Hemp is not a Jerusalem artichoke, nor is it a silver bullet for an ailing farm economy.
Hemp was grown in Minnesota through World War II, when USDA extolled the virtues of hemp in the film, “Hemp for Victory.” In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act classified hemp as an illegal drug, all but ending its cultivation in the United States through 2007, when two North Dakota farmers were granted licenses to grow hemp.
The 2014 Farm Bill cracked open the door to hemp production, allowing states to have hemp pilot projects.
Minnesota got involved in the project fairly early according Harold Stanislawski, project development director for the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, speaking at an informational meeting March 20 in St. Charles attended by more than 70 people.
Minnesota producers brought back hemp in 2016, planting 38 acres and harvesting 30.
The 2018 Farm Bill cleared obstacles to hemp production. Forty-one states appear ready to move forward with their own legislation to approve hemp as a commercial crop. Last year, there were more than 78,000 acres grown in the United States by 3,500 licensed growers. Plus, 40 universities are conducting research. However, it will take time to build the infrastructure to support the crop.
States must submit a state plan to USDA for approval. If no state plan is submitted, or if the state plan isn’t approved, USDA will be responsible for regulating hemp production in a state, Stanislawski said. The farm bill allowed hemp to be recognized by the financing world, but it will take time, he said. Likewise, it will take time to build markets.
“Don’t grow a crop that you can’t sell,” Stanislawski added.
Now, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture is waiting for USDA to develop guidelines for the hemp program, according to Margaret Wiatrowski, MDA industrial hemp program coordinator. Minnesota has rules and guidelines in place, but they will need to be conformed to USDA’s plan once it’s released.
USDA plans to release guidelines in fall, and Wiatrowski is hopeful Minnesota’s plan will be approved and in place by Jan. 1, 2020, in time for the 2020 growing season.
For 2019, MDA has received 370 applications to grow 5,700 acres of hemp.
According to Stanislawski, those growing hemp report their biggest hurdle is finding processors, followed by lack of financing, finding harvesting equipment and finding seeds.
Growing the crop
Most people at the St. Charles meeting kept their hands down when asked if they wanted to grow hemp for fiber, grain or cannabidiol (CBD), but the majority who raised their hands favored growing CBD.
Growing CBD hemp is similar to growing produce, said Bryan Parr, an agronomist with Legacy Hemp of Prescott, Wis. Seeds or clones should be planted 6 feet apart in any direction with female plants only being grown. The seeding rate is 1,000 to 2,000 plants per acre. Harvest is done by hand with the product dried immediately. It’s more space efficient to de-branch before storing, Parr said, and the ideal drying environment is 68 to 70 degrees F at 50% humidity. CBD is found within the oil glands, not in the seeds, and must be extracted from the plant material.
Growing hemp for fiber is the easiest, he said. Plant hemp for fiber with a grain seeder at the same time small grains are sown. The planting rate is 50 pounds to 70 pounds per acre. The thick stands produce pencil-thin stalks reaching 18 feet tall. To harvest, mow the field at or slightly before pollination. Next, bale in large square bales. It should be stored at 15% moisture until shipped to a processor.
Growing grain hemp is similar to growing other food-grade crops, Parr said. Seeds can be drilled or broadcast at a planting rate of 25 pounds to 35 pounds per acre. After combining, the grain should be dried immediately in aeration bins to 9% moisture. Grain hemp will start to spoil four hours after harvest without drying. Grain hemp is harvested at 12% to 18% moisture, generally at the end of September. Straight-cutting with a rotary combine works best and draper headers are recommended. Once combined, move the grain with a conveyor rather than an auger to minimize grain damage.
“This is a food-grade crop and we have to treat it that way,” Parr said.
Field selection is critical for hemp production. Well-drained soils with low weed pressure are preferred. Avoid fields with white mold or compaction. Hemp is a heavy nitrogen consumer and rotating it after corn may increase its nitrogen demands.
Hemp has a variety of uses, ranging from fiber to pain management to biocomposites to food. AURI is immersed in this area, and Stanislawski encouraged growers who have a potential product to talk to him. An effort is now underway to get hemp approved for feed use. There are at least 20,000 uses for industrial hemp, he said.
“I do believe there are industrial uses for this product that are legitimate,” said Kevin Edberg, executive director of St. Paul-based Cooperative Development Services, which works with communities seeking to start new cooperatives. However, “this crop scares the hell out of me,” he said.
There are three reasons for his caution:
1. There is way too much grower interest nationwide compared to marketing and processing infrastructure in the United States.
2. There is an economic imbalance in power between growers and processors.
3. He is not hearing an effort from producers to organize. A spot producer is in the weakest place in the supply chain.
Edberg, who worked at MDA for 13 years starting in 1986 and was involved with the creation of the state’s ethanol industry, wonders what lessons the hemp industry could draw from the ethanol industry. State policy drove the creation of the ethanol market and supported the state’s first ethanol plants.
He encouraged farmers to use this time, while USDA is writing the farm bill hemp regulations, to do pre-feasibility research. Study what’s going on in Canada’s hemp industry, which has established infrastructure. Determine if you can devote the management necessary to growing the crop. Study anticipated returns. Consider equipment needs and repair costs. Contemplate if you are committed to growing the crop over a number of years or if you’re looking for something to supplement your income during the current farm economic downturn.
Success will boil down to who is smart enough to find the right market with the right product in the right area, Edberg said.
Kubat Willette is a Farm Progress digital content creator.