Why Is Growing Good Hemp So Hard?
In 2017, Americans purchased $820 million worth of hemp products from soap to CBD oil, and farmers paid attention. Eager to get in on the burgeoning new market, they planted three times as many acres of hemp in 2018 as they did the year before.
When farmers first begin growing hemp, many are stunned at the end of the first growing season when they learn that their investment won’t turn a profit—and might even cost them a significant amount of money. Hemp is a unique crop that doesn’t follow the same rules as conventional cash crops such as beans and corn. Too many farmers throw plants in the ground without understanding the nuances of hemp agriculture—with disastrous results.
For example, one day in the middle of a recent harvest season, I got a call from a farmer who needed help harvesting hundreds of acres of hemp immediately. He hadn’t realized that hemp needs to be picked by hand, not by machine, and he hadn’t arranged for labor support until it was too late. Sadly, his entire crop went to waste because he couldn’t harvest it quickly enough.
The truth is, growing good hemp is difficult. But with the right planning and a little outside expertise, hemp can be an incredibly rewarding crop for any farmer to grow. Here is a brief taste of what I share with Hempistry’s consulting clients based on my experience growing hemp successfully after many years in the business.
Test your soil before you plant
Here’s a common scenario: Let’s say you primarily grow corn on your farm. You’re so eager to plant CBD-rich hemp that you use the same field that housed your corn last year. When your hemp is tested after the harvest, however, it’s full of toxic pesticides—making its oil totally unusable. All your hard work and millions of dollars of investment were for nothing. What went wrong?
The problem was in your soil all along. By its nature, hemp is a bioaccumulator, meaning it sucks up all the toxins in the soil and it brings them into the plant. If you sprayed a chemical pesticide on the corn that used to grow in your hemp field, that pesticide remained in the ground until the hemp absorbed it right up.
This is why soil testing is so important. Before you put a single hemp plant in the ground, send a soil sample to a reputable lab that can determine its pH level, nutrient content, and pesticide content. It takes 5 minutes to collect a sample, and the test itself usually costs less than $200—but it could save you millions.
If it turns out your soil is contaminated with pesticides, you’ll have to hold off on planting hemp strains that yield CBD oil or other ingestible products. However, you can plant a crop of fibrous, low-oil hemp—the type used to make rope. Those plants will suck up the soil’s pesticides and get your field clean for next year. Once a field is no longer contaminated, it will be safe to grow any variety of hemp for sale. Which brings me to my next point:
Make sure the hemp you’re growing will yield the product you want
Saying you want to grow hemp is like saying you want to paint your house blue. Will you choose a bright teal or deep navy? Although technically they’re all versions of same color, each will have a very different visual effect.
When growing hemp, it’s crucial to remember that different strains yield crops that are rich in fiber, seed or oil. Before you plant a single seed, you have to make sure you’ve selected the correct strain of hemp for your needs. For example, a farmer hoping to raise a crop rich in CBD oil shouldn’t plant a strain that’s meant to be woven into rope. He’ll end up with fibrous plants that barely yield a drop of oil, making for a near-useless crop. However, fibrous plants are great for absorbing pesticides out of the soil, as mentioned above.
Each type of hemp plant serves a unique and valuable purpose. The key is making sure you’re growing the right one for your target market. An experienced consultant can help you choose the best strain.
Optimize plant genetics for your growing environment
Figuring out what type of hemp you want to grow is only the first step. Before your hemp makes it to the field, you should have a thorough understanding of its genetics.
Over the past 20 years, I’ve grown hemp around the world. A variety that thrives in certain climates won’t grow at all in others. The area’s rainfall, sun exposure and even its latitude all impact how the hemp will grow. The difference between a healthy crop and one that withers in a given environment comes down to its genetics.
Instead of just throwing a plant in the ground and hoping it grows, farmers should select seeds that have been genetically optimized for their farm’s specific growing environment. Expert hemp growers start by breeding hemp strains in a laboratory, stabilizing their genetics and acclimating them to the surrounding environment. Once a set of genetics is stabilized, the seeds can be planted as a test crop to ensure they yield the same results observed in the laboratory.
At Hempistry, genetically optimized seeds are a core part of our process. By propagating replicable genetics on a mass scale through tissue culture, we do the work so you won’t have to guess.
Plan ahead for your first hemp harvest
Hemp isn’t just hard to grow—it takes a careful touch to harvest it, too. Applying the same principles you use to raise vegetables or grains won’t guarantee a successful hemp harvest.
To start, farmers must learn to recognize the point when hemp is ready to be harvested. Once the plants mature, hemp needs to be harvested by hand to avoid damaging the plant and that can create a bottleneck that can lead to delays for farmers who are unprepared (like my friend from the introduction).
Unfortunately, too many farmers learn this the hard way: by breaking their machinery. Imagine trying to cut a field of tough, fibrous rope that’s stronger than steel, and it’s easy to understand how quickly hemp can destroy a combine.
Once the hemp has been harvested by hand, it needs to be processed quickly to avoid rot or mold. Hemp needs to be dried, cured and milled, and each step in the process has its own potential pitfalls. Without the assistance of an experienced hemp expert, farmers risk failure at each of these steps.
Learn from the pros
If I’ve learned anything from growing hemp, it’s that successful hemp farmers pay attention to everything from the big-picture planning to the tiniest details. On a micro level, you need to know everything about the hemp you’ll be growing before you begin. Without a thorough education in genetics and strains, you could end up pouring investments into a type of hemp that’s doomed to never meet your goals.
On a macro level, if you don’t understand what you’re trying to achieve by growing hemp, you’re going to fail. At Hempistry, we always create a detailed farm plan for our clients, so they’re prepared for every step in the process. Growing hemp is a challenge—but it’s one farmers can overcome with our help.