Everything You Need to Know About Hemp Farming
We’ve hit a proliferation among the CBD industry: this cannabinoid can be found in virtually any product, any skincare treatment, or any edible delicacy alike. But CBD isn’t the only hemp-derived product taking a stand in modern society. In fact, there are an estimated 25,000 uses for the hemp plant alone. At least in the United States, the most popular uses for hemp include:
- Food & animal feed
- Building materials
With hemp in such high demand, the supply is significantly overshadowed by demand, making it a valuable commodity for those already farming hemp or those wishing to farm hemp. And lucky for farmers, they most likely do not have to worry about the 25,000 uses of hemp before starting down the trek of agricultural hemp production. Instead, American farmers usually view hemp in two distinct ways:
- Hemp grown for CBD oil and other medicinal cannabinoids
- Hemp grown for industrial purposes
We know of CBD oil, the non-intoxicating byproduct of hemp that possesses purported medicinal benefits far and wide. But what do we mean by industrial-purposed hemp? Well, industrial hemp includes everything else: the hemp fibers used to create textiles, ropes, and other products; the hemp biomass used to create plastics or fuel or even hempcrete; hemp proteins used for human or animal food.
It is important for farmers to know why they are growing hemp because the types of products created from their hemp change the ways in which they must approach hemp farming itself. For example, medicinal-intent hemp farms can accrue about 1500 hemp plants per acre, and each plant must be tended individually. Industrial-intent hemp farms, on the other hand, can accrue up to 400,000 hemp plants per acre and often use heavy machinery to tend, cultivate, and harvest their stock.
But there is so much more to hemp farming than meets the eye, especially as hemp re-enters mainstream society after so many decades of exile. Hemp farming is not just a story of agriculture, but a story about American society and environmental activism. Plus, CBD oil has impacted our lives, so it’s important to know about the first step in CBD oil production: hemp.
What is Needed to Farm Hemp?
A lot of factors play into hemp farming: the right land, the right climate and weather patterns, the right seeds, the right equipment, the right local political landscape, and more. Let’s dive into some of the most important aspects of hemp farming in order to better understand the practice and the hemp plant itself.
The Land to Farm Hemp
All agriculture needs land, whether it be land for planting, land for drilling (such as with wheat), or land for storing potted agriculture. Land is very important, and to farm hemp you’ll ideally want large, flat fields with good percolation.
Percolation is the key word here, as hemp thrives in porous land with high access to water and nutrients. However, hemp does not necessarily need to be planted in high-quality soil, making it viable for a variety of land types so long as the soil is well-drained and full of organic matter.
As for the size of your hemp farm, the plant is more suitable for industrial applications. Similar to grain crops, it can be difficult for farmers to earn a profit on hemp with less than 50 acres of suitable land. Remember that industrial hemp can occupy up to 400,000 plants per acre while small-scale usage hemp — such as medicinal hemp — must be tended individually and can only occupy around 1500 plants per acre. It is not impossible for small plots of land to turn a profit on hemp cultivation but, as with most things in the agricultural world, the bigger the better.
The Weather to Farm Hemp
So you may have the right land to farm hemp, but do you live in the right climate? First and foremost, you must farm hemp outside of the tropics: the plant thrives further away from the equator and closer to Earth’s poles.
However, hemp also prefers temperate weather with a large day-night thermal spread, meaning days are hot and nights are cold. The plant also enjoys very hot, short summers and cold winters, so you’ll need an environment conducive to distinctive seasons, not year-round sunshine or year-round cold.
Vineyards or high-valley fruit farms are good examples of agricultural operations already operating within these fundamental climate guidelines.
The Equipment to Farm Hemp
Luckily for farmers wishing to switch their current crops towards hemp cultivation, most commercially-available farm equipment can and will double for hemp cultivation, generally requiring only some minor customization and modification.
Hemp is a strong plant with notoriously bushy leaves, meaning high-volume machinery can become clogged. Machines must be outfitted to withstand the bushiness of hemp. Also, for those looking to cultivate hemp fiber — used to make everything from textiles to canvas — you must understand that the specialized machinery used to process hemp stalks into fiber is not yet readily available in the United States.
Luckily, for farmers wishing to avoid costly new equipment purchases, hemp growers may be able to contract with companies who accept raw plant material, meaning farmers do not have to worry about processing fees or machinery needed to produce a more refined hemp material.
The Seeds to Farm Hemp
Interestingly enough, hemp seeds may represent one of the trickiest aspects of successful hemp farming. For starters, most hemp seeds are imported into the United States from Canada or Europe. This importation has been known to cause problems with both federal and local authoritative bodies, even though hemp-derived products are legal at the federal level.
Furthermore, under the 2018 Farm Bill, the current ruling legislation over hemp production, hemp is only considered “hemp” when it contains no more than 0.3% THC on a dry weight basis. So, if a hemp farmer purchases seeds that create a crop containing more than this 0.3% THC limit, their entire crop is classified “marijuana” and must be destroyed, as marijuana is not yet federally legal.
This is why it is imperative to purchase only seeds of certified genetics, where “genetics” refers to the proven supply chain networks of a particular plant family. These seeds will, on average, bust the 0.3% THC limit less than seeds of unknown origin and produce a healthy and profitable crop. Certified genetics have also been properly feminized, as male plants can cross-contaminate a crop grown for specific purposes (the female plants have all the good stuff).
But acquiring certified genetics can be easier said than done, yet another reason finding good seed can be difficult among the agricultural hemp world. For example, our current scientific understanding of hemp seed genetics is still limited, and we do not know much about transitioning seeds from Canadian, European, or other foreign environments into American soil. This scientific ceiling currently limits robust hemp expansion within the United States.
