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Hemp won't be a pot of gold for North Carolina growers

David Suchoff says hemp is a viable crop for North Carolina, but you're not going to become a millionaire growing the crop.

John Hart, Associate Editor

December 16, 2019

6 Min Read
Discussing the potential for industrial hemp at the 71st annual Crop Protection School in Smithfield, N.C., are Paul Ulanch, left, executive director of the crop commercialization program at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, and David Suchoff, alternative crops Extension assistant professor at North Carolina State University.John Hart

David Suchoff has a clear message for anyone considering growing hemp: You won’t get rich with the crop.

Suchoff is the alternative crops Extension assistant professor at North Carolina State University. He’s been on the job since Dec. 2 and in his first week at work, he made the winter meeting rounds, speaking at both the 71st annual Crop Protection School in Smithfield on Dec. 4 and addressing the fall conference of the North Carolina Agricultural Consultants Association the following day in Raleigh.

In this new position, Suchoff will work on a wide range of alternate crops from clary sage to stevia, but most of his work will focus on industrial hemp because that’s where most of the interest is. He urges would-be hemp farmers to proceed with care.

“There needs to be some caution. You’re not going to strike gold with hemp. I think it’s a viable crop for our state, but I don’t think you’re going to become a millionaire growing hemp. It’s basic economics: As more and more people are growing hemp, the price for CBD(cannabidiol) is just going to go down,” Suchoff said at the consultants meeting.

Most of the hemp grown in North Carolina is going to the CBD market. CBD comes from the female flowers of the hemp plant and is extracted in the form of oil. Anecdotal evidence suggests that CBD from the plant’s flowers can promote sleep, ease pain, calm anxiety and help with other health-related conditions. The market for CBD products is booming.

Warning Bells

Suchoff is issuing a number of warning bells in his Extension presentations. He said to make sure you have a signed contract with a reputable company before you even consider growing hemp and have a lawyer look over said contract.

In addition, growing hemp for the CBD market is entirely different than growing hemp for the fiber or grain market. Hemp for CBD is produced more like a horticultural crop like tomatoes, while hemp for the fiber or grain market is produced more like a row crop such as wheat.

“If you’re growing hemp for CBD, all you want are female plants. This will dictate how and where you purchase your plants,” Suchoff said.

Industrial hemp or Cannabis sativa is a dioecious species, producing both male and female plants. The male hemp plant produces the pollen and the young female plant has a pistil that receives the pollen. For fiber and seed production, both male and female plants are needed because the males are needed for pollination so you can get the seed.

“Right now, everybody is really growing hemp for CBD. I have a feeling we’re going to see a lot more people growing it for fiber and grain. But what that means is we are going to have some farmers that have a mixture of males and females in their field if they are growing for grain and they may have a neighbor who’s growing female plants for CBD,” Suchoff said.

This could create challenges and conflict. Suchoff notes that once a hemp plant is pollinated, it stops putting energy into producing flowers and moves into producing seed which reduces its value for the CBD market since the CBD oil comes from the flowers.

“We may have this issue where I have a neighbor who is growing fiber or grain hemp. The pollen comes over to my farm and pollinates my CBD crop, so I lose because of this. This is a big issue already out west in Oregon and California. We’re not there yet, but it’s something we need to really think about how we’re going to address this because the last thing we want is for people to go out there with shotguns because they can’t make money off of their CBD crop,” Suchoff said.

Hemp for the fiber market is drilled and harvested with a combine. Suchoff said the plants need to be tall and slender to produce the long fibers needed to make products such as clothing and rope. Hemp for CBD is grown like a horticultural crop with four-foot rows with a row spacing anywhere between three to six feet in between plants.

While grain hemp is harvested with a combine, CBD requires more labor in planting, growing and harvesting. Suchoff said CBD hemp is a good fit for tobacco farmers who are used to working in a labor-intensive crop.

Challenge to Grow

Moreover, growing hemp for either the CBD market or the fiber market is not for the faint of heart. Contrary to folklore, hemp is not a miracle crop. Suchoff made it clear: Hemp does have pests, hemp does need water and hemp does need fertilizer.

For CBD hemp, Suchoff advised drip irrigation, but he cautions not to over water because the crop does not like wet feet. Hemp also is relatively more drought tolerant compared to other crops. “In general, it needs less irrigation than crops such as tomatoes,” Suchoff said.

Drip irrigation also works well with the plastic mulch many CBD hemp growers use for weed suppression. Suchoff said certain weeds such as nutsedge will come up through the plastic, but weeds such as Palmer amaranth won’t.

In general, hemp plants need about one-half inch of water per week early in the season and up to one-inch of water per week later in the season. “It also depends on soil type. If you’re growing hemp on heavy clay, you might want to reduce your irrigation because you’re going to hold a lot more moisture,” Suchoff advised.

And since CBD hemp needs only female plants, there are currently two options for transplanting: Cuttings or feminized seed. Cuttings are more expensive at anywhere between $4 to $7 per plant while feminized seed currently cost $1 per seed.

Suchoff’s take home message is clear: Industrial hemp is a challenging crop to grow.

No conventional or organic pesticides are currently labeled for industrial hemp, but that is expected to change as EPA begins to develop regulations for the crop.

In North Carolina, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture allows only “minimum risk” pesticides to be applied. Suchoff said these must be broad label pesticides that include hemp.

Probably the great challenge facing hemp in 2019 was that many of the varieties planted in North Carolina tested about the minimum required 0.3 percent THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) level.

“The Cannabis plant can synthesize more THC if it is stressed. The higher THC is a stress response. With heat stress or water stress you can have a bump in the THC levels. That is one reason to use drip irrigation because if you have a really dry spell and are worried that it’s going to push that THC level above where you want it to be, you can give it a little bit of water just to keep it less stressed,’ Suchoff said.

About the Author(s)

John Hart

Associate Editor, Southeast Farm Press

John Hart is associate editor of Southeast Farm Press, responsible for coverage in the Carolinas and Virginia. He is based in Raleigh, N.C.

Prior to joining Southeast Farm Press, John was director of news services for the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington, D.C. He also has experience as an energy journalist. For nine years, John was the owner, editor and publisher of The Rice World, a monthly publication serving the U.S. rice industry.  John also worked in public relations for the USA Rice Council in Houston, Texas and the Cotton Board in Memphis, Tenn. He also has experience as a farm and general assignments reporter for the Monroe, La. News-Star.

John is a native of Lake Charles, La. and is a  graduate of the LSU School of Journalism in Baton Rouge.  At LSU, he served on the staff of The Daily Reveille.

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