What Hemp Farmers Need to Know

By Sam Gunnells

So, you’ve heard American hemp is having a renaissance of sorts? Maybe you read about it here, in our report on America’s changing hemp laws, or in our in-depth look at the potential impacts of a fully commercialized domestic hemp industry. Or maybe you’ve simply heard the stories of farmers who’ve moved boldly into this new frontier; men and women who are reclaiming this lost thread of our nation’s agricultural fabric and putting it to new uses to revitalize their farms and communities.

One way or another, hemp has your attention. And now you’re looking to get into the game yourself. “But how do I get started growing hemp?,” you might ask. We at Remedy Review are here to answer all of your questions about this promising plant–and walk you through everything you’ll need to know to get your first hemp crop in the ground.

Step 1: Find out if your state is on board with industrial hemp

Before anything else, you’ll need to figure out if you live in a state where it’s currently legal to grow industrial hemp. As it stands, the plant remains a federally controlled substance due to its tenuous relationship with marijuana. Fortunately for you, the aspiring hemp farmer, the vast majority of states–more than forty–have recognized the industrious ethic of hard-working hemp.

These states have passed laws allowing hemp to be grown for a select range of purposes under the steady watch of pilot research programs. And, conveniently enough, Remedy Review maintains a frequently updated list of those states, making it as simple as a mouse click to find out where your state stands on industrial hemp.

Step 2: Understand–and accept–the current volatility surrounding hemp

Despite hemp’s ancestral ties to the American landscape and the plant’s proven worth as an industrial commodity and medicinal powerhouse, a shifting legal climate has hung a cloud of uncertainty over hemp’s future prospects: “It is not possible to predict with any degree of confidence the potential market and employment effects of relaxing current restrictions on U.S. hemp production,” the Congressional Research Service stated in a June 2018 report.

So, to succeed as a modern hemp farmer, you’ll need to adopt the faith and fearlessness of the pioneers of old. Here are a few things to consider:

  • For now, capital and overhead costs remain high for first-time farmers. You will almost certainly be required to purchase special permits through your state’s agriculture department and potentially incur the costs of a criminal background check. But you may also find that you need to purchase new farm equipment or spend money re-purposing existing equipment for hemp cultivation (though some hemp farmers have found these additional steps unnecessary).
  • Due to the generational gap when hemp farming went virtually extinct in the U.S., most modern farmers are facing a steep learning curve. This means, for the foreseeable future at least, you’re likely to see both the quality and quantity of your hemp yields fluctuate as America’s growers hone in on the best seed strains for different climates, soil types, and intended uses.
  • And talk of seed brings up another issue. As it stands, the Drug Enforcement Administration continues to treat hemp as a Schedule I drug. That means you’ll be constrained in how you can import and traffic raw hemp materials, like seeds, and limited in the markets available for your produce. It also means your crops could be destroyed–and you could face a total loss of investment–if you accidentally exceed the 0.3-percent-THC threshold legally separating industrialized hemp from marijuana.
  • In light of these challenges, it should come as no surprise to learn that costs for modern hemp farmers can fluctuate. A report from Cornell University, however, shows recent costs among different Canadian and American locales holding surprisingly stable, staying in a range roughly between $365 and $440 per planted acre (*figures adjusted for Canadian dollars). And yet, if you cross-check these numbers with the chart below, you’ll find the costs of hemp compare favorably with those for other crops grown widely throughout the U.S, like corn.
  • And while you can certainly expect your profits from hemp production to fluctuate as well, that same Cornell report mentioned above shows that hemp farmers generally operate in the black: profits listed ranged from $131 per planted acre all the way up to $733 for high-yield North Dakota strains.

Though uncertainty reigns in the hemp industry, the strong market growth for hemp-derived products like CBD, combined with the likelihood that the plant could soon be removed from the federal list of controlled substances, makes betting on hemp’s future stability an attractive option for many farmers. It’s worth noting, too, that as America’s hemp farmers gain experience and grow their institutional knowledge, they’re likely to see their profits rise as they realize new, sustainable markets for this ancient crop.

