BY DARCY AND DALE CAHILL
New England farmers have just finished their first — or second — hemp season. Colorado and Oregon are on to their fifth. But what all these hemp farmers have in common is a better understanding of what it takes to successfully nurture this crop and take it from seed to market. They now know the pitfalls and obstacles that stand in the way of that success.
From the West Coast to the East Coast, hemp farmers all share the same difficulties negotiating challenges unique to farming this crop. A few of those challenges are finding stable seed genetics, locating trustworthy buyers and brokers who will sign enforceable contracts, understanding lab tests to ensure accurate results and avoiding outright fraud.
Colorado hemp grower Bert Groda sees a bright future in hemp but warns future hemp farmers not to invest more in the crop than they can afford to lose.
PITFALL 1: SEED UNCERTAINTY
According to Midwest hemp farmer Chris Adams, genetics are the single biggest concern at present. Seeds are expensive and there is no guarantee that even when being sold as certified feminized seeds, they will exclusively produce female plants and female flowers. Only the female flower contains high amounts of marketable CBD.
“You can’t look at a seed and tell if it’s feminized, so people are unfortunately able to commit fraud,” Adams said.
Bob Pearce is a professor of agronomy with University of Kentucky Extension. Hemp production, Pearce explained, is subject to knowledge gaps — a major source of jeopardy for growers.
“If a grower is approached by somebody claiming to have all the answers, I see red flags. Right now, we’re relying on limited information backed by solid research, and it’s hard to prove or refute all the claims,” Pearce said. On average, between 1,500 and 2,000 of hemp seed are needed per acre, which, when they cost upwards of five dollars a seed, amounts to a huge investment early in the season.
So what can a farmer do to find reliable seed genetics? Pearce recommends that growers ask questions and do some basic research.
“Start with simple online searches. In Kentucky, for example, you can go to the Department of Agriculture online and look up approved and cautionary varieties. Ask a supplier to provide proof from a certified lab of a variety meeting the federal limit of THC to 0.3%.
This season several farmers in Vermont found, after investing time and energy to grow their hemp crop, it tested too high in THC and the crops had to be destroyed. With no regulation of hemp seeds or the people selling them, Pearce believes that this advice is at least a good start. Clearly, being connected to a network of hemp farmers with experience is also a good place to start gathering information about reliable seed sources.
PITFALL 2: BAD OR NO CONTRACTS
But before you even plant those seeds, hemp farmers emphatically recommend finding a buyer and setting up a detailed contract with them to buy the harvested plant. Just as there are fraudulent seed sellers out there, there are just as many fraudulent brokers and dealers.
Hollis Glenn, the Colorado agriculture department’s director of Inspection and Consumer Services, said hemp dealers are supposed to be licensed with his office just as other commodity dealers are.
“One thing we want farmers to know is that they should make sure they sell their product to a licensed and bonded dealer,” Glenn said. In Colorado, if a dealer doesn’t pay, the agriculture department can investigate. State laws consider failure to pay a farmer for a product as a felony.
Before signing any contract, farmers recommend hiring a lawyer who knows cannabis laws where you live. It is also important to make sure that the buyer is legitimate. One way to do this is knowing a company’s physical address, mailing address and the full company name. Check and see if the company is registered with the Office of the State of Secretary.
When recently interviewed by Oregon’s Hemp Industry Daily, Jesse Mondry of the cannabis law firm Harris Bricken, told the reporter, “Growers need to draft their contracts very carefully to provide the adequate protections in terms of things like who is going to cover the cost of production and where and when CBD testing is going to be performed,” Mondry said.
PITFALL 3: MISUNDERSTANDING LAB TESTS
Cannabis contains 80 compounds which are called cannabinoids. The two most sought after and marketable cannabinoids at this moment are CBD and THC. The most profitable cannabis seeds produce plants with a high CBD content, 15% and higher and a low THC content, at or under 0.3%.
To comply with federal THC limits and know about a strain’s full cannabinoid profile, farmers turn to cannabis analytical testing laboratories for answers. These labs can quantify potency levels of CBD and THC and perform full panel tests.
The full panel tests reveal the plants cannabinoids and terpenes, the aromatic chemicals responsible for the unique smell of hemp flowers. They also reveal contaminants like residual solvents, heavy metals, microbials, pesticides and mycotoxins. Unfortunately, test results are not always reliable even when the lab has an International Organization for Standardization, ISO, certification.
In an effort to regulate testing, the USDA came out in 2019 with its interim federal rules for hemp production requiring that only laboratories registered with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) will be qualified to conduct THC testing of hemp crops.
Involving the Drug Enforcement Agency in testing has some farmers worried. Frank Robison, a Colorado based attorney who specializes in hemp law, said “The regs that just came down, the No. 1 thing that they accomplished, if I was a farmer, was to scare me and to provide me with a doubt of whether I should be entering this market until there is additional clarity.”
Not all states are enforcing these regulations, in part because they do not have the resources and funding to do so.
Matt Leonetti, a Vermont hemp farmer and the state’s only Clean Green Compliance Inspector, explained that inaccurate testing results primarily from ignorance rather than fraud. Given that hemp testing is still in its infancy, best practices and trustworthy protocols are just now emerging and mistakes have been made.
For instance, Matt said that when farmers send in wet samples for testing, water content can dramatically dilute and lower CBD and THC results. Even if a lab offers to dry the hemp before testing, he recommends that farmers take care of it themselves. Plants should be 99% dry for testing. He also recommends getting a second opinion from a third-party lab to verify the results.
“The last thing that you want in your medicine is contaminants, so testing is a critical step in ensuring high quality CBD,” he said.
The upside to accurate testing from a certified lab is that hemp with a high CBD such as 16% content, and with 0.3% or less of THC, fetches a high price and will sell quickly. In lab tests, like everything else, you get what you pay for.
PITFALL 4: GROWING A ‘HOT’ CROP
So, what can a farmer do if their crop’s THC tests over 0.3% and is considered by the federal and state governments as “hot?” Not much. The laws require the crop to be destroyed, a brutal outcome for any farmer.
However, growers can take measures to increase their chances of remaining legal. Dr. George Place, a North Carolina Cooperative Extension Director for Catawba County, encourages growers to be aware that plant stresses (drought, flooding, excessive nutrients, not enough nutrients, heat, cold, etc.) can result in THC spikes. Altitude or cooler weather at certain stages of plant development may also affect THC.
He said, “there is no multi-year, replicated research information for NC hemp, but a variety trial of hemp was conducted at the Piedmont Research Station (elevation 703 feet) near Salisbury and the Mills River Research Station (elevation 2,069 feet) near Asheville. The same varieties were planted at both locations. None of the varieties had high levels of THC in the Piedmont location while all of the varieties tested ‘hot’ in the mountains!”
Seed selection also plays an important role in determining THC content. While scientists are still gathering information for growers, many university agriculture departments offer the names of varieties that are of concern for THC spikes.
Adams is excited about starting his sixth season of growing hemp but insists that hemp growers approach the new crop with caution. He believes that this is a profitable new crop and says that the pieces will fall in place over time. His advice is to do the necessary homework and seek out experienced growers, trusted hemp communities and state and federal regulations. Colorado State Sen. Don Coram, a Montrose Republican who grew 25 acres of hemp in 2019, knows the risks involved with farming and with farming hemp.
“A lot of good farmers don’t know anything about cannabis. And a lot of cannabis growers don’t know anything about farming,” he said.
To be a successful hemp farmer in this quickly developing industry clearly requires research, experimentation and innovation.