Interested in growing hemp next year? Here are the first 7 questions you need to ask. They’ll give you the information you need to make an informed and profitable decision. The 2018 Farm Bill made industrial hemp legal under federal law. But your state hemp program interprets the federal guidelines. You can get a lot of helpful information from the US Department of Agriculture website. Let’s dig into those questions.
- Why Are You Growing Hemp?
That’s the first question. Is it because you see it as a crop more profitable than what you’re growing now? If so, have you sat down and crunched the numbers on potential hemp production versus other crops? You want to make sure that conclusion is correct. Have you thought of planting part of your acreage in hemp to get a feel for how it performs on your property?
Do you see hemp as part of your crop rotation? If so, what is before and after that hemp planting? It makes a difference. Are you using fertilizers and pesticides? They may affect your hemp crop.
Has someone approached you and asked if you’d be willing to grow hemp for fiber or grain on some of your acres? A local processor? That’s a good sign and answers another question you have to ask yourself before you start growing hemp. Is there a market?
Now that you’re clear on the Why of growing hemp, let’s look at the other questions that need to be answered before you buy any seeds.
2. What Varieties Grow Well in Your Area?
Which hemp varieties grow best in your area? This is a good time to find out who is growing hemp in your area. If you’re thinking of growing hemp for fiber you need to talk to a fiber hemp grower. If you want to get into the grain hemp side of things you need to find a farmer experienced with grain hemp varieties.
One easy way to connect with other farmers is through the Global Hemp Association. You can also connect with processors, building long-term relationships and collaborations. They’re looking for farmers like you.
The Global Hemp Association has completed the first year of nation-wide seed trials of fiber hemp varieties. Those results will be out soon. Combine that data with regional and certified seed suppliers’ data to make an informed decision.
There are hemp varieties (both grain and fiber) that grow best in the south, others do better in the north. Hemp is a short season crop, 120 days, but fiber hemp takes another 3-4 weeks in the field after harvest for retting, explained below.
3. What Processing Facilities are In Your Area?
Are there processing facilities near you? That’s an important consideration. You need to know the market possibilities, and have a contract, before you buy seed. One of the benefits of hemp is that it sequesters carbon better than almost any other plant. But if you have to truck your product across 2 or 3 states for processing you’ve negated that carbon. At best, you’re offsetting only the CO2 emitted by the truck.
There are more than 25,000 potential uses for hemp. Each has a different specification and you need to know what your market wants so you can supply it. It’s no different than knowing what the dairy or soybean market is looking for each year. Hemp is a commodity crop subject to all the same market demands, or lack thereof, as other crops.
Are you considering growing a dual-purpose crop? Talk to a number of hemp farmers, see if you get a consensus on the value of a dual-purpose versus a single purpose crop. It may also make a difference to your market. What are the processor specs and does a dual-purpose crop fit them? If not, maybe it’s not a good idea.
Do you want to plant another crop, for example winter wheat, after your hemp crop is harvested? Although it’s a short season crop at 120 days, there is a second step when growing fiber hemp. The harvested stalks will be in your field for an additional 3-4 weeks. How will that extra few weeks affect your farm plan? How adaptable are you to this new crop?
You’ve read up on hemp varieties, talked to local hemp farmers, and processors. You’ve made the decision to plant some of your acres to industrial hemp. Now, where are you going to get your seeds?
4. Where are You Sourcing Your Seed?
Have you found a source of certified seed? Are you using certified seed? What the heck is certified seed!
Hemp seed is certified through local and regional agencies. It’s an intensive process that involves academia, the seed industry, and the USDA in a Variety Review Board. The Federal Seed Act requires a seed variety to be distinct, uniform, and genetically stable. The Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies (AOSCA) and the Association of Official Seed Analysts (AOSA) have lists of approved cultivars. Certified seed is guaranteed to have a low level of weed seed and a high level of genetic purity.
With certified seed there is a great deal less risk because that certification is meant to make sure growers get a consistent and reliable crop.
It’s not Illegal to buy non-certified seed but you’re taking on more risk. The seed could contain a high percentage of weed seeds, be a varietal off-type, or have a disease that will spread to your fields. All these factors affect yield. Growing with non-certified seed may also increase your risk of a “hot” crop. Certified seed has generations of low THC production which minimizes that risk.
Do you use certified seed for your other field crops? The seed certification process in the hemp industry is the same as corn, soybean, wheat, or any other commodity crop.
5.How Have You Prepared Yourself and Your Farm?
Self-preparation is crucial because people are going to ask you what you’re doing. You need to be able to explain you’re growing industrial hemp for grain or fiber markets. You may need to also explain to your neighbors the benefits of industrial hemp to your farm and the environment.
Growing hemp means you’re helping to control climate change, drawdown CO2, and increase soil fertility. It’s a big thing you’re doing for yourself and society. You may need to let your neighbors know you’re not growing marijuana.
A valuable resource for all subject matter experts – from hemp genetics to experienced farmers to processors who need your 2023 hemp production for their processing facilities – is the Global Hemp Association.
