Interested in American Hemp Farming?
Interested in getting involved in the American hemp industry? For newcomers, this article helps explain some of the common challenges and hurdles being tackled.
Note: What you're about to read was written in the last weeks of 2018, then updated throughout early 2019.
Before the ink of the 2018 Farm Bill had a chance to dry, hundreds upon hundreds of millions exchanged hands and Americans across the nation clamored to get involved in the blossoming new hemp industry. Within three months exactly five states had submitted their growing plans to the USDA who announced hemp as their #1 focus. It's been such an amazing transition already!
At the center of it all, are our American farmers.
Or, well, I should say the lack of experienced American hemp farmers and master growers.
Not to mention farm staff seasoned in working with this crop and all the specialized farming, processing, extracting and manufacturing infrastructure...
So, what's the reality our nation is facing (in a good way) with the end of industrial hemp farming?
As an example of the sorts of developments I'm seeing here in the VERY beginning stages, let me share an offer that recently arrived in my email inbox. A good place to start - I'm leaving it in present tense for effect.
A Soon-to-be Common U.S. Hemp Farming Opportunity...
ORLANDO, Fla, Dec., 2018, OrganicaWorld is offering up its state of the art 350,000 square foot greenhouse facilities to contract grow and sell industrial hemp plantlets/seed to American farmers. Whether you’re looking to get a 50,000 acre hemp operation going, or a small hobby farm for your home, they’re happy to help.They can ship fresh seed or plantlets, only a few weeks old and ready to plant in soil. They’re also announcing the building of new greenhouse facilities every 90 days to keep up with demand.
Note: OrganicaWorld will contract to buy 100% of the grown crop back from the grower. This way farmers are sure to get paid, and they get good plant material to use in finished consumer products set to generate billions in a matter of a couple years.
Their company website: https://www.organicaworld.com/
Worry not, if you don't yet see why that's a great example of the situation, you soon shall.
Current Challenges We Face as a Nation
Take a look at the following chart, then expand those numbers out to peer into the early-to-mid 2020s. Although the #2 biggest concern, lack of banking services, isn't really an issue anymore on the federal level and thus central banks - presumably. The Farm Bill opens floodgates for federally-funded lending institutions to collaborate with U.S. hemp farmers (and thus payment processors and the whole lot). This means farmer subsidies and insurance and things aren't in jeopardy if they grow hemp by the book.
Just sayin...so #1 and #2 are really Finding Processors and Finding Harvesting Equipment:
What's not being shown there is the trial, error and experimentation involved for many farmers during this initial phase, as hemp is re-introduced to the American landscape. We'll see what happens as new strains are developed for different regions and to suit different industries.
Another issue not being shown there as we step boldly into a 21st Century Cannabician age, is the fact farmers are going to need to line up buyers and no one's quite sure of anything yet. There's a hemp economy building with astonishing speed, but it's primarily just us setting up shop for a soon to be trillion $$$ industry - groundwork. American farmers are getting tons of financial and agronomic support from abroad, but even the CBD niche within hemp hasn't been completely erected yet, let alone American hemp fiber, hurd, and seed.
A Note on Finding Seeds or Clones
#3 in the chart above is all about sourcing seed. Again, in coming years American farmers will be,
Using hemp genetics designed abroad in Canada, China, Europe, India, etc.
Using hemp genetics developed primarily OR, KY, and CO over the last 5-7 years. The Farm Bill opened up interstate commerce in this respect.
Further developing these cannabis genetics to suit their climate, geographic location, and market demands.
In a recent email convo with an interested individual, we were discussing the steps it would take to get a hemp farm going here in our county in Washington State. An initial question concerned sourcing multi-crop seeds for both hemp grain and fiber cultivars surfaced. But that's the thing folks...within a decade the sheer amount of different hemp strains for a (hopefully) magnificent variety of uses will be on the table - as glorious an array as we find in the medical cannabis industry here on the West Coast: textile and construction-based fiber strains, seed strains of course for food and biofuel, as well as cultivars specifically grown for higher CBD content. How about specific seed crops meant only for animal feed? Right now though, yes, this is a serious issue that has yet to be figured out on the legislative/bureaucratic, economic and in-the-field levels.
"Well, we could probably get some seed from Canada, they've had hemp there for a while."
