On this episode of the Industrial Hemp Podcast, we go deep into the specifics of harvesting and drying CBD hemp, from cutting the stalks to the best way to set up a drying room, plus how to keep mold from contaminating the crop.
First we check in with Bucks County, Pennsylvania, hemp farmer Joe Ullman, who shares his experience working with cannabis, from the field to the drying rack.
Then we hear from Landin Butterfield, a hemp farmer from Klamath Falls, Oregon, who shares his insight and experience on harvesting and drying.
With two different perspectives, this episode is chock full of helpful information to guide new hemp farmers through their first harvesting and drying experience with CBD hemp.
Here's a transcript of the conversation with Landing Butterfield:
Landon Butterfield, welcome to the Lancaster farming industrial hemp podcast. Could you introduce yourself for us.
My name's Landon Butterfield. I'm the director of operations for Swan Lake farms in Klamath Falls Oregon and I'm a hemp farmer.
Yeah well you got in touch after last week's episode when I had mentioned that I was putting together an episode about drying and harvesting, and you sort of volunteered your expertise in that area, which is great because there's a lot of folks on this side of the country who are doing this for the very first time, but you're out in Oregon and your whole hemp culture is a little more mature than ours. So any insight you can share with our listeners would be great.
Yeah absolutely. You're right. We are very well steeped in hemp culture out here in southern Oregon going back a long time. But I did reach out because I wanted to provide some information and hopefully help some people avoid some expensive mistakes here.
So first let's talk about what sort of style you're growing in, are you large production, are you small acreage?
Yes we have two hundred and twenty acres under cultivation, it's in bare ground under pivots. So no drip tape, no plastic mulch, we're trying to avoid the waste and the extra expense on that.
So when you say pivots that's like an irrigation circle that you see from the airplanes.
We don't really have a lot of those out this way in Pennsylvania but it's like when you fly over you see these great big circles down there.
We have a lot of those here in K-Falls and, you know, it's a common piece of infrastructure so we're trying to make that work for the farmers that already have one.
Okay. And how big of an area does that pivot cover.
About a hundred acres each. We have one that we refer to as the Pac Man pivot. It's not a full circle and it covers a 95 or 96 acre area. And then our larger pivot is a full circle and it covers about 120 but we only cultivate about 110 of that.
And then as far as plants in the field go, what's your spacing like? What are the rows?
We went with a standard four by six spacing so there's a four foot space between each plant in the rows and there's a six foot space between the rows. So we can fit, you know, a small UTV or orchard tractor down them
And you said that's bare ground underneath or do you have a cover crop in there?
We did have some vetch down over the fall and we cut that up in the spring here. But just due to some circumstances beyond our control Mother