What Farmers Need to Know About Growing Hemp
Updated: Jul 8
Are you considering planting hemp on your farm this year?
When hemp was legalized in the 2018 Farm Bill, farmers across the U.S. rejoiced. Finally, hemp, one of the world’s most useful plants, could be grown after 80 long years of prohibition. However, a planting “gold rush” mentality in the 2019 season and an immature marketplace left many eager and uninformed new hemp farmers with nothing but debt and an unsellable hemp crop.
Farmers considering planting hemp for the first time need to be well aware of the challenges facing hemp farmers.
Hemp Can be Grown for Many Potential Uses
Hemp is an extremely versatile plant used in many applications — “fiber, food and pharma” is the typical mantra.
Hemp flower and leaves (called biomass) can be harvested to produce federally legal, non-intoxicating cannabinoids, like CBD, CBG and CBN. Cannabinoids interact with the human endocannabinoid system — part of the human nervous system that works to keep bodies in ‘homeostasis,’ or operating at peak function. Cannabinoids are thought to offer many health benefits, from reducing pain and inflammation to relieving stress and anxiety to helping combat insomnia.
High cannabinoid-producing hemp biomass can be processed for full-spectrum cannabinoid oil. This utilizes all of hemp’s naturally-occurring cannabinoids plus other human health-positive plant compounds like terpenes and flavonoids without having an intoxicating effect, like marijuana does. Or, the natural compounds in hemp can be lab isolated to create pure CBD (or one of the other non-intoxicating cannabinoids).
Hemp grain, the seed from the hemp flowerhead containing negligible amounts of cannabinoids, is considered a “superfood” and one of the most nutritionally complete food sources globally. Hemp fiber (hemp produces a long and short fiber) is widely useful in many industries, from producing textiles to paper to batteries.
However, all those great uses come with unique roadblocks when adding hemp into your farming operations.
Hemp is Indeed Legal to Grow, Sort Of
Hemp growers can easily find themselves in legal hot water (and their crop seized) if they aren’t well aware of all the ins-and-outs of growing hemp.
Hemp and marijuana are the same species (Cannabis sativa). The difference (from a legal standpoint) is that hemp produces less than .3% THC, the ‘intoxicating’ cannabinoid in the cannabis plant. Marijuana typically has 20% THC or more.
With less than .3% THC, hemp plants produce no noticeable intoxicating effects upon consumption. However, it is possible for a hemp crop to “go hot” at harvest time and over the legal definition of hemp. Even a crop that tests at .4% for THC is legally considered “marijuana.” It cannot be sold and must be destroyed or a farmer faces charges of growing an illegal marijuana crop.
Plus, some states have banned smokable hemp flower because it looks just like marijuana flower.
Some consumers prefer to smoke hemp for the taste, aroma and experience, plus the benefits of hemp’s non-intoxicating cannabinoids, like CBD. But law enforcement personnel cannot tell the difference between legal hemp flower and illegal marijuana bud, prompting some states to ban hemp flower altogether.
There’s No Market for Hemp Fiber Yet
Hemp produces two types of fiber.
Hemp 'bast’ fiber is long, strong and useful for textiles. Hemp “hurds" are short fibers used for animal bedding, to make hempcrete, hemp paper and many other things. Fiber hemp varieties (not the same types planted for CBD) are incredibly productive, yielding two to three tons per acre.
However, preparing hemp bast fiber (which fetches the highest price) for textiles requires multi-million-dollar investments in processing facilities. Because hemp production was prohibited for 80 years, there were no operating hemp processing facilities in the U.S. when hemp was legalized.
Hemp is Not Simple to Grow — Start Small and Learn
One of the biggest mistakes new hemp growers make is planting too much, too soon. Hemp, despite rumors to the contrary, does not “grow like a weed.”
Along with choosing the right hemp seeds for your eventual market (Hemp biomass for CBD? Smokable hemp flower? Hemp fiber? Hemp grain?), farmers need to consider the legal requirements of growing hemp and learn how to grow the crop itself.
Hemp is susceptible to pests and diseases. Growers need to develop the right techniques for harvesting their crop and hemp farmers may need to invest in specialized equipment and new infrastructure to grow and process a marketable hemp crop.
The Hemp Sector is Still in Its Infancy, But Positive Signs Abound
Despite the steep learning curve and the additional risks that (can) come with growing hemp, there is still a lot to be bullish about when it comes to growing hemp.
Each year past legalization hemp farmers learn more about growing the crop, prices are stabilizing and markets are emerging.
The first fiber hemp processing facility is slated to start processing hemp fiber in 2021 in Texas, creating demand for farmers in Texas and surrounding states. The use of CBD and the other hemp-derived cannabinoids continues to increase as the public becomes more familiar with the positive health benefits of hemp. Hemp proponents hope the U.S. will eventually legalize adding CBD to food and beverage products, creating greater demand.
Textile, paper, construction and many other industries (including the graphene sector that produces lithium batteries) remain keenly interested in using hemp fibers. The animal feed industry is moving to legalize using spent hemp grain to feed animals, creating a secondary byproduct industry that could make growing hemp for its grain alone more profitable.
All told, hemp is an intriguing crop for farmers to consider getting familiar with. It can be a good rotation with other crops and, if you can find the right market for your hemp harvest, add profitability to your farm operations.
Make sure to do your own research. Start first with your state agricultural department and their hemp division. Seek out other hemp growers in your area, carefully vet hemp seed suppliers and potential buyers. Check with university agricultural departments for the latest research on best practice standards and growing guides for hemp farmers.
Georgie Smith, known in her community as “Farmer Georgie,” is a fourth-generation farmer and journalist living on her family’s historic farm on a Pacific Northwest island. She ran her own small farm for more than 20 years. These days, when she’s not herding chickens, fixing the antique tractor (again) or growing heirloom dry beans, Georgie writes about farming. Georgie is passionate about supporting healthy, equitable and sustainable food production and thriving family farms.
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