And that's true, but my research tells me they have about as big of an industrial hemp fiber industry as America does at this point...they've been mainly growing seed-based hemp - and more recently hemp for higher CBD content like in the U.S. We'll likely see market segments largely broken up regionally - for example CBD-strains dominating the west, seed throughout the middle of the country and fiber coming from the east kind of thing. It's all very much up in the air. Historically Kentucky was responsible for the vast majority of hemp farming in America.
And with that, let's dig into the meat and bones.
A Walk Through a First Growing Season
I happened to stumble upon a great hour-long interview with a grower in Pennsylvania that completely blew my socks off. Honestly, it showed me just how unbelievably little I know about hemp farming. The last time it was truly farmed to where most all American farmers knew the high stalks well was in my great-great-great-grandfather's day around the 1840s. Anyhow, this gentlemen shared his first experience growing a little under 70 acres of hemp. Listening intently a handful of times, I took extensive notes to paint the following picture.
This part of the journey was relatively easy because he and his company had already gone through the 'marijuana' research permitting process. Their state only offered out 50 permits to research-farm hemp, of those a little less than 40 got through the steps involved. States with pre-existing regulations were based on the 2014 Farm Bill under Pilot Programs like the one this man and his company were a part of. Most states don't have their hemp farming regulations and agronomic data figured out. For example to the southeast, Oklahoma saw their first harvest of modern hemp in 2018, but has yet to develop and present a plan to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for approval under the new Farm Bill.
This is changing fast and the USDA has already stated they're working towards finalizing a template to allow all States to submit their plans in a uniform and consistent way. Once this happens and gets figured out, permitting will become essentially the same as it would be for most any other crop with one core difference - having the crop tested to ensure legal THC levels of 0.3% or less.
What to Grow
The ability to get high-quality specific hemp genetics and get it planted on time is a serious challenge many are facing at this point.
Countless farmers in America have no idea what to grow hemp for outside the state-level help of Pilot Programs. Do they grow for fiber? For seed? For flower? Multi-crop? And where do they obtain the genetics for these plants? The farmer I was listening to sourced their seed from a European country around their latitude with a relatively similar climate, but its initial growth rate didn't translate well in the field in Pennsylvania completely throwing off all projections. Oh yeah, and because of things outside their control (issue with Customs which should become less of a bother for farmers now as the need to source international seed will disspate) the seed was not only planted late, but the weather didn't cooperate and at one point they needed to rent trucks to haul in water because the land they thought was irrigated when they signed the dotted line... turned out not to be.
Hemp is a versatile crop that handles weather extremes fairly well, but it's not bullet proof.
Does America have a ton of space to farm hemp? Yes! We could easily plant enough hemp in one year across the nation to handle our energy needs and all but eradicate hunger. That's a great fact, but look at what this company went through...
They thought the land was irrigated. It wasn't. They were told the farm had staff. It didn't, let alone staff experienced with hemp. Has the land been farmed, and if so, with what? Does the land need a certain level of reclamation which hemp can provide? Then there's the issue of who's going to manage this crop when there are so few growers, farmers, and farm staff experienced with it. Their first harvest was nowhere near what it should've been for three primary reasons:
Late getting seed in the ground, and unpredictable/hectic weather.
The need for modified (not specifically designed for hemp) machinery.
Inexperienced grower and farm staff.
We're not even talking about the different things that go into a non-established crop in terms of fertilizer, pesticide, or herbicide use... or going organic which requires certified organic hemp seed in the specific cultivar you need for your farming goals.
In terms of rental cost-per-acre, they discovered a 500% difference between what they were paying, and what they should've been paying! None of this is meant to discourage, just paint a more realistic picture of what a lot of farmers will shoulder through to get this nation's hemp farming community going.
It goes far worse for others of course. I've listened to farmers go on about dealing with pests, root rot, far too much rain, getting low quality seed, and so on, but in the end I've only read one story of a farmer who threw in the towel. The rest are planning bigger hemp crops for 2019-2020 and beyond and thankful for the lessons they learned.
What About Hemp Processing?
