A Hemp Grower’s Tips

Drying Room at Wilson Herb Farm

photo courtesy Brenden Beer
Drying Room at Wilson Herb Farm

For those who have fallen under the spell of the cannabis plant, it may not be hard to transport oneself deep into mid August in the rolling hills of the Northeast, walking down a dirt path adjacent to row upon row of vibrant electric green growth. The warm summer wind is testing the sturdy base of these three month old annuals whose growth is impressive to even the most seasoned farmer. A trained eye might look further into the future and see, even smell, the inflorescence begin to take true form in only a month’s time as the unpollinated bracts swell, and the air becomes saturated with complex essential odors.

For those who haven’t experienced this, and are considering the introduction of this plant into their farming system, you will without fail become equally enthralled. For all that the plant can do, for the earth, the body, and the industrial world, the one thing it cannot is answer the simple, most frequent question; “Can you make money?” For the four years I’ve been a licensed Hemp grower in Vermont under various circumstances, there is no simple answer.

Cannabinoid research has been progressing since the first isolation in the 1940s, with continued investigation into the effect of synthesized cannabinoids in the United States until 1970, when its classification as a Schedule I narcotic thus compromised extensive private and public research within US borders. Elsewhere discovery continued, mainly focused on the psychotropic uses and effect of the cannabinoid Tetrahydrocannabinol, or “THC”. While other cannabinoids were recognized, it was this particular one which scientifically and socially defined the plant throughout the 60s and 70s.

In 1992, the discovery of the endocannabinoid system opened up a new understanding of the physiological interaction between cannabinoid molecules and the human body. Recent years, and a steady beat of the normalization drum have produced countless cannabinoid studies connecting an abundance of therapeutic uses to the “minor” and major cannabinoids produced within the cannabis plant.

While many consumers and farmers are still developing an intimate understanding of the major cannabinoids relevant to the market, the “hemp” industry continues to writhe in development of its value chain and informed standards. Be assured that all cannabinoids both minor and major, will continue to forcibly diversify an immature but promising agricultural market.

So how does the farmer sort out these pharmacological complexities of this plant? To be clear, you cannot simply look at a cannabis plant and differentiate its constituents, or prevalence to a single cannabinoid of production. This makes navigating basic selection of cultivars, the laws surrounding propagation and cultivation, and ultimately the market far more challenging than most crops currently in production.

The simplest principle to understand is that “hemp”, or cannabis sativa l., is delineated as material under .3% THC by weight. I hesitate to insert “by dry weight” because the National and State programs are still developing the specific language which will govern testing. Knowing the protocols surrounding the procurement and harvest of samples that will ultimately certify a crop as “hemp” is paramount. The expression of cannabinoid production is also determined by a number of genetic and environmental factors.

Growing cannabis adheres to the basic principles of standard crop production, with nitrogen requirements similar to corn by acre, and demand of potassium and phosphorus increasing during the late flowering stage, in addition to calcium, notably. For field growing, fertility can be approached similar to other cash crops with preparation of organic material and corrective dry amendment based on soil tests adequate for proper growth. Irrigation will greatly supplement the rate of growth, and over saturation of the soil could stunt. While the demand for nitrogen decreases into the flowering period, it is still required and the availability of nutrients to forage in the flowering stage is crucial, otherwise the potential for reduced yields exists even in light of a successful vegetative period of growth.

hemp in field

photo courtesy Brenden Beer
A six-food spacing is important to give hemp enough room to get plenty of sun

Propagation takes place through seed, either regular or feminized. Clonal propagation is another option, requiring healthy “mother” plants to be vegetatively mature enough to yield desired cuttings. Transplanting in June after the last frost is recommended, although most varieties seem cold tolerant even at this stage, given prior acclimation. Most maintenance beyond transplant is focused on weed management, or cultivation. While the plants will easily outcompete most weeds, a reduction of airflow and available nutrients can impact crop quality and production. Elective pruning is monumentally time consuming based on scale, but can better manage growth and airflow, again impacting crop quality and production if executed strategically.

Typically, varieties will begin to mature in late August with males flowering a couple weeks before females are prepared to receive pollen. While this event doesn’t destroy a crop, especially if identified early, fertilization will redirect energy and potentially stall the flowering cycle. Consider the flowering fruits of various tomato varieties: different sizes and shapes, qualities to the taste, resistance to disease, maturity times. Cannabis is similar in its varied expression of fruit, or inflorescence, even within a relatively stable seed progeny. That can be true also for the rate of maturity, and ultimate harvest date which for the sake of simplicity can be seen as peak potency of both phytocannabinoids and production of discernible “secondary metabolites,” in this case terpenes.

As harvest approaches, all facilities must be in place to successfully execute within a narrow window. This means personnel, space, and desired market outlet which will drive conditions and efficiencies of process. In Vermont, 70% of growers did not have a contract in place before the growing season. If looking to enter into the spot market with a raw commodity crop, consider how important it is in identifying the ultimate purpose of the production. Later this will be explored more, but consider the simple elemental fact that heat is a transformative property. Using heat to dry, even small amounts, is often a requirement in the potentially cold and rainy days or nights of the Northeast. If you dry a crop within a 24 hour window at heat in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, you have forever solidified the quality of that crop based on the constituents either lost or preserved, in lieu of a slower more moderate process that allows continued metabolic activity and enzymatic conversions within plant tissue, and conservation of valuable volatiles. This delineation will potentially define the crop’s value and flexibility in the market, and also the labor needed and space required.