As a farmer you know a good way to learn a crop is to ask another farmer a lot of questions. But the best way is to grow it. Start with a few acres of hemp. The beauty of hemp is that it improves your soil by sequestering carbon, so even if your crop doesn’t make a lot of money that first year you’ve improved your soil.
6. How Do You Farm – Conventional, Organic, No-Till?
Industrial hemp makes a great crop addition to a multi-crop rotation. You may have heard it can grow anywhere. Well, it can as long as the soil is fertile and it gets enough water. Hemp prefers a well-draining sandy loam. It likes well-drained soils and doesn’t do well in clay soil with little organic matter. It likes a pH between 6-7.
Hemp seed is small and is planted only ½ to ¾ inch deep. If your soil is dry, it may be planted at a 1-inch depth. Most hemp farmers till shallowly for an even surface. Hemp germinates rapidly, in 3 to 5 days. But so do weeds. How are you going to handle weeds?
There aren’t any herbicides, pesticides, or fungicides labeled for use with hemp. But fiber hemp planted in narrow rows with high plant density quickly suppresses weeds, if it isn’t nitrogen limited. Grain hemp is shorter and weeds may be more of an issue, unless you use cover crops.
It makes a difference whether you’re growing hemp for fiber or grain production how closely you plant.
Fiber hemp is planted closely so the stalks grow tall, 8 to 12 feet. Processors want a long thin stalk because it’ll have less lignin and be easier to process. Hemp processing equipment works most efficiently when it’s not gummed up. The processor you’ve contracted with will do field checks.That’s why you get the specs from your CONTRACTED BUYER. Fiber hemp is planted in row spacings of less than 12 inches, at about 25-30 lb/acre. But it depends on the variety and your field conditions. Many hemp processors are also farmers who can answer growing questions.
Cover crops are a valuable addition to your hemp field. Planted with fiber hemp, they’ll be shaded out but will take up weed space and add organic matter to your soil. Grain hemp is shorter and planted about the same as wheat. Quick growing short cover crops suppress weeds.
Hemp needs a substantial amount of nitrogen so plant legumes to add nitrogen from the air. You may need to add supplemental nitrogen fertilizer.
Are you going to till or are you a no-till farmer? This will make a big difference in how closely you space your rows. If you’ve got a good layer of cover crops or biomass from last year’s cover crops, you can drill into that with a seed drill. If you till, you may have more weed problems because you’re always bringing weed seeds to the soil surface.
Do you farm in an area that’s experiencing drought? Are you using irrigation? Do you have plenty of rainfall so you don’t need irrigation?
These are the same questions you ask yourself when you’re farming corn, soybeans, wheat, or any other commodity crop. Do I need irrigation? Is my soil healthy enough for this crop? If not, how do I make it better?
7.Do you Know How to Harvest Hemp?
If you’ve never grown hemp before you’re going to have to do some leg work and find out how to harvest it. In fact, it’s best to do this the year BEFORE you start growing hemp. Go to some field days and get as much information as you can.
Growing and harvesting grain hemp requires some adaptations to your farm equipment. Unlike other row crops that are harvested when they’re dry, hemp is harvested when it’s green. A combine set to a small grain setting and moving at a slower speed will bring in a harvest. Hemp seeds are light so the air pressure on the blower has to be reduced.
Hemp seed needs to be dried as soon as it comes out of the field. Hopper bottom bins with fans underneath reduce the moisture content. Roger Gussiaas, who farms in Pennsylvania, told Lancaster Farming News “…you need to dry it [hemp seed] quickly so it doesn’t create mold or pathogens.”
Harvesting fiber hemp may require specialized equipment purchases. Fiber hemp can grow 12’ high. There are a number of different adaptations farmers have made to their equipment. A sickle bar mower is needed to cut the tall stalks. If you’re growing a “dual purpose” crop a double-sickle bar cuts the grain head and it goes into the combine while the lower sickle bar cuts the stalk.
The stalks are left in the field to “ret.” Retting is a microbial process that rots the lignin out of the stalk so the outer fiber, or bast, separates from the interior “hurd.” Two crops for two markets, three crops in a dual-purpose variety.
When the stalks have retted and dried, they’re baled in large round or square bales, like hay. These are what the processor wants.
Armed With Questions
The questions that aren’t addressed here: hemp license and application fee, criminal background check, and state level regulations. We anticipate these will be gone with the Hemp Exemption. The harvesting process of industrial hemp makes it almost impossible for plant material to leave the field with any measurable THC levels.
Decrease risk and add profit to your farm by asking these 7 questions to make an informed decision. You may decide not to grow hemp this year. But before you reject hemp think of the benefits it brings to your soil. It makes a good choice for crop rotation. It has a deep root that brings up nutrients into the topsoil. Those are then available to shorter rooted crops in your rotation.
Talking to hemp farmers and processors gives you information on which varieties grow well in your area and what local processors are looking for. You can make a nice profit while improving the quality of your soil. Hemp is a crop that will improve your soil and create a legacy you’ll be proud of.
For more information on successfully growing hemp join the Global Hemp Association. Connect with experienced farmers and processors who want to help you succeed.