And because certified genetics can be hard to come by, seed suppliers who house these coveted seeds keep them carefully guarded, not selling to just any farm interested in cultivating hemp. Because of this, many suppliers will doctor genetics, selling hemp seeds with fake certifications or unproven track records, leading to an increase in THC-heavy hemp crops, ruining a harvest.
Overall, the hemp seed industry lags far behind the demand for hemp production and hemp-derived products.
Procedures of Hemp Farming
Hemp seeds are usually planted directly into the soil, not transferred from pots, and should be planted after the average day of last frost for the year. Hemp plants are generally harvested between June and early November, but farms closer to Earth’s poles tend to harvest earlier.
Large-scale hemp operations, such as hemp farms cultivating for biomass or other industrial uses, tend to have little job impact. Why? Because these large-scale farms — commonly found in Canada or Europe — rely heavily on machine power, not manpower.
However, orchard-style hemp farms like those commonly found in the United States tend to create a variety of jobs. These farms do not rely as heavily on machinery, making them very labor intensive to cultivate and operate. Such farms may demand as many as two people per acre during harvest and more when cure drying plants after harvest.
After harvest and cure drying, hemp crops are required to undergo testing. These tests primarily target THC, as any crops containing more than 0.3% THC on a dry weight basis are classified marijuana and therefore destroyed. Hemp product manufacturers are also prohibited from purchasing marijuana, meaning these tests are important for the sustainable production of hemp products.
The Environmental Impact of Hemp Farming
Successful and responsible hemp farming usually sees hemp plants included as a rotational crop on farms because hemp is inherently sustainable for insertion into both large and small-scale agricultural operations.
Hemp also influences nitrogen fixation. This is a procedure by which nitrogen found in the atmosphere is assimilated into organic compounds, benefitting the soil. Additionally, hemp plants are known to “sanitize” farms by increasing the quality of soil and surrounding land, making this quite the eco-friendly commodity for farmers.
Hemp is also known to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, reducing agricultural pollution and allowing farmers to profit from hemp on smaller areas of land than are usually necessary for agricultural earnings.
Furthermore, hemp requires less water, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer than other crops. It is fairly resistant to drought (after six weeks of irrigated growth), pests, and diseases, and it grows so fast that it outcompetes weeds.
Organic Hemp Farming
These environmental factors make hemp an ideal crop for organic farmers. It requires minimal input (water, pesticides, etc.) and the market for certified organic hemp seeds is especially strong as hemp seeds are used in a variety of foodstuffs.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not currently allow the certified organic classification on marijuana or marijuana-derived products but have made an exception for hemp following the 2018 Farm Bill.
Is Hemp Farming Legal?
There are currently three U.S. states that do not allow hemp farming:
- South Dakota
Idaho and South Dakota are notorious for having the least-cannabis friendly laws in the country. However, for the rest of the United States, hemp farming is legal under the 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills, with some contingencies.
In legal hemp states, farmers are required to receive permits through local departments of agriculture and abide by all statutes laid out in the 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills. These licenses bring about additional fees and paperwork, and farmers may be subjected to criminal background checks before being approved to farm hemp. This may deter some farmers from applying to grow hemp. In addition, hemp farming operates on a system of good standing. If you crop busts the 0.3% THC limit once, you probably won’t face repercussions; but if your crop busts time and time again, you could be banned from growing hemp for a period of five years and have your license revoked.
Overall, hemp is currently in legal limbo. More and more clinical research trials are commissioned every year, and the evidence found from these studies overwhelmingly points towards the medicinal, commodifiable, and economic efficacy of hemp and hemp-derived products, meaning future legislation protecting hemp’s cultivation and production is all but guaranteed. However, until then, hemp farming faces a series of political and societal hurdles that must be jumped in order to abide by the law and profit from hemp production.
The Future of the Hemp Industry
Overall, there is a lot that needs to happen to ensure the success of the hemp industry moving forward. For starters, the hemp industry needs:
- Banking (many banks will not currently work with hemp companies)
- Market development
- Domestic and international export opportunities
- Educational programs increasing the positive awareness of hemp and hemp products.
Furthermore, there are a handful of states predicted to be the major players in the hemp industry moving forward. These states are:
- Colorado, which will likely lead research into hemp and hemp-derived products
- Kentucky, currently the biggest producer of medicinal hemp
- Montana, an historically pro-agriculture state on all levels
- New York, who has a lot of available acreage and possesses one of the perfect climates for hemp cultivation
- Minnesota, who is interested in hemp production and economic progression
- North Carolina, who is beginning to get their feet wet in the waters of hemp
The state of Iowa has also shown an interest in the hemp industry. However, the state faces a variety of legislative challenges that make permitting farmers to grow hemp locally almost impossible. Only time will tell what role Iowa plays in the hemp industry, but we already know they stand as an agricultural leader within the United States.
The Market for Hemp
Like many agricultural commodities, revenues built from hemp farming depend entirely on yields and market prices. The lower the market price for hemp, the greater the yield must be for farmers to break even or make a profit.
Luckily for farmers, the demand for hemp currently far exceeds supply, making hemp a very profitable crop for those willing to undergo the licensing process and able to successfully harvest healthy hemp.
Further contributing to this is hemp’s value at both the future (presales) and post-harvest levels. Farmers often work under contract with manufacturing companies, those who make our CBD oils or turn hemp biomass into a variety of industrial goods. Farmers have the option of selling a crop before it’s even grown, and the decision usually lies in the financing needs or financial plans of a particular farmer of manufacturer.
The consumer market for hemp-derived products has also grown exponentially in recent years, due largely to the CBD industry. The plant also creates notably high-quality fiber, oil, and protein, meaning we may see hemp’s role in the fashion, culinary, and health worlds increase tenfold in the years to come.