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The first time Samantha Anderson planted industrial hemp seed on 5 acres of her family’s farm in eastern Kentucky none of it came up.
That was an inauspicious beginning for Anderson, whose family had been growing burley tobacco on that land for years. But it didn’t discourage her from trying the crop again with a different approach.
“I don’t know if we’re foolish or hopeful because now we’re raising 70 acres of clones (transplants grown from hemp cuttings),” said Anderson, a speaker at the Hemp Industry Outlook Session at the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show.
“We are cautiously optimistic about the crop,” said Anderson, who also works as a University of Kentucky Extension agent for agricultural and natural resources in McCracken County in western Kentucky. “The main thing I want you to remember is to not invest more than you’re willing to lose.”
The industrial hemp market is at a crossroads now, owing to the growing popularity of the crop since the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 made it legal for farmers to harvest hemp with a THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) concentration of 0.3% or less.
Compared to the 3,500 who could grow hemp under a research program authorized by the 2014 farm bill, an estimated 18,000 farmers are involved in some phase of producing the crop today.
“There is disruption in the current market,” said Anderson. “We have a large supply, and folks, unfortunately, are sitting on crops they have in the barn. Has the bubble burst? I’ll leave that up to y’all to determine.”
One of the myths that has grown up about industrial hemp is that it’s a miracle crop.
“How many of have heard you can just throw hemp seed out on the ground, and it will grow itself and make a million dollars?” Anderson said. “This is not the wonder plant, Unfortunately, we haven’t found that plant.
“There were rumors going around that you could put it on marginal soil, and it would do well. We’re not growing it in poor soils. Some people said you don’t have to fertilize it. I haven’t seen a crop yet that you don’t have to fertilize if you want it to do well.”
Another myth: There’s no weed pressure, no insects, and no diseases because the THC will kill it all.
“That’s not true,” she said, drawing laughter from the audience. “Every year we’ve seen weeds, insects and disease pressure become worse. None of those things are true.”
Some contracts require growers to follow certain agronomic practices in producing the crop. “That’s something else you need to look at to make sure you’re in compliance,” she noted.
Having experience with other, similar crops can also help. “Like I said, I’m from a burley tobacco operation, and a lot of this work is similar to growing burley tobacco, from transplanting to controlling pests to harvesting.”
As with tobacco, growers need to secure their labor early and through the proper means. “If you’re making use of the H2A program, for example, they will ask for your federal or state grower’s license along with all the other paperwork that normally goes along with that.”
After the failure of that first crop to emerge, Anderson and her family have been working almost exclusively with clones. The burley tobacco background has come in handy there, as well.
“We’ve used retrofitted tobacco transplanters to do this,” she noted. “You can also use vegetable transplanters, as well. If you don’t have these on your farm, that’s another expense you must factor into your costs.”
Harvesting, baling and storage have also been hot topics of discussion for hemp growers. “I’ve seen those done every which way,” she said. “Hand harvesting? Every time you touch that plant with your hands, it’s going to cost money. And every time you handle the plant, you have the potential to lose floral material.”
The birth of any new industry can be difficult, and industrial hemp is no exception, she noted. Whether you’re planning to line up a contract with a processor or sell the crop on the open market, growers should determine which companies have staying power and which ones they’re comfortable working with.
“The main thing I want to emphasize again is don’t invest more money in this crop than you are willing to risk losing,” she said. “Some people claim they know all there is to know about this industry. That’s not true. We’re all still learning right now.”
In her closing slide, Anderson displayed a photo of a Farmall Super C tractor that was purchased by her grandfather in the late 1940s. “Behind it is a hemp crop that we have on our farm. We are using old technology to raise a new crop.”
Forrest Laws spent 10 years with The Memphis Press-Scimitar before joining Delta Farm Press in 1980. He has written extensively on farm production practices, crop marketing, farm legislation, environmental regulations and alternative energy. He resides in Memphis, Tenn. He served as a missile launch officer in the U.S. Air Force before resuming his career in journalism with The Press-Scimitar.
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