Emily Febles, program manager for North Carolina’s burgeoning Industrial Hemp Program, tells Remedy Review that, “Since it became federally legal for states to begin hemp pilot programs 4-5 years ago, there is much greater consumer awareness of hemp products and a greater opportunity for farmers to sell their crop at the end of the season… With the decline of the tobacco industry, farmers here are experimenting with using old tobacco equipment to grow hemp and it does seem like a lot of that equipment can be re-purposed for this new state crop.”  

Step 3: Remember the first rule of real estate–location, location, location!

So, you’ve considered the challenges and decided you’ve got the stout heart of a hemp farmer. Next, you’ll need to determine if the land you’ve got to work with is the right fit for hemp. Here’s what to think about:

  • Though hemp is reputed to do well in a wide variety of soil and climate types – and rightly so – the highest yields tend to come from warmer climates with loamy soils that are well-drained and loaded with organic nutrients. These conditions are similar to those suitable for corn; so, if you’re in a Corn Belt state and have grown corn profitably in the past, consider yourself an ideal candidate to add hemp into your crop rotation.
  • If you’re not from one of these states, however, don’t let it put you off hemp altogether. A quick look at this crop report for 2017 shows that some of the most productive states for hemp cultivation–states like Kentucky, Colorado, New York, and North Carolina–lie outside the band of major corn-producing states. Hemp crops in these states have sprung up in a variety of settings, from the mist-cloaked hills of Appalachia to the humid flats of the Carolina Tidewater.
  • The would-be hemp farmer would be wise to test their soil before planting. Researchers from Cornell report that hemp grows best in soils with a pH between 7.0 and 7.5 but will make do with a pH as low as 6.0. The folks at Legacy Hemp, a large Midwest-based hemp retailer with partners in multiple states, advise conducting tests in late fall or early spring and focusing on detecting nutrients like soft rock phosphate, potassium sulfate, and elemental sulfur.       
  • Another factor the aspiring hemp farmer needs to consider is the amount of land you’ll have available for planting. Current markets for American hemp are dominated by industrial applications, so you’ll make your best profits if you can set aside a large acreage for the crop. Still, even small hemp operations can make worthwhile investments, so a lack of land isn’t a fatal factor in your decision to grow. For those attempting to grow flower crops for seed or oil, greenhouses can be an especially attractive option.

Step 4: Get in touch with officials in your state    

Each state with a hemp pilot program runs theirs slightly differently. Some have the help and involvement of universities or other research institutions, while others rest completely under the auspices of the state’s agriculture department. Either way, since your state’s agriculture department will have had a hand in establishing the rules of the program, they’ll be the ones to check with first.

A quick visit to your agriculture department’s website–or a quick Google search including the name of your state and the words “hemp pilot program”–should get you exactly where you need to go. After that, you’re likely to run into some combination of the following:

