Reviving a crop is like trying to revive a language: we can find scraps of old books, some linguistic remnants of the old words in our vocabulary. But, without a fluent speaker, someone with an intimate, lifelong knowledge of the language, it’s difficult to decipher. Still, we try and try again until we get it right, re-learning the old ways through our own trial and error. Kevin Shively has been on this journey of re-discovery for years now, sewing hemp seeds for two kinds of harvesting: the physical and the intellectual.
I got in touch with Shively because I wanted to write about the basics of hemp farming, but I knew that no matter how much I read, I wouldn’t be able to get the real scoop on the tough questions without speaking to someone who has some dirt under their fingernails. Shively has plenty of dirt. As the owner of Eastern Colorado Hemp, he is on the forefront of excavating the old ways of hemp farming.
Talking with Shively is just what I imagined talking with a farmer would be like: a dry wit cracks through a congenial and cheery exterior personality. He’s a fine talker, but I can tell that what he really cares about are his crops, getting his hemp in the ground and keeping it alive. That, and helping others to do the same. When I asked him what I should tell people who are trying to break into hemp farming, he responded immediately, “call me!” With a hearty laugh, he explained that he was serious, “it’s a small community. I know him he knows me.” That’s a warm welcome from a small, tight-knit community.
So, my advice to anyone who wants to start growing hemp: talk to a hemp farmer. But, for the rest of us who may be interested in hemp farming, but can’t put shovel to dirt right away, there is this blog post. I will present the basics of hemp farming, spiced up with the wisdom of Kevin Shively.
Learning As We Go
Even though the market for hemp goods is estimated to be at least $580 million dollars annually in the U.S., there are still relatively few acres of hemp being cultivated domestically. While it’s exciting to see developments, like Kentucky nearly tripling its hemp acreage to 12,800 acres in 2017, this is still less than half of the 33,000 acres grown in Kentucky 1942, which itself was far less than the acreage grown during hemp’s heydays in the mid-1800s. Hemp is making a comeback, but it’s a slow and steady build, rather than a one-two knockout.
One of the biggest hurdles faced by hemp farmers is that, since it’s previous glory days were a lifetime ago, farmers haven’t been able to learn to grow the crop from their parents, their neighbors, or even from instructional videos. Farmers have had to turn to unconventional learning methods. As Shively told me, learning to grow hemp “is very difficult-- you look online for research and you get info from Canada and other places to get what little you can find...the sad part is that I had to look to the marijuana world to find the nutrient factors and stuff. They are great at growing this stuff but it’s all indoors...we have pretty much had to just grow it and learn as we go.”
Soil Conditions and Planting
According to the Hemp Technologies Collective, “about 42% of the plants’ biomass returns to the soil in the form of leaves, roots and tops.” This inputs vital nutrients back into the soil, requiring less fertilization in subsequent years. But, as Shivley warned me, “this is not going to be a miracle crop.” Hemp will require the same dedication and careful attention as any other crop.
In fact, there is another crop, besides hemp’s THC-heavy Cannabis cousin (marijuana), that hemp farmers have been turning to: wheat. It turns out that many of the soil conditions that hemp requires are nearly identical to those of a high-yielding crop of wheat. This includes adding nitrogen, potash and phosphorus to slightly alkaline soil. The exact amounts of fertilizer needed will vary on the natural conditions.
While some ‘volunteer’ hemp plants are likely to sprout up near any hemp farm, most plants will require careful planting. Hemp should have a strong seed-to-soil contact, in a shallow seedbed at uniform depth. The optimal planting time frame will depend on the climate and whether the crop will be used for its seed, fiber, or both. Also, like every part of the farming process, it will depend on what variety of hemp is being grown.
Varieties of Hemp
Over thousands of years, as hemp has been cultivated in different geographies for different uses, many varieties of the plant have developed. The Canadian federal agency in charge of health has published a list of nearly fifty hemp cultivars that are legal for growth and distribution. But this is just a small fraction of the different seed varieties for sale on the market. One of the first steps in any hemp farmers journey is figuring out which variety they want to grow.
Some hemp varieties are very specifically named and even trademarked. For instance, the famous Finola hemp is well known as a short plant that matures quickly, giving a large seed yield. The company that has trademarked the Finola seed boasts that its grain yield can be “up to 1000 kg/ha near 60o N and 2000 kg/ha near 50 o N, under good conditions.” Other types of hemp include wild or ‘ditch weed’ varieties that can be found growing around the world, and are unregulated (and therefore illegal to grow in most places, even if they test below .03% THC).
With most crops, farmers would have decades, even centuries, of knowledge about what specific varieties of seed to plant in what areas, and how to care for them properly. But, as Shively explained to me, in the U.S. “we’re learning what cultivars work in what areas. A cultivar that works best for CBD may not work for a seed crop.”
Indeed, when choosing a variety of hemp to grow, farmers need to consider a number of factors, including what sort of fiber to seed ratio they desire. Some hemp varieties are monoecious, which means that each plant has both male and female flowers, and will therefore have a higher seed yield. Hemp, however, is naturally a dioecious plant, meaning that some plants have male flowers and others have female flowers. The male flowers, which are small and discrete, contain the pollen that fertilizes the seeds in the female flowers, which are the large ‘buds’ that most people associate with marijuana.
Because hemp has historically been used for its fiber rather than its flower, some have been led to believe that hemp and marijuana are just the male and female plants separated out from a single crop. This is inaccurate. Hemp plants can be either male or female, although they are indistinguishable until they flower. The male plants die almost immediately after flowering, while the female plants live on another three to five weeks, until their seeds are ripe.
