industry. “He approached us last spring about growing hemp. He was familiar with us and convinced us to try it.”
Crouch says the operation, Oak Hill Farm, has been in the family for generations. “The first Crouches started farming here in the 1780s.” Tobacco has been part of the operation for much of that time.
“Now, we have tobacco, hay, corn for our cattle and a few hogs, and a greenhouse operation for vegetable and bedding plants.”
Hemp, so far, seems like a promising addition.