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growing hemp

Growing Hemp

March 19, 2019

Editor’s Note: Jonathan Vaught PhD is CEO of Front Range Biosciences, a genetics firm for the cannabis and hemp sector providing growers with high-performing plants under its ‘Clean Stock’ brand. Here he writes about hemp production in light of the 2018 Farm Bill’s legalization of the sector, and the various products the crop can produce.

The wide range of industrial hemp products represent the greatest opportunity for American agricultural markets seen within the past fifty years. Using the latest advances in next-generation sequencing, bioinformatics, and biotechnology, hemp breeding programs are going to be instrumental for increasing both success and yields. This will also maximize the desirable attributes of the plants, while greatly increasing the profits of farmers who choose to grow hemp.

The passage of the 2018 Farm Bill allows the American farmer to grow this cash crop within a much more relaxed legal framework. For the first time since 1937 — except during a brief window during WWII — farmers will be allowed to legally grow industrial hemp in most US states. This relaxed regulatory atmosphere is finally allowing companies focused on breeding and genetics to use the plant in R&D programs. Many of the genetics and breeding companies are forging relationships with universities to apply the best research and science techniques to improve their hemp varieties.

Hemp is a versatile plant with thousands of applications across a myriad of industries. From food and nutritional applications to textiles, plastic replacement, and fuels, the possibilities are still expanding exponentially as we learn more about the crop. Industrial hemp affects not only the agricultural industry but also touches the pharmaceutical, medical, health care, manufacturing, energy, logging, and tech industries as well. With hemp’s legalization and a recognition of the multitude of uses, it comes as no surprise that interest in hemp farming spiked with the December passing of the 2018 Farm Bill.

As one might expect from a plant with so many uses, hemp itself is diverse in its varieties (strains). Different varieties of hemp will perform better in differing environmental conditions and some varieties (like high-CBD crops) will be better suited to create biomass or flower for certain markets. Farmers looking to enter the industrial hemp market for the first time will need to understand their options and wisely choose which hemp variety they should grow.

Industrial hemp has traditionally been divided into three main categories: fiber, grain and high-cannabinoid producing, such as high-CBD hemp varieties. Currently, hemp varietie are bred to produce for only one of these categories. But as breeding programs develop and more research is performed, we expect to see the evolution and development of dual or triple-purpose varieties that farmers can capitalize on. But as it stands, hemp farmers will need to chose between some combination of these three options.

Fiber varieties of hemp will produce long fibers and biomass. These types of hemp have a wide range of uses, including textiles, composites, building materials, pulp/paper, fuel, and more. However, farmers electing to grow for fiber applications will need to include the development of the processes and infrastructure to support large scale harvesting, transportation, and processing, as hemp bales are voluminous and will ideally require processing facilities in close proximity to the grows.

Grain varieties of hemp are used primarily for food and nutritional applications due to their high protein, fatty acid, and fiber content. Grain hemp varieties traditionally produce lower cannabinoid content, in favor seed or grain production. When considering whether or not to grow grain varieties of hemp, it’s worth remembering that grain hemp seed is thin-walled, and can be fragile. The fragile seeds must be handled with more care and cost as they are transported to their market or processing facilities. As with any grain crop, the proper harvesting, processing, transportation, and storage are critical to prevent spoilage and ensure the highest value for the harvested grain.

Cannabinoid hemp varieties are currently the most lucrative of the varieties, but can present regulatory challenges depending on the end use products being produced from the raw hemp crop. Cannabidiol (or CBD) is a molecule within hemp with numerous applications as a nutraceutical, pharmaceutical, or dietary supplement. However, due to hemp’s previous prohibition, regulation of CBD and its inclusion in commercial products is not yet established by the FDA. Furthermore, CBD hemp requires growers to understand and master the effect of stress and growing variables (soil make up, moisture content, PH levels, etc.) in order to produce the highest yield of CBD, while keeping the THC within allowable levels. In addition, high-cannabinoid varieties are generally grown only as female plants, as the combination of male and female plants leads to seed production and decreased cannabinoid yields. Farmers should learn how their state or county regulates the testing of their crop for CBD and THC. If their THC yield grows too high, the crop may no longer meet the legal definition of hemp and need to be destroyed.

The variety of hemp a farmer chooses to cultivate is not as simple as “what pays them the most per pound”. Each farmer will need to understand the agronomic traits best for their location and choose a variety of hemp best suited to their marketplace need and environmental location, as well as their regulatory environment.

In addition to choosing a variety of hemp to grow, farmers will need to determine how they will grow, harvest, and handle the crop. Innovations in agriculture for other crops have created numerous opportunities for better cultivation, more consistent yield, as well as regenerative and sustainable practices for farmers considering hemp cultivation. Direct-sow methods for high-CBD hemp may not make economic sense with expensive CBD-hemp seed due to germination rates that cause the need for higher seed counts per acre.

In the past, and still today, sourcing high-quality feminized seed or hemp stock for high cannabinoid producing varieties can be challenging. Breeders are still working on processes for creating stable feminized seed and plants. Most seed suppliers have not yet proven their feminized seed capabilities. Farmers need to be wary of the source of their feminized seed stock, checking on the testing results and validation that the supplier is doing to determine seed performance.

Farmers need to determine if they should grow from seed or plant cuttings (clones). Seeds will add growing time prior to harvest, but only a seed will produce a tap root which can create a more vigorous and higher yield plant when growing outdoors. However, until more stable seed varieties for cannabinoid production are developed and validated in the field, the variability and potential risk of poor performance or regulatory violation is higher with seed than with cuttings. The seeds should also be germinated in a greenhouse before planting outside as the technology for direct sow techniques of high cannabinoid hemp varieties has not been fully developed.  Machine transplanting on any farm over five acres is recommended. Also, farmers need to continue best practices of crop rotation to ensure soil recovery and prevent insect and disease buildup in the soil.

Plants grown from cuttings have the advantage of being uniform, and with drastically lower variability from plant to plant than with the currently available seed varieties. This reduced variability can be incredibly valuable for large acreage operations as the management of the crop, including processes such as harvesting is more streamlined and doesn’t require modifications in process to account for plant variability. Another benefit of starting with cuttings is that since cuttings are initially all female plants, the risk of developing male plants or hermaphrodites is greatly reduced. If cuttings are produced with proper techniques in a greenhouse nursery, then the vigor and productivity of cuttings can be comparable to that observed from seed. In summary, the uniformity of cuttings will reduce risk of variable performance, crop management, and potential regulatory issues.

While industrial hemp is a new frontier for many, it is also a durable crop able to grow in widely varied climates and conditions while generally using less water and soil amendments than most other crops. Hemp is an exciting crop with thousands of applications, and the most intriguing opportunity American farmers have seen in generations.

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