Guide: Hemp Farming for CBD in America - Challenges & Potential
Darby Hemp writers assembled this quasi-mini-guide to help people wrap their minds around hemp farming specifically for CBD biomass - one of the greatest developments in American agriculture in generations.
Let’s kick this guide off with a quote sketched out from a Central Oregon hemp farmer,
“Everything begins with the seed; genetics. Then we start out doing lots of field testing to determine nutrients and PH, and make sure to correct that... all the important details of farming cannabis for CBD are in making sure these plants get the best chance possible to fulfill their genetic potential through proper field layout design, spacing, irrigation system, crop management and the proper implementation of all these systems throughout the year as the plant’s needs change relative to their short life cycle.”
Here’s how we broke down the different sections when it comes to taking first steps into hemp farming specifically for phytocannabinoid-rich biomass, or rather, to harvest the plant’s flowers and leaves for valuable CBD.
Table of Contents
Section 1: Research: Loops, Licensing & Fees
Section 2: Secure Buyer - Plug into the Market
Section 3: Location - Picking Land & Preparing Soil
Section 4: Sourcing Genetics - Seeds & Clones
Section 5: Crop Management, Growing & ‘Going Hot’
Is a stirring desire to invest in and manage a cannabis farm producing CBD-dominant biomass for the masses filling your heart?
Got some land you're thinking of putting to use in the green rush, or are you pondering whether to throw hemp CBD farming into the rotation?
Perhaps you're a consumer with driving interest who wants to know more about where these products come from? What it takes to get them from the ground into a product you can hold in your hands?
Truth be told, nationwide interest is unprecedented.
Levels of invested capital and the amounts of money exchanging hands for hemp are shocking speculators of yesteryear. Thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill in nearly every state across America, experienced and amateur (never farmed a thing) farmers are blowing up respective agricultural department emails and voicemail inboxes, not to mention hemp industry experts and associations:
How many steps are there in the paperwork process?
Economic outlook over the next decade considering demand and competition?
Is growing hemp specifically for CBD ideal for their climate?
Just how much risk and protection is involved?
Where’s the best place to turn for seed and genetics?
Ideal soil conditions for CBD biomass farming?
Assuming your state amended its laws to permit the growing of hemp cannabis for CBD, there’s a lot to consider. One of the most important points is:
To make money, farming hemp for CBD biomass is a venture that’ll likely require serious investments of time, energy, equipment, red tape, as well as relationship-building with experts, extractors and processors. Because of everything involved to be successful with even small acreage plots, it’s difficult to look at it from a side-hobby farming perspective. At least right now.
Thus one thing you're likely to hear repeatedly in webinars, podcasts, presentations, and interviews with hemp industry authorities...
New hemp CBD farmers are advised to start with a half-acre or a couple acres at most. Get the hang of things first before dedicating too much of your land or too high of an investment on an untested [by the farmer] crop. Current prices-per-acre of high-quality biomass for CBD extracts can yield enough crude oil for thousands of tinctures going for anywhere from $30-$100 a pop after extraction, purification, distillation or isolation, etc. but it’s the Wild West out there.
Speaking of which, to be prudent let’s get something perfectly clear.
CBD doesn’t come from classic ‘Hemp’.
Let's briefly go over this.
A New Breed of Cannabis
As you know, ‘cannabis’ is the extremely simplified term often used to denote a large...no...HUGE... range of complex dioecious (meaning it can be male, female, or hermaphroditic) plant genetics involving legions of different phytochemicals.
Humans have cultivated cannabis from their ancient primeval relatives over thousands of years to focus on three traits - cannabinoid production, fiber production, and seed production.
To be clear...
Unpollinated female cannabis = cannabinoid-rich cannabis, aka, marijuana.
Pollinated female cannabis = low-quality flower, more for grain and course fiber.
Male cannabis = good source of pollen, breeding, and softer fibers often used in things like household items and linens.
According to new 2018 Farm Bill laws any cannabis with less than 0.3% THC is considered ‘hemp’ when in reality the ‘hemp CBD’ extracts are coming from the same female cannabis all THC-dominant 'marijuana' flower has always come from.