Hemp varieties are being cross-bred everyday by farmers and scientists in order to create cultivars that are higher in certain characteristics, lower in others. Shively is excited about the possibility of testing new cultivars and growing methods, as the industry grows and there are more acres with which to experiment.
Hemp, like many of those who grow it, has an anti-authoritarian streak; it likes to do it’s own thing despite what we demand of it. Hemp seeds don’t follow the crowd, but rather they ripen at their own pace. The male plants will mature fast and die early, no matter how they are planted. Hemp will clog up expensive combining machines, a last little act of rebellion. This means that planning a hemp harvest is no simple ordeal.
Because of variable maturation of hemp plants, even the most optimal seed harvest will only capture 60-70% of the seed. The precise time will vary greatly depending on the hemp variety, the climate, and other variables, but the time frame can be as short as seventy days from seeding to harvesting. Harvesting for hemp fiber and hurd will usually come a few weeks earlier, unless the farmer is growing a dual crop.
For dual crops, both the stock and seed can be harvested at once. However, many farmers will use a modified combine to cut the heads of the plants off for a seed harvest, and then leave the stocks standing through the winter. This is called winter ‘retting’. The stems are then easily broken off at the ground for harvest in the spring.
A combine can be used on both seed and fiber crops, although mature hemp stalks can be a weedy affair for the gears and other moving parts of the machine. Newer combines, such as this one, and modified combines, such as this one, are able to handle stringy, sturdy hemp stalk much better than other machines. Monoecious varieties can be much easier to harvest with machine because the plants all ripen at virtually the same time, so there is no dead plant material on the ground to get caught in the machine.
The grain (which includes the seed) is taken from the combine and immediately stored for drying and processing. The cut stalks, however, are either left to ‘ret’ slightly in the field, or taken to another location for water ‘retting’. Retting sets into action microbial process that breaks the chemical bonds that hold the stem together, allowing for the fiber to begin separating naturally. Field retting usually requires several weeks. Water retting is a faster process, and makes space in the field for another crop to be sewn right away, however this also means that less nutrient matter is returned to the soil. After retting, the stalks are tied into bundles or baled, and are left to dry in a low moisture environment.
After the hemp has been retted, dried, and baled, it goes through a ‘breaking’ process. Stalks are crushed to break the inner core into small pieces (hurds), by either using a hand ‘break’ or a machine called a ‘decorticator’. From there, hurd can be easily turned into bedding for animals and other products. The fiber can go on to be further processed into textiles or composites.
Diseases, Bugs, and Other Problems
When I asked Kevin Shively about hemp’s reputation as a miracle crop that needs almost no pesticides to grow and is a natural weed deterrent, he snapped back, “It’s just like any other crop.”
“I can plant wheat 10 years in a row and 5 of those ten years I won’t have to spray for anything. Two out of the ten years I’ll get a freeze. Two of those years, I’ll get a fungus. Half the time you don’t need any of that stuff, but the other half you do,” said Shively. Because it grows fast, and is a relatively vigorous plant, hemp can survive many attacks from natural predators, but they still take their toll.
According to Hemp University, the European Corn Borer has affected hemp in Southern Ontario, and grasshoppers have caused damage in Northern Ontario. There are also fears that the Bertha Army Worm could push its way into hemp crops in the area. Every region will have its particular threats, and any hemp farmer should thoroughly research the pests and contagions that threaten local crops.
Hemp is touted as a crop that’s very easy to grow organically. While it’s true that it is a naturally vigorous plants, it’s also true that there are no conventional pesticides that are approved for use on hemp in the United States, so farmers have no choice but to use organic insecticides and fungicides. Shively explained to me that he once worked with a hemp crop that got “a bean fungus.” There was no choice but to spend “astronomical dollars on organic pesticides” to keep the crop alive. Hemp "is going to be just like any other crop that’s not a GMO that's bred to specifically repel disease and pests," Shively noted, with some consternation.
So, Why Farm Hemp?
After overcoming the difficulties of reviving an old crop and the setbacks associated with farming any crop, hemp has plenty to give back. Farmers can get three or more revenue streams from a single plant, selling the stalk, the seed, the hurd, and the CBD oil from flowers. As Shively reminded me, “right now, we have the technology to grow it. Water, sunlight. Perfectly fine. We have modified current combines where we can walk through and cut it down, we’ve made it work. It can be used for millions of different things.” The biggest impediments to the booming industry are legal ones, and matters of scale.
Assuming that the laws continue to change in favor of the hemp industry, the best way to aid the industry is to grow more hemp. While there is the obvious benefit of having more hemp pouring into our domestic markets, the less obvious but equally important benefit is that once the market is larger, it can attract the capital investments that the industry needs to really thrive: decorticating machines, fiber and seed processing plants, and other machinery.
Shively’s Eastern Colorado Hemp was the second largest U.S. grower of hemp in 2016, but back when he wasn’t growing so much, he had to sit on some of his product because there were no buyers for small quantities. “To get someone to bring a million dollar machine to the point where it’s accessible-- before someone will do that I have to have enough stalk to feed that machine.” Shively explained to me that, now that his farm is much larger, “we have CBD products, we sell our stalk to a company in Longmont...I’ve got the seed a couple contracts on food products.” It’s a chicken and egg sort of game: in order to grow more hemp, we need more buyers, in order to get more buyers, we need to grow more hemp.
But, the process has already been set into motion, the first egg has already been laid by people like Shively. It may take a few years to hatch, but new buyers and coming into the market frequently, trying to meet the rise in consumer demand. The sooner that we have large hemp farms, the sooner we can nail down the best practices for raising and harvesting the crop, the sooner we can sell in quantities that justify large scale factories, and the more we can drive new, environmentally friendly, hemp product innovation.