Crowds turn out with questions about industrial hemp

Since Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer signed Senate Bill 263 on April 20, the Kansas Department of Agriculture has been busy developing the rules and regulations to guide the Alternative Crop Research Act—better known as the Industrial Hemp Research Program.

Since then farmers, agribusinesses and rural communities have been gathering questions about how the program might benefit their farms and their rural economies. There’s been so much interest the Kansas Farmers Union and the Kansas Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Alternative Crops sponsored a slate of meetings Oct. 22 and 23 across the state to bring farmers and other interested agribusiness partners information from the Kansas Department of Agriculture regarding hemp production and regulations.

KFU President Donn Teske has heard of a lot of interest in industrial hemp production from members and neighbors. Through his work in farm organizations, Teske met Canadian farmer Rod Flaman, who grows industrial hemp for the Canadian market, where it has been legal since 1998. Flaman, of Regina, Saskatchewan, spoke at the informational meetings about his experiences growing and marketing this specialty oilseed crop.

At the Garden City meeting Oct. 23, Flaman first asked attendees what part of the hemp plant they plan to market?

“Do you want to sell de-hulled hemp seeds, which are edible?” he asked. “Do you want to sell the fiber? Or the certified seed? Or perhaps the cannabidiol oil? You have to first figure out what your end market is going to be.” This will affect not just how you’ll market the crop, but how you plant and harvest your hemp. On an economic scale, the CBD oil, because of the concentration available in the plant and the effort to process it, brings the highest value of the crop’s components.

The primary challenge that Flaman said Canadian growers have to still overcome in some measure is getting reliable market streams. Everyone agrees, he explained, that there are many useful products that can be produced from hemp, from bullet-resistant protective gear to building materials to a healthy snack that tastes good. It’s just really tough to produce a crop without a market ready to purchase it.

He himself has 500 round bales of hemp fiber waiting for a decorticating processer to purchase. That delay is partly why he now grows certified hemp seed. At least that market is more reliable, he explained.

“Right now, my certified seed is sold for around $2.25 per pound,” he said.

Aaron Cromer farms near Elkhart, Kansas, and came to listen to Flaman. As a proponent Cromer said he sees industrial hemp as an alternative to commodity crops and a way to stabilize low commodity prices, which can help the Kansas economy. The agronomic aspects are also attractive to him, but what he’s really interested in is developing the processing industry in the state so that farmers have a place to take their crop. He agreed with Flaman that a market needs to develop along with the production capabilities.

“If you don’t have that, it doesn’t take farmers long to realize that what they grew didn’t pay them anything and they won’t grow it again,” Cromer said. “That’s going to have to be dealt with right away. Otherwise, I could see this have a great takeoff, and then people backing off because there’s nowhere to go with it.”

“There are a lot of bridges left to cross,” he said.

There is hope, though, because a few large businesses—such as Coca-Cola and Constellation Brands, the manufacturer of Corona beer in the U.S.—are looking to the future when CBD oil will be much more available in larger quantities and are actively pursuing ways to include it in their products, Flaman said.

Another key challenge to growing industrial hemp is that it looks identical to marijuana, and there’s no easy in-field test for THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) to determine if the hemp is within the legal parameters or not, Flaman said. And those varieties that have higher concentrations of the valuable CBD oil also have higher THC content, which is illegal under current United States law to grow.

Canadian law requires a license to grow, transport, store, sell or process industrial hemp, he explained. Since Canada legalized marijuana that actually puts industrial hemp production in a grey area, he said. Keeping up with the legal paperwork is a job itself, Flaman added, but if someone is familiar at all with certified organic production that helps.

The actual production of industrial hemp takes some minimal adjustments in farming practices, he said. One hazard that Canadian farmers like him have discovered is that hemp will wrap itself around headers and can actually cause fires if the operator isn’t watchful.

“But still, it’s tap root goes deep into the ground for water and nutrients and it is a great rotational crop,” Flaman said. Some rotation crops that farmers might consider with their hemp are canola, oats, wheat and edible beans.

Flaman warned farmers that because the crop is still in the beginning stages of removing regulations, the agrichemical companies haven’t been able to label any of their weed control products for use in hemp.

“We use a pre-plant herbicide to clean the field, and we don’t grow our hemp on volunteer crops,” he said. Flaman said he prefers to raise hemp on fields that were previously cereals because he can spray and control those cereal volunteers.

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“We seed our hemp late, usually in May or June and it will flower when the days get shorter,” he said. “The sooner it can go in the ground, the taller the plant, and it will grow anywhere from 3- to 10-feet tall.” That’s important because some farmers, he said, are starting to look to the potential of getting two crops out of their one hemp plant—harvesting the top of the hemp plant with a draper header for its seed, and then coming by with another pass to cut the plant for fiber to bale.

“A good crop of hemp seed could be 1,000 pounds per acre,” he said.

Flaman said he uses a John Deere 1870 ConservaPak to drill his hemp in 12-inch rows about 1-inch deep. He prefers to plant at a rate of 35 pounds per acre, but those farmers who grow hemp for fiber usually plant at a lighter rate that results in a thicker stalk.

Overall, Flaman wanted to communicate to those in the audience that they can’t just focus on the production of hemp in the state. He cautioned that it’s going to take capital and commitment to build the market for hemp in Kansas so that hemp production will grow and farmers can fully reap the agronomic and economic benefits of the crop.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or [email protected].