The year of hemp jubilee has arrived, roughly 80 years after Uncle Sam locked the maligned cannabis variety in the federal attic. U.S. farmers can officially play the hemp game, so says the 2018 farm bill, and as of January 2019, 41 states have given hemp a green flag.
The spectrum of legal leeway is noteworthy, with Colorado at full commercialization, Kentucky running a close second, Minnesota allowing a relatively progressive policy and other states permitting various levels of production or research.
Over time, Michael Bowman, chair of the National Hemp Association, thinks U.S. hemp production will surpass 1 million acres. The crop was planted on 75,000 acres in 2018, which was up from basically no acreage in 2013. As an example of the potential rapid growth, Kentucky approved 42,000 acres for 2019, up from 6,700 acres in 2018.
Whether the goal is to yield cannabidiol (CBD), seed or fiber, hemp growers—and their consultants and retailers—are learning on the go. Obstacles to success include seed availability, genetics, agronomic know-how, crop protection options, infrastructure and education. Tony Brannon, dean of agriculture at Murray State University, likens this time in hemp production to learning to ride a bike with no training wheels.
“It’s critical to know there has been no research, no USDA funding, for this crop,” Brannon says. “Where would soybeans be if since the 1960s there was no new research for varieties, pest control, diseases? Well, that is where hemp is.”
As part of Kentucky’s early pilot program, Brannon and farm manager Jason Robertson led the team at Murray State University to plant the first legal hemp crop in Kentucky in almost 50 years.
“We planted on May 12, 2014. Our seed cleared customs three days before, which was the only seed through customs before the DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency] confiscated the rest of the shipments,” Brannon says. Since 2014, the university has hosted an annual educational field day for farmers.
“I’ve been saying for the last 20 years there’s nothing that will replace tobacco, but agricultural hemp is the best darn opportunity we’ve had,” he says. “You don’t have a chance to reinvent a crop very often in one’s lifetime. It [hemp] has already established itself more than other agricultural fads or industries that folks have previously scoffed at or dismissed. It contributed over $16.7 million of economic activity in Kentucky in 2017.”
From a consulting and advising perspective, it’s a tough crop to scout, and no crop protection options are available. With narrow plant spacing and a quick canopy, early-season weeds can be addressed with manual labor, but later-season pests leave growers helpless.
Dan Moser, a crop consultant with Centrol in North Dakota, has worked with a grower in hemp seed and CBD oil production. In the seed fields, he says the crop is so thick you’re lucky to get off the headlands, and a drone has been used to scout the crop. But even if a pest pressure is identified, your hands are tied.
“Our yield would probably go up by 20% to 25% if we could spray for the mold or any of the fungus we see attacking the hemp,” he says.
Moser says growers in Canada have more information, and a national framework, for crop protection products. In the coming years, he hopes he can use some product information from them.
Being left to your own devices is a unifying theme at this point in hemp production. Allie Marks, another Centrol crop consultant in North Dakota, had two farmer-
clients take part in that state’s pilot program for industrial hemp.
“I spent a lot of time reading materials from the 1930s and 1940s because it was everything I could find,” she says.
After two crop years, both of her grower-customers aren’t planting hemp in 2019, but she intends to keep learning about hemp in case more customers pursue the crop.
The crop protection industry is watching closely. Pam Marrone, CEO and founder of Marrone Bio Innovations, says a study two years ago estimated the fertilizer and crop protection industry for hemp was $91 million when just Oregon, Washington and Colorado were legal for growing. Add California, and the inputs market in those four states could be $1.5 billion by 2020.
“We were dragged into this market,” Marrone says. She tells the story of being at her local farmers market, and a vendor who knew her mentioned that Marrone Bio’s Regalia product was all the buzz on the marijuana online discussion boards.
“And then, the volume of calls to our customer support line just kept coming. Today, probably half of our calls are cannabis-related,” she says.
The company sees cannabis as a top-five crop for growth potential. Marrone says retailers serving this market must provide resources and spend time on technical questions.
“Anytime there is a patchwork of regulations like this, it’s a negative. The growers are done a disservice. They don’t get the best tools as fast as they should,” she says.
As examples, she cites Washington, Colorado and California have said no chemical pesticides. Other states such as Massachusetts and North Carolina only permit 25b products.
Marrone Bio can put hemp on its master label for products such as Regalia, Venerate and Grandevo, which the company has repackaged and branded for the market.
Other companies are waiting for a national policy permitting hemp.
“Due to the farm bill’s new recognition of hemp, we suspect and expect there will be Brandt products applied to this crop, if not already. But at this point, there are no Brandt products that have hemp specifically cited on the label,” says Karl Barnhart, chief marketing officer, Brandt. “Unfortunately, until hemp and cannabis are removed from the federal government’s Schedule I drug list, we can’t do any testing.”
As hemp is reintroduced into American agriculture, perhaps it’ll fit right in with how farmers and their advisers learn on the go with every season—no matter the obstacles.
- Hemp is a Legal Commodity. Now What?
- Cannabis Named A Commodity Crop In The 2018 Farm Bill
- Hemp Goes Mobile As Farmers Seek Opportunity