What’s changed is the genetic makeup, so you can get female flower with the same degree of terpenes (responsible for the classic zesty, fruity, lavender, lemony, skunky, or pine tree smells of modern female cannabis strains) and high amounts of CBD, but within the legal limits of THC — thereby transforming it from what would’ve been called ‘marijuana’ into a new kind of low-THC hemp.
The word hemp goes WAY back in the English language, while mari(h)juana was a term created in late 19th, early 20th century in America for essentially the Drug War and corporate interests.
If you conduct online image searches for ‘marijuana farm’ or 'cannabis farm' from around the world and ‘fiber hemp farm’ or ‘seed hemp farm’ you’ll immediately notice the dramatically different variations of the species. Arguably the best pictures of fiber hemp come from the 1930s-40s era in America around the time after cannabis farming prohibition. Plenty still exist, including some of the common cannabis tinctures of the time containing THC.
These differences between the classic breeds of cannabis are evident in terms of nutrition, soil prep, planting, managing, harvesting and processing as well as genetics.
Classic Hemp = A fiber and seed crop. NOT grown for cannabinoids.
Classic Marijuana = A legal identification of flower-crop cannabis for THC production. Pungent terpene content, various levels of cannabinoids with classic emphasis on THC.
See the issue? What was always known as a fiber and seed crop, now includes what would have classically been called cannabis, or marijuana under older laws.
What American farmers are growing in fields for ‘Hemp CBD Biomass’ are relatively-new hybrid forms of cannabis grown not for THC, fiber, or seed, but rather, they’re genetically bred to produce higher levels of CBDA, with extremely little THCA to satisfy skyrocketing demand for the non-intoxicating substance thanks to ongoing developments in Endocannabinoid System science and nutrition.
New Hemp = Any cannabis with equal to or less than the legally defined limit of THC.
Incredible! However, most of the specifics for these novel breeds haven’t been ironed out yet. When farmers today get started, they’re involved in the next chapter in the human story of our relationship with this plant.
Note: Our focus for this guide is on outdoor cannabis farming, but there’s definitely a place for greenhouse-only hemp farming for CBD and it’s going to be widely in practice. Furthermore, as you’ll see, greenhouse propagation is playing a big role in hemp CBD farming for genetic control and to minimize risk.
Section 1: Research: Loops, Licensing & Fees
Your crop will need to be fully-licensed and meet all regulatory requirements to have a chance of being sold legally - this is dependent on your state. No different than any other commodity crop, aside from regulatory steps thanks to the potential of your hemp crop to produce too much THC (thereby becoming marijuana).
What initially led Darby Hemp writers to put this guide together were the results they found scouring the internet for information on CBD hemp farming - somewhat scarce and scattered in the digital wind.
TRULY a gigantic industry just beginning to break loose!
A handful of states conducted hemp farming for CBD between 2015-2018, so what’s emerging is largely built on what they and small Research Pilot Programs in others states were able to document via test plots (not to mention help from far more established Canada, China and EU countries).
To help you wrap your mind around it, here’s some rough numbers on American hemp gathered from Vote Hemp, MJBiz Daily, and Hemp Industry Daily:
2014: Farm Bill signed by President Obama on February 7, 2014.
2015: Roughly 3,933 acres in primarily 4 states.
2016: 609 producers with 16,377 acres.
2017: 1,211 producers with 39,194 acres. 32 universities conducted research projects.
2018: 78,176 acres, hemp growing states up to 23, 40 university programs, with over 3,500 licenses issued. 2018 Farm Bill signed by President Trump December 20th. Another 5 states begin growing hemp.
2019: Over 500,000 acres licensed, but a challenging year to say the least.
One thing’s certain, because of how new all this is, for most farmers in 2019-2025 the paperwork could be substantial. Surely states and the USDA are working towards a streamlined process in terms of applying, verification and crop testing, licensing, applying for emerging forms of hemp crop insurance, working with major lending institutions, etc., but...
The very first step any prospective hemp farmer should take, whether for hemp CBD biomass, fiber, or seed, is to start on the county level and work your way up the bureaucratic food chain.