The next stage in the value chain, beyond a direct use of the raw material, is extraction. For farms and companies looking to manufacture value added products, they may contract an extractor and receive back either raw extract or a formulated dilution for use. If you are a grower, an extractor may be your market. In both instances it’s important to understand the basic process in relation to the plant.

Cannabis is covered with a number of resinous glands of varying anatomy called Trichomes, typically abundant based on location of the plant. They are present throughout growth but multiply greatly during flowering, acting as a defense through various methods of repelling and attraction protecting the reproductive cycle and fertilization. These glands are where most secondary metabolites and phytochemicals are produced in quantity, and are the sought after component of the plant. Various extraction methods are utilized to essentially separate these glands, and potentially isolate the constituents therein. Some of these methods value the presence of terpenes, while others seek to isolate in quantity and purity distinct phytochemicals.

It is important to understand these considerations in approaching harvest and the marketplace, as their presence and preservation will distinguish price and value. To say there is fluctuation or uncertainty in the current hemp landscape may be an understatement. With national laws and guidelines still in development, harvest equipment at scale still in prototypical stage, and seed varieties still not in a deepened stage of development or mass consistency there is still time before an equilibrium is achieved.

Lindsay at harvest

photo courtesy Brenden Beer
Lindsay harvests hemp in the field

For those smaller growers looking to put quality before massive scaled enterprises focused on commodity, we are still subject to a young consumer market with understanding and education required before more informed differentiation can be achieved. Consider a mature commodity market like horseradish, that can still be cultivated in one’s backyard for personal use; Virginia Cooperative Extension describes condiment makers working on a “contractual basis with larger scale growers”, with “…Grower/processor relationships generally [having] a long history, with the processor used to a certain quality of root, which can vary greatly among varieties and the farms that raise them.” It also describes markets as difficult to enter as a result, and farmers being protective of their long standing relationships

My wife Lindsay and I operate Wilson Herb Farm in Greensboro, Vermont and only last season registered our farm for Hemp production. We grew about a 1/2 acre for slow drying, and I entered a wholesale contract with a nearby farming friend to slow dry 1 acre of his crop and process it, splitting the gross. We hand trimmed a small quantity of the 1/2 acre for sale to a local company sourcing flowers from local farms and using specialized packaging for distribution. The remainder was processed carefully by hand to keep the percentage of CBD by dry weight over 15% and terpenes intact, for another contract at $125 a pound. Finally, we have done some small direct sales to small manufacturers or herbalists at a variety of pricings based on weight. What this amounted to was a range in price from $46 dollars a pound for the biggest volume based contract with lowest standard on CBD percentage, to $350 a pound for hand trimmed material. For comparison, we sold processed product of 1000 pounds at the first price, and sold roughly 25 pounds at the second. Only one of these contracts had a written agreement, and staying nimble with all outlets was always on my mind.

I was lucky enough to have been growing and networking for a couple years prior, and through demonstration had gained the trust and built relationships for these small market outlets. The key to our success this year was a very conscious calibration of effort directed toward each market outlet, and reservation in scale. All wholesale, the two larger contracts were in the “Biomass” category, desiring a level of quality but ultimately setting price based on the phyto content of the material. Hand processing this material ranged from a rate of 1 pound to 5 pounds per hour, per person. Hand trimming material equated to 1/8 to 1/3 pounds per hour. A farming friend found labor at scale was around 8 workers, 6 days a week, four weeks straight at a total yield of around twenty thousand pounds.

If entering into the open or spot market, identifying where you hope to fit in the value chain and budgeting focus and expense accordingly will ensure the opportunity for success. Early in the season, we started around 40,000 seedlings for an outfit who provided the seed and had clients lined up for their own sales. We were paid a price per cell started, and this was not only a rewarding experience but a great financial boost early in the summer. That said, we had no contract in place and the value of the starts and farmers in waiting was enough to lose sleep over, even if confident with the propagation process.

Another project I was involved in was a collective farm model, where a retail brand contracted a group of growers to supply their manufacturing needs. I was hired as a consultant to the farmers, in identifying the sex of plants, fertility management, harvest considerations, and general support. The price per pound was set at a premium with crop standards including organic certification. At the close of the season however, farmers are still struggling to achieve consistent payment as the financial structure of the contracting company changed.

I have both directly and indirectly been involved in a multitude of conversations, models, contracts predicated on brokers, buyers, and extraction entities set to be open “just after harvest”. Vermont is spotted with fields of un-harvested Hemp, and surely barns filled with un-processed material. Identifying specific goals in production and targeted market share will be important, and remembering that if everyone is rolling the dice, it can only land on a couple numbers. Being conservative might be the best road to success instead of immediately scaling without an outlet, or because of a contract placed in one’s lap. Make sure to understand the best one can about the structure of said deals, and whether maybe the price or payout for the farmer is predicated on the current market price of extraction, cannabinoids, or unsure future investment.

There is no contention that this crop will grow in its consumer demand, or fluidity of its commodity value chain over time. Knowing the physical and phytochemical implications of the Cannabis plant on price, as well as lawful production, is required for success. Finding a niche in this expanding global market is surely the challenge. Growing the plant with respect to its powerful properties and universal purposes will undoubtedly be rewarding, and payment in itself.