The introduction of legal industrial hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) production added a new commodity to Texas' production arsenal in 2020. But a depressed market, licensing delays and premature flowering made for a tough first year.
State Hemp Specialist Calvin Trostle, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, Lubbock, presented a "year in review," at the recent 2020 Texas Plant Protection Association virtual conference. Along with learning from growers' first-year experiences, Trostle relayed lessons learned from the agency's first-year field trials.
In 2020, production in Texas ranged from a half-acre to hundreds of acres of cannabinoid hemp (CBD) with limited acreage of fiber and grain, he says.
Before a seed was planted and following the legalization of hemp production in the 2018 Farm Bill and passage by the Texas legislature, Extension held 19 hemp workshops across the state, from November of 2019 until March of 2020, when large gatherings were canceled due to COVID-19.
"No more than 40% of people attending the workshops were current, actual farmers. How many of them were interested in growing hemp? Sometimes 70% or more. A lot of those were not growers in any way but wanted to be small-acre producers. Their interest was driven by hearing of people grossing $30,000, $40,000 and even $50,000 per acre," Trostle says.
Part of Extension's goal at the meetings was to provide what Trostle called a "reality check." In 2019, growers in states like Kentucky or Colorado, were paid about $4 for each 1% of CBD in one pound of dried material. "That price today is about 50 cents -- a decrease of seven-eighths. That means $40,000 an acre revenue today by that same fraction would be down to $5,000 an acre revenue," Trostle explains.
In 2020, about 400,000 hemp acres were planted in the U.S., about 80% for CBD, according to Hemp Benchmarks. "There are now projections that suggest as little as 40,000 harvested acres could meet the national CBD demand," Trostle says of the saturated market.
In Texas, licenses were issued for about 860 grower licenses and permits for about 5,000 outdoor acres. "We think as little as 2,000 of those were actually planted."
Another theory Extension dispelled was that hemp requires less water to produce than cotton. "We did not agree with that. On the Texas High Plains, a farmer shooting for cannabinoid production is going to irrigate at a comparable level to cotton planted on the same field."
Adaptation: A hot topic
As Trostle examines the adaptation of hemp production in Texas, he has concerns. "The heat issue is certainly risky," Trostle says. The optimal temperature for hemp production is 70 to 80 degrees. In Texas, temperatures run at least 20 degrees warmer, he says.
"There will be efforts in 2021 to minimize the impact of heat by planting early, say March 1 at College Station and late March around Lubbock."
Some will also consider late summer planting, but in either case, Trostle says the overarching issue is the photoperiod reaction of the plant. "Hemp plants are photoperiod sensitive and it may be more complex than say the photoperiod sensitivity of Sudan grass planted in College Station on March 15 or July 15th, either way, Sudan is going to head out about the same time in the fall." Hemp's reaction is more difficult to understand, he says.
"With more southerly latitudes in Texas, not just in Lubbock, but even in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and Central Texas, very little hemp in the U.S. has been grown that far south."
Lubbock producers, forced to delay planting until early June due to licensing delays, were immediately confronted with heat issues. "We had a lot of seedlings emerge and hit hot conditions. We measured soil temperatures as high as 122 degrees," he says. Seedling leaves dried and died and others grew poorly, he adds.
Early planting along with a cover crop and irrigation may help reduce heat stress, Trostle says. "If you've got frequent irrigation, maybe you can keep that soil cool."
Another concern is planting depth. "Hemp seed has poor vigor; a half-inch might be the limit -- three-quarters at the most. It's shallow."
Premature flowering, especially in fiber varieties, was a major issue in 2020. "We noticed in as little as 17 days after planting, not after emergence, after planting, floral structures developing. And within 30 days, they were going into the reproductive stage. That would have been disastrous. These were Canadian fiber varieties, one from Poland. Two other fiber varieties grew normally. We need to identify more of these for Texas."
Because hemp varieties are heavily photoperiod sensitive, changing light/day conditions and possible absolute hours of light will trigger early reproductive growth, he says. "We have much to learn about in this in southerly Texas latitude."
Also of concern, is the approval of more than 300 CBD varieties by the Texas Department of Agriculture. This is not the same as seed certification, Trostle says. "There's little plant variety protection in hemp. Somebody could take a common variety like Cherry Wine, for example, change the name and send it to TDA with supporting data they might have cherry-picked and get it approved or registered to plant in Texas," Trostle says. "This is a concern."
Looking ahead, Trostle says he and his team may conduct greenhouse and growth chamber studies to establish what varieties don't have the photoperiod sensitive response, "so we can avoid some planting mishaps with the wrong variety in 2021. We'll look at the length of daylight and the changing of duration, which appears will be especially important for fiber."
AgriLife Extension will continue with its education programs in 2021, along with variety trials for cannabinoids and fiber. "We should be able to expand those further across the state. In 2020, we were primarily at Lubbock and San Angelo," he says.
Overall, Trostle says, "Hemp is highly risky due to establishment and production costs. There is no longer a revenue stream that generates $30,000 or more per acre."
While he doesn't discourage hemp production, he says it's important for growers to know there is quite a learning curve. "It requires a lot of learning and work."
What may work well in Texas is hemp fiber production. Trostle says there's talk of Texas becoming a fiber state. "Our established farmers in the Texas High Plains appear to be more interested in fiber production than they are in cannabinoid production, partly because the market's down on CBD and they don't know if it will return. There's no outsized revenue from fiber but it's something that could fold nicely into some farmers' rotations."