Aside from turning to the in-development USDA resources regarding hemp, some states will make the process easier than others, which itself will become a factor in ongoing industry development. Inevitably you’ll come into contact with your state’s department of agriculture and the specific department within it overseeing the industrial hemp side of things.
This should serve as the foundation of your research before doing anything else.
From there branch out to domestic hemp farms who’ve been producing CBD in similar climates (or even international farms). You need to see what if any information you can find regarding growing these specific kinds of cultivars in your neck of the woods.
We’ll delve deeper into this later, but for now, let’s gander at some economic market research you should conduct.
The Cannabis Bubble 2.0
The psychoactive cannabis market is in a later stage of what we’ll call the first big economic cannabis bubble - growing larger and larger…hemp is another cannabis bubble but with the potential to be 100 times bigger and more impactful on human society in positive ways.
CBD is but one of many, many outputs.
Farmers across the nation, small and large, can see this 2nd bubble coming into focus where there’s a lack of systematized value. Prices for hemp CBD biomass are all over the map without much of an infrastructure, to the point industry insiders refer to it as a Wild West period.
What’s going to end up being the top of the demand curve for hemp CBD biomass in America?
The crop really does look like a money maker in coming years, but what’s the long-term outlook given the amount of competition getting involved before Big Ag really steps into the game?
It’s hard to say.
No one really has these answers yet, but the outlook is good in Oregon, Colorado, Montana, Kansas, Pennsylvania, New York, and Kentucky for starters. We expect by 2030 millions of acres of hemp will be growing across America for fiber, seed, biomass for biofuel/bioplastic purposes and biomass for non-intoxicant cannabinoids like CBD, CBG, CBC and CBN.
While there’s a lot of risk short-term, nearly every hemp farmer who grew CBD-dominant strains of what’s legally defined as hemp now between 2015-2019 we’ve come across online or through research had an experience that went something like this:
Sets out with a lot of risk - but profits can be big for small farms, providing more socioeconomic legitimacy. Mistakes are made despite the best of intentions and initial investment due to relative degrees of experimentation involved. They don’t give up, plant more in the second round and do much better each time with a positive outlook on the future. They start small, and expand carefully.
Section 2: Secure Buyer & Establish Markets
Because of the plant's renown and immense potential to create eco-friendly products applicable throughout modern life, a good percentage of people interested in hemp farming assume finding biomass buyers will be the easiest part.
And yes, that may be true for some, but hemp'n ain't easy folks…
There’s a couple choices:
Setup your own licensed extraction or distillation facility or equipment, which brings another layer of regulatory frameworks and specialty needs. Without doubt this is being done! You can find examples of farms in KY, OR, and CO who produce extracts on-site or with extractors located close by. A wide variety of extraction solutions are in the works and providers are likely coming to a place near you, but this is also a possible move if location and access to capital investment permits.
When it comes to selling to private companies, wholesale producers, etc., competition is dictated by the quality and volume of either your raw biomass by dry weight, or the ‘full spectrum’ CBD distillates or isolates which again, can be produced by you or a partner.
The prices of CBD are going to move and shake for a while!
Most see a sharp upturn into the early-to-mid 2020’s where it’ll then inevitably drop and level out. The overall market and supply chain should be well-established by then, or at least to a large degree. No one knows exactly what any of this is going to look like, so your best bet is to be as specific as possible about your operation, what you’re selling (raw plant matter, distillates, or isolate), and to whom for what purpose.
Arguably the biggest challenge aspiring hemp-for-CBD farmers face is they’ve got to take a leap of faith based on streamlined agronomic or horticultural data for their specific area unless growing in states with much more established ‘How to Grow Hemp for CBD Here’ history to rely on. Only after they get the specially-engineered plants in the ground can they begin adjusting, iterating, and optimizing for better or at least consistent yields depending on market/partner needs.
On the other side of the spectrum we're seeing companies do the investing in cannabis plant science and genetics, then working with farmers and working out deals - some good, some not so good putting more risk on farmers. Shop around, just please, farmers of America, choose wisely who you give all our best hemp growing land to. What processors are paying for varies - by CBD content, raw dried plant material (leaves & flowers), whole plants, or oil by the pound.
