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Hemp Can Raise Farm Profits (Without Getting You High)

Newly legalized in many places, hemp is big news these days, and the crop presents numerous agribusiness opportunities large and small for farmers and growers.

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by Frank HymanMay 12, 2020
PHOTO: Frank Hyman

Suddenly, depending on where you live, you might have legal access to medicinal marijuana, recreational marijuana, industrial hemp or even artisanal hemp. That’s a lot of change in a short time.

You might be thinking: Aren’t hemp and marijuana really the same plant? The answer is both yes and no. First, though, let’s talk about money.


Cash Crop

This year, American farmers will sell about $25 million worth of hemp. In 2022, that amount will quadruple. But that will still be many times smaller than what Canadian farmers are earning with hemp, where it has been legal since 1998.

This is a crop that bears watching and perhaps even some planting.

I don’t know about you, but I learned most of what I know about marijuana (Cannabis sativa) 40 years ago at the far end of my high school parking lot. And just last year, I learned most of what I know about hemp (Cannabis sativa) in the parking lot of the Country Farm and Home feed-and-seed store in Pittsboro, North Carolina.

To learn more, last December, I followed up with a visit to the store’s Very Hempy Holidays: a mini-market of local growers.

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Considering growing hemp? Here’s more information.


Same Name

But perhaps we should get our terms straight. Astute readers already noticed that marijuana and hemp both have the same Latin name: Cannabis sativa. But if one of them gets you high and the other one gives you gas (biogas, among many other products), how can they be the same plant?

A few botanists claim that marijuana and hemp are different species entirely. Other botanists say there is only one species of cannabis, composed of a number of cultivated varieties that can interbreed.

Weighing in as a horticulturist, I was taught that anytime plants can interbreed, they are the same species—by definition.

So hemp and marijuana are the same species. But they have been cultivated to be very different varieties with distinctive differences, like so many tomato varieties with different colors and flavors.

The U.S.s has defined marijuana as a plant with greater than 0.3 percent THC. That’s the molecule that gets you high.

A cannabis plant with less than 0.3 percent THC is hemp. It won’t get you high no matter how much you smoke or eat.

But these two plants can be split up even more than that.

Marijuana has many varieties with varying levels of THC and different effects on your mind. In some states, you might be able to grow medicinal or recreational marijuana legally.

But that’s beyond the scope of this article.

Hemp also has an array of varieties with different qualities. To grow and market it, you’ll need to know which cultivar is right for your soils, rainfall, latitude and market.

Focus on markets first. Some overeager hemp growers haven’t been able to sell their crops because they didn’t lock in buyers early.

hemp products salves
Frank Hyman

Legalities

As of this writing, only four states don’t allow hemp growing: Idaho, South Dakota, Mississippi and New Hampshire. But even where it’s legal, it’ll be regulated, as some folks are still concerned about the similarity to marijuana.

Many states are still engaged in “pilot projects,” and you may have to get a state hemp license for perhaps $250 a year or more. Often, to get that you will have to show a Schedule F tax form to prove that you have farm income.

Your crop will be subject to field-testing. If the seed source or the growing conditions bump the THC levels higher than 0.3 percent, you’ll have to burn the crop.

Some legislators are working on loosening that limit.

Growing Tips

Hemp is a strong-growing annual plant. But it only produces well if the day length is long enough.

The best time to put hemp transplants in the field is mid-May in zone 7. Put them in the ground any sooner and the shorter day length fools them into thinking its fall and the too-young plants start producing flower buds while they’re still small.

For small farms, individual plants need room for hand-harvesting, so plant them in rows, perhaps with plastic mulch to keep down weeds. Fortunately, hemp has few insect or disease problems, so growing it organically is viable if you can minimize the weed pressure.

Even the processing can be low-tech. Some people make salves from the hemp oil in Crock-Pots. They add coconut oil and other ingredients to modify consistency and fragrance.


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Artisanal or Industrial?

Agribusinesses will be growing hundreds—if not thousands — of acres of hemp using combines, seed drills and other heavy equipment.

Farmers in Canada have been doing this for decades now and earn a profit of as much as $250 per acre. So 1,000 acres can net you $250,000 after selling your crop for seed, oil, protein, textiles, bioplastics, biofuels or hemp-crete (a climate-friendly alternative to concrete).

However, each acre has as many as 400,000 plants. We’re talking industrial farming.

A good product opportunity here would be the replacement of common plastic bailer twine—made from fossil fuels—with durable, yet biodegradable hemp twine.

Some farmers even turn the seed into tasty, high-protein snack foods with an omega profile similar to fish oil.

On the other hand, small farmers will likely grow 1,000 or more plants per acre as individual plants in rows. Rather than selling wholesale quantities to processors for the previously-mentioned products, small farmers will want to invest their time in value-added products that deliver CBD oil and sell them retail as often as possible.

In other words, they’ll need to take the artisanal approach.

Learning from Locals

Just as small farmers have found better pay with farmers markets, farm stands and CSAs, successful small hemp growers will need to search out retail opportunities. I talked to several farmers at that Country Home and Farm event, which hosted half a dozen local growers to market their value-added stocking stuffers to a steady flow of customers.

  • In 2019, Sara Curtis and her son, Colton, grew cannabis plants on a half acre, producing smokable hemp. From October to mid-November, the handpicking of each pound of the mature female buds required about five hours. That’s not just the harvesting but also the tedious handwork of trimming excess leaves away from the buds. The pair netted some 800 to 900 pounds of dried buds from 330 plants.They dried the buds in their warehouse with a dehumidifier and stored them in the kind of vacuum-sealed bags people use to shrink down their clothes when they pack their luggage. Vacuum-sealing the bags helps preserve the terpenes, which help strengthen the effect of CBD oil.
  • Teri Belcher and her former recon Marine husband, Josh Pask, own Farm Dude Farms and also grow about a half acre of hemp. During the Christmas season, they marketed some of their smokable hemp in plastic candy canes, which drew attention to their other products: CBD oils and salves.
  •  This isn’t Sun Butler’s first rodeo. He helped Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co. figure out the best ways to grow tobacco organically. Now he’s on the cutting edge of hemp growing with 650 plants on two-thirds of an acre. Butler and his wife call their operation Magu Hemp, after the Chinese goddess of longevity. Magu was also referred to as the Hemp Maiden for the healing poultices she made from hemp. Butler advises customers that CBD oil is not regulated, so you need to know your source. He sells CBD oil in dropper bottles and smokable hemp in hand-rolled cigarettes.
  • Rick Brownfield and his son, Sam, own Broom­straw Farm and market their hemp products as Rocky River Hemp NC. They’re in their second year and grew about 2,000 plants on 2 acres. They were careful in getting started and only grew about 100 plants on 1/8 acre the year before. After their first year, they upped their game by buying cuttings of six hybrids over the winter. The Brownfields propagate these in their greenhouse to have transplants for the spring. They also learned that they needed to have more powerful lighting for hemp in their greenhouses. Hemp needs twice the light strength as tomatoes. As a side business, they are now selling these lights—Cree CXB LEDs—to other hemp growers.

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