  • Regardless of the state you’re in, you’ll have to apply for a permit and be certified before you can enjoy the privilege to grow hemp legally. As mentioned earlier, this will likely include a criminal background check–a holdover from a time before hemp’s distinctions from marijuana were widely recognized—as well as licensing fees, which often include initial and annual payments as well as per-acreage fees.
  • In many states, new regulatory bodies have been authorized to oversee the permitting process. These generally operate as extensions of state agriculture departments. In North Carolina, for instance, a nine-member Industrial Hemp Commission has been charged with setting the rules and licensing-fee structures for the state’s hemp industry. By discovering the entity directly tasked with the licensing process in your state, you’ll easily be able to track down any relevant forms you’ll need to fill out and learn about any fees or stipulations you will need to comply with in order to get certified.
  • Though details vary from state to state, most application requirements follow a similar pattern. In many states, you will have to provide proof that you’ve been the recent operator of a profitable farm. Then you’ll likely need to use Google Maps or a similar program to create a digital map outlining the area you plan to cultivate, and provide the acreage and GPS coordinates for the intended plot to your state’s regulating body (the Kentucky Department of Agriculture offers a detailed step-by-step guide to walk farmers through this process).
  • Most states also require the grower to determine one or more research purposes for their hemp crop–after all, these pilot programs were specifically sanctioned to support hemp research when they were authorized by Congress under the 2014 Farm Bill. And in most places, you’ll still only be able to sell your crops for “approved marketing research.” That’s why careful consideration of your research goals is so essential.
  • You may also be responsible for tracking and reporting data related to this research. However, the reporting standards and techniques most states will require you to use should be familiar to many farmers in an industry where self-tracking is already the norm.
  • Many states will offer guidance on how to legally obtain hemp seeds from sources that have been authorized by the pilot program. That’s a good thing, since this process can get complicated if you need to apply for DEA permitting. Complying with these guidelines is vital, however, as failure to seed with legal cultivars could expose you to federal charges related to the Controlled Substances Act. Some states not involved in hemp seed research or with limited seed supplies may require you to import seeds from out of state; others, like Colorado–a state rich with seed-related research–offer in-state sources and in-depth resources to help you acquire the seed you’ll need.

Step 5: You’ve got seed in your pockets and a license in your hand… Ready, set, grow?

Actually, hold off on that just another minute. U.S. hemp markets are still unstable, so hardened hemp farmers often recommend contracting a buyer for your crop before putting plants in the ground. And since American hemp processors currently focus heavily on grain throughputs, some of those veterans also suggest that concentrating on high-grain cultivars could be the best short-term solution to ensure a potential market–and profit–for your hemp crop.

Before planting, you’d also be wise to get a sense for what has worked for other growers in your area. Your state’s pilot research program will likely give you access to local county or regional agents, or else be able to connect you with other networking resources. Depending on the state, these could range from farmer meet-ups and small educational events all the way up to direct assistance from university-associated programs and personnel.

Finally, consider the potential benefits of growing organic. Organic hemp and its products can often fetch significantly higher prices at market than conventional varieties. And since hemp is naturally pest-resistant and requires fewer pesticides and other inputs than many other crops, it’s highly suitable for the organic process.  

Now let’s get to growing:

  • Wait to plant hemp seeds until soil temperatures have safely topped 50 degrees Fahrenheit, after the deathly threat of frosts has passed. You’ll likely have a good idea when this is in your area–but for many U.S. farmers this roughly equates to late April or early May. Crops intended for fiber do best with an earlier planting to ensure greater biomass, while the flowering and branching ideal for producing seed can be achieved with a slightly later planting.
  • The best seeding depths for hemp range between ½ – 1 inch, and standard drills will generally suffice for planting both conventional and no-till varieties. Crop spacing should be determined by the intended yield, fiber or seed: crops intended for fiber should be planted closer to encourage upward growth and prevent branching; those intended for seed should be planted further apart for the opposite effect.
  • Hemp crops need roughly 12 to 15 inches of water throughout the growing season, and are typically ready to be harvested about four months after planting. However, keep in mind that the ideal harvest time will vary with cultivar, climate and soil type, and intended use of the plant for seed or fiber. As with planting, seed crops will benefit from slightly later harvesting than hemp grown for fiber.
  • The tools and techniques needed for harvesting will also differ between varieties: fiber crops can often be managed with a sickle-bar mower or hay swather to prepare them for retting, while a raised-blade combine will do better handling flowery seed crops.

That was a lot to take in. If you think you’ve got your work cut out for youyou’re right.

Embracing success as a hemp farmer in these uncertain times will take nothing less than the perfect balance of ingenuity and old-fashioned work ethic. But remember this:

Realizing creative visions by way of hard work is quite literally what farmers have been doing for more than ten thousand years now–and in all that time, nothing has embodied that bold mix better than the steady hands and pioneering spirit of the American farmer.

If you’re up for the challenge, make a plan and get started.   

 

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