Okay, let’s assume you’re all set in terms of regulation and you’ve got partnerships in place to ensure your crops will be sold assuming the crops perform well...
Section 3: Location - Picking Land & Preparing Soil
A good portion of overall risk comes into play when farmers experiment with new cannabis genetics on land where these cultivars have never been tested. You can read directly or hear secondhand horror stories mounting online like:
Farmers investing in super-genetics from outside the U.S. which don’t end up translating well into their area.
Farmers investing in high-quality genetics but failing to provide ideal growing environments - in part by getting a proper nutritional profile in the soil in the fall to set a baseline well before planting along with proper moisture levels.
Soil is tested much later than it should be, only to discover heavy metals or other contaminants. Hemp can help reclamate and clean soil, but it means sacrificing initial crops to this effort unless you're selling your biomass to a biofuel maker or someone using it for a industrial/construction purposes.
Out of state farmers mistakenly purchasing land in a more hemp-friendly state only to discover the land is in the wrong area of the state where the environment is likely to cause these plants to come under too much stress when combined with intentional stress induced to get the plants to dedicate resources to flower production (for example when you stop adding nutrients and dry things down leading into harvest).
The location and layout of the field doesn’t end up working well for their makeshift or modified hemp harvesting equipment, then they switch to full manual labor. Speaking of which...
The area provides everything except a good qualified crew who understand the plant’s needs. No one’s at fault here, as this industry is only just beginning. There's no evidence humans have ever engineered high-CBD cannabis strains for wide-scale production.
Once the plants are in the ground, options are limited outside general management, so all you can do is sit back and watch.
The more prepared your soil, the quicker you can learn.
To give your plants the best chances relative to their female qualities, you’ve got to take the soil seriously because of how it can impact the way the plant expresses these genetics!
Section 4: Sourcing Genetics - Seeds & Clones
Everyone currently farming hemp for CBD are doing things a little differently (similar to psychoactive cannabis farming) - meaning little to no clear market-tested systematization.
You could talk to ten different farmers from ten different new hemp farming operations and get ten unique ways on how they reduced risk via market research (establishing partnerships), then choosing and preparing land. That being said, when it comes to sourcing genetics many farmers find themselves unsure where to turn.
Sourcing: Until the signing of the 2018 Farm Bill interstate commerce of cannabis seed for the purposes of farming was illegal. Even afterwards it’s taking time for state laws in this regard to be figured out and synchronized, along with regulatory checks and balances concerning cannabinoid testing. The goal is completely free and open interstate commerce so licensed farmers can source licensed seed domestically as well as internationally. Currently it’s a challenge new hemp CBD biomass farmers are facing.
Growing from Seed: A world of options and a lot of risk in terms of doing business with the wrong people or company and ending up with a) seed for cultivars not well-suited for their area or climate, b) way too many male seeds ruining the crop, c) low quality feminized seed that underperforms for the price in terms of low CBD content in resulting biomass, or d) feminized seed that grows hemp with too much THC content. That said, when it all comes together with the right seed in good soil pockets with exceptional nutrients and proper care, you’re looking at fields of 5’-7’ (even 8’-10’+) tall green-gold with high-CBD flowers blooming thick along the tops of stalks.
Using Clones & Starters: One way or another, the more expensive but far more secure way of maintaining control over genetics is by using either starters from a partner company or provider (themselves either from tested mother plants or greenhouse-propagated), or your own clones and starters from high-performing mother plants you grew previously from seed.
The good news is any farmer can get an ULTRA-SPECIFIC idea of how these types of cannabis plants are first grown and tended to in greenhouses by studying online how folks have been farming psychoactive cannabis indoors for years all over the nation!
Again, the big difference between these plants is the amount of one single compound - THCA. Most pre-field treatments of seed and starters are similar, then in the field there’s a similar approach to micro-nutrition, PH and moisture balance.
Section 5: Crop Management, Growing & ‘Going Hot’
From our understanding, Going Hot refers to when a hemp CBD field begins producing, or at least in-field tests shows too much THCa. As mentioned, outside genetic factors, farming and environment can play roles in causing this change to occur.
