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Want to grow hemp on your farm? Here are five things you need to know first.
Who would have thought that Senator Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump would be the two men to bring hemp back to America? McConnell’s legislation to allow industrial hemp (the kind of cannabis used for rope and a variety of other purposes) was folded into this year’s Farm Bill. Just before Christmas, Trump signed the Farm Bill into law.
McConnell’s interest in hemp is ostensibly to support farmers in his home state of Kentucky, who have been suffering since their traditional crop of tobacco has become less profitable. Psychoactive cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, but cannabidiol (CBD), a THC-free derivative with a host of purported health benefits, can be made from hemp. CBD doesn’t get you high per se, but along with (reputedly) curing everything from depression to cancer, it can put you in a very zen space. This explains why it is the herbal product du jour of Brooklyn’s nuevo bohemian set and suddenly found in everything from dog biscuits to bath bombs.
For farmers, the convergence of the CBD craze and hemp legalization looks likely to produce a cash cow. CBD has become increasingly available over the past couple of years, thanks to many states that have recently legalized hemp cultivation independently of the federal government. But interstate CBD commerce has remained a legal grey zone until now, preventing the industry from scaling up.
Unlike the gold rush unleashed by marijuana legalization in Canada and certain U.S. states, which mainly benefited moneyed folks with the means to finance multimillion-dollar indoor grow operations, CBD legalization stands to benefit ordinary farmers. Like corn and soybean, it’s an outdoor crop that’s grown in a field, with no high-tech equipment required. The market for hemp-derived CBD, which is currently tiny, is expected to balloon to $5 billion in 2019 and $20 billion by 2022.
Marijuana requires a high degree of horticultural finesse to coax maximum market value from THC-laden flower buds, but hemp is a coarse crop by comparison — it grows like a weed, and CBD is produced throughout the stems and stalks of the plant. Still, as with any new crop, farmers will face a learning curve. Here are the most important considerations.
1. Plant Characteristics
Hemp is planted in dense stands that can quickly grow more than 10 feet tall and reach up to 15 feet high. They resemble a thicket as tall as a house, and no other modern crop compares in size and vigor.
2. Growing Conditions
While hemp is fairly tolerant of poor soil and drought, a rich, well-drained loam is needed to achieve commercially viable yields. Irrigation is required to establish the plants in the first six weeks, but hemp requires less water than most crops afterward.
3. Land Requirements
Hemp is considered a high-value crop but only when compared to soy, corn and other commodities, not heirloom tomatoes that retail for $5 per pound. In other words, you need a lot of acreage to make hemp production profitable.
4. Sustainability Considerations
Hemp is resistant to pests and disease and quickly outgrows most weeds, making it well suited to organic cultivation. Because of CBD’s popularity as a wellness product, the market for organic hemp is likely to be huge.
5. Production Constraints
The availability of hemp seed and the machinery needed to harvest hemp are currently limited, as are processors to buy hemp and convert it into CBD oil. This will probably change quickly, but in fits and starts, with states where hemp was already legal leading the way. In other words, growing the plants is the easy part. Make sure to have a clear plan on how to turn these plants into a marketable harvest before you get started.