Industrial hemp-specific machinery is a paramount need right now - seeders, combines, decorticators, drying solutions, more extractors, etc. As the farmers I'm referring to were only working with less than 70 acres, they used what others in their network suggested which were modified equipment to suit hemp seeding. When it came to processing, they only had need for the flower which went into extraction for full spectrum high-CBD concentrates and terpene isolates. The rest of the plant material was either thrown away (sad), donated, or to a small degree swapped with other hemp farmers who didn't need their flower but could use their leftover stalk.
For seed, whether we're talking biofuel or food, hemp seed processing shouldn't be as big of an issue as it is. Neither should hemp fiber processing be such a feat but that's where we are. America has ample amounts of food processing infrastructure already in place though. We just need processors and farming machinery makers to start transitioning or announce they're ready for hemp business. Throughout the 2012-2019 period, the medical cannabis and CBD-hemp industries provided a good supply of labs, and the USDA has ample resources to hire whatever personnel they need to certify crops. In my mind's eye, I see decorticators becoming widespread on small, medium, large, and ultra-large scales like the one built by Hemp Inc.
This alludes to scalability.
Oh yeah, the entire situation is going to be unstable and somewhat chaotic for a while.
We're unleashing the industrial hemp plant on 21st Century America within the depths of an economic depression and an increasingly unstable environment. I could go on. Not accounting for the whole social-connectedness/technological aspect of things...this is no light development. Will farmers have trouble selling their plant components? That's been the case for some due to pre-2018 Farm Bill conditions, but should become less so as we progress from 2019-2020 forward. Demand for hemp plant products of all kinds are projected across the board to increase by double-digits into the foreseeable future.
As States Weigh In...
What will each state do? With the deep-seeded - forgive the pun! - socioeconomic, cultural, and political divides in America (many expect a 2nd Civil War inside a decade), there's no telling how scattered the industrial hemp farming landscape could look by 2025. How many states will be looking like Colorado or Montana, and how many will be looking like my own state of Washington with just one, yes one single grower in 2018's program? Not sure how it will end up looking for 2019 yet. For those interested in getting involved, the USDA said they're setting absolute minimum standards that states will not be able to further minimize, only make more restrictive! This means it's all about what your state decides to do, so the answers to every specific question you have should ultimately be delivered through its Department of Agricultural.
Here in WA, it's looking really good with the doors being pretty wide open for the 2020 growing season. Which brings us to the next component on my list...
The Hemp CBD Situation
This is going to be a gigantic issue. Here in Washington State it's looking like it will be perceived as a naturally occurring part of the hemp plant and legally a part of food. This will make it legal to grow for hemp CBD, process and sell it in my state. How this will evolve on the national scene over the next few years is anyone's guess. What's certain is there won't be any lack of demand in the beginning. However, there's likely to be a glut of supply somewhere between 2020-2022, similar to what OR experienced with a 6-year oversupply of medical cannabis.
Whether we're talking about regulatory guidelines, designing new industrial hemp strains for CBD, retail trends in this largely unregulated sector, or yet-to-be-defined acceptable profit margins, marketing methods, and educational rules while introducing to a largely opioid-based culture to a cannabinoid-dominated medical system...whoa.
Thank God for Kentucky Tobacco Farmers
I find it poetic that Americans to a good degree have 'Tobacco State Republicans' and Farmers Associations to thank for finally ending industrial hemp prohibition. It's true. For example, if we were to look at a map where large amounts of hemp industry support is coming from, there'd be hot spots in western states like Colorado or Oregon, and plenty of smudges of red around the nation... then steaming magma-red spots where tobacco's been grown and there's a need to replace the crop with something more economically viable - hello Kentucky! For the rest of recorded human history, we'll always remember the role Kentucky played in ending American hemp prohibition.
While not a hemp farmer yet, I hope to be one within the next two years. I heard a hemp historian put it perfectly the other night, something like,
"We're not even in the birthing stage of American hemp, more like the embryonic stage."
Get involved in hemp farming organizations, contact state departments of Agriculture who'll be getting serious about hemp in short order - releasing guidelines and state plans soon - and learn more about the uses of this plant, as well as processing and extraction.
Three final last tips:
Don't bet the farm on hemp!
Experiment with test plots if possible. Whether you want to shoot for fiber, grain, or phytocannabinoids like CBD, plant a small plot, maybe an acre, and ease into it.
There's an increasing amount of information being published independently online every day :)
Thanks for your time, and here's to the success of your hemp crops!