Just recently we listened to a hemp podcast interviewing the first hemp farmer in Hempfield, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in a century. Like many others we've listened to, their whole initial process was primarily trial and error, and this guy comes from a LONG line of farmers.
Regardless, he himself said something to the effect of,
“You could ask 20 different farmers how they treat their hemp CBD crops in the field, from spacing and nutrient profiles, to how they deal with pests, moisture content, PH, flowering and harvest and get 20 unique answers.”
If you spent an hour combing through amateur videos posted online from hemp CBD farms in different states, you'd see it's normal for there to be different sections of the fields dedicated to different strains. Some of their products are sold to different processors or companies, while others are used for their own products - tinctures, infused-drinks, smokeable flower, etc.
Point here is there’s no universal answers.
It’s something you’re going to have to figure out from the soil of your land and the genetics you start with, to the way you choose to manage your crop for best yields based on research and experimentation.
When to Plant
Planting typically falls between the third week of May and into the first two weeks of June which is when clones or starters generally come out of the greenhouse.
It varies though, as weather or other circumstances cause farmers to plant earlier or later into mid-July and their crops don't always falter - while others see far less desirable results in other parts of the country for a variety of reasons. Weather is always an issue, but they grow fast for the first 60’ish days and these cultivars of hemp sound pretty strong overall; getting better quickly from sheer market demand and farmer trials.
How to Plant
It depends on the size of your plot. A generalized planting rate is around 800-1,500 plants per acre, spaced 4-6 feet apart in neat and clean rows.
Most smaller-scale farmers are hand-transplanting the clones or starts into the field at specific spacings to give the plants room for growth and for management needs. Larger plots are often using either manual labor or modified equipment - along with new emerging hemp-specific mechanized solutions quickly coming to market.
Note: Hemp CBD farming can be as labor intensive, if not more so, than organic tobacco farming or soy.
This part of the process varies depending on your climate, weather throughout the plant’s life cycle and your nutrient methods, but these cultivars of cannabis can’t get water pushed on them similar to corn.
Soil moisture needs to be monitored and drip-irrigation seems to be among the more popular methods we come across. Each farmer’s story is a bit unique in this respect as well though. Some might come out with a tank and hose during the sunnier periods and water twice a day for X-amount of time, then use watering as a means of coaxing the plants into creating more potent flowers.
Hemp CBD farming means always keeping an eye out for males in your fields which must be removed immediately. Even a single male can have a dramatic impact on your crop.
We’ve heard about this happening to a good percentage of farmers who don’t completely control their genetics. Even then, mistakes can be made and a few males can slip in. One farmer in Oregon we chatted with who runs a farm of about 5,000 plants has the fields walked every couple days to look for males.
What you end up with if males are allowed to do their pollinating are diminished flower-set with seeded buds and flowers and lowered cannabinoid concentrations - roughly 30% cannabinoid loss and 50% biomass loss.
Weeding & Cleanliness
Should you watch videos from hemp farmers or visit one yourself, you’ll likely see rows are kept spotless via manual labor. No one wants to include any foreign plant matter in their harvest samples. It requires vigilance, especially when there are no legally-recognized pesticides, herbicides or fungicides registered and approved for hemp farming yet.
Even if there were, most farmers are eyeing organic-style certifications or focusing on organic non-chemical inputs.
Plant & Soil Treatments
As mentioned, currently there are no legally-recognized herbicides, pesticides, or fungicides approved for hemp farming. What farmers are using varies, but soil tests should determine nutrition requirements. One farmer we listened to talked about releasing 9,000 ladybugs on his crop, while another said his hemp’s fertilizer needs paralleled that of corn.
Some decent information comes from the online edition of Robert A. Nelson's webpage on Hemp Husbandry (Copyrighted 2000) which is said to be based on a United Nations study.
"5 factors are necessary for the "cultivation of Cannabis for a high resin production": (1) genotype, (2) photoperiod, (3) N-P-K, (4) at least 60-80 cm separation between plants, and (5) "optimal temperature of the ground at the time of sowing". Resin production is minimal at 44o F."
We'll use bullet points to separate each info-nugget for emphasis, but take this information as a general roadmap to give you an idea where CBD is concerned and how to avoid THC:
"The production of cannabinoids (THC, CBN, CBD, etc.) is greatly influenced by nutrients."
As N [Nitrogen] increases relative to Mg [Magnesium], CBD increases relative to CBN.
Increasing the ratio of N to Cu [Copper] increases the level of CBD.
Increasing amounts of P [Phosphorus] converts CBN to THC. Low to medium levels of P produces a high level of CBD, but CBD decreases with high levels of P.
Low levels (levels less than 40 ppm) of Mg produce more CBD than do high levels of Mg. As levels of Mg increase relative to Ca, the concentration of THC decreases.
The concentration of Mg and Fe [Iron] in leaves is positively correlated to THC levels.
Potassium increases the concentration of CBN by effecting the dehydrogenation of THC.
An excess of K [Potassium] in the 3rd month will inhibit resin production. Excess Ca will inhibit resin production, and it increases the production of CBD in the resin.
Either an excess or deficiency of Mg produces more CBD.
5 ppm Fe gives highest yields of THC."
Aside from that, right now one of the best places for farmers to turn in this respect are the many university-driven programs and research conducted since 2015.
An example to give you an idea comes from Purdue University’s Hemp Project regarding Hemp Fertility, although keep in mind it’s generalized and not specific to your cultivars of hemp CBD, but based on cannabis fiber and seed hemp varieties:
“Hemp production requires inputs of up to 100-130 lb of nitrogen/ acre, 45-70 lb/acre phosphorus, and 35-80 lb/acre of potash (to keep potassium levels in a medium to high range of >250 ppm). Hemp particularly requires good nitrogen fertilization, more so for seed production than fiber. Phosphorus levels should be medium to high (>40 ppm), sulfur good (>5,000 ppm), and calcium not in excess (<6,000 ppm). In addition to well aerated, loamy soils, hemp does best when organic matter greater than 3.5%. To provide perspective–Hemp requires about the same fertility inputs as a high-yielding crop of wheat, or corn.”
One of the only specifics we could find from hemp CBD farmers was from 2018, and they said they typically put 125-200lbs of nitrogen on their 200-acre farm, spread prior to planting and through an over-the-top application in July.
This was out in Kentucky.
And yes, hemp CBD cultivars have pests to worry about as well as disease, but it’s going to be different for you than it is for other farmers in other parts of the country - another one of the highest priorities when you dig into state departments of agriculture and colleges involved in research.
As of right now what current hemp CBD farmers are doing is a mixture of art and science they’re figuring out as they go.
Section 6: Farming Equipment & Harvesting
As another farmer out east put it in an interview,
“Nobody, and I mean nobody, has figured out the harvest process yet. Whatever works [for them] is currently the right way. At the point of harvest, nobody is doing it the same. We’re all trying to figure out the best way regarding labor and logistics.”
Seeing a pattern here when it comes to trying, trial and error and experimentation?
It’s easier for fiber and seed hemp growers because you can use similar machinery to more conventional crops, but hemp CBD is a completely different ballgame for what should be obvious reasons by now.
Farmers we listen to are doing most of the work manually or through modified equipment along with crews. At harvest time (which can vary from mid-September to mid-October) the plants are cut near the root then either allowed to lay in the field for a while or immediately brought into some sort of drying facility.
Section 7: Drying & Processing
You’ve heard this tune before - drying and post-harvest processes are as diverse as any other aspect of hemp farming for CBD - unique warehouses or mechanical driers, old barns and sheds, a wide range of dehumidifiers, setups using basic fans, racks and air vents, greenhouse-style setups, or even situations where farmers quickly haul the plant material to another processor for further weathering and on into extraction.
We’ve heard farmers describe harvest and afterward as a, ‘total free-for-all’ with a jumble of issues in need of solutions.
Don’t lose sight of the fact that hemp farming isn’t specific to growing for CBD biomass content. There's a growing list of potential applications for growing hemp for fiber and seed as well to consider. But, if hemp biomass for CBD is your focus we hope this has been helpful in some way. If you think we could improve it somehow or have some valuable experience to share, take advantage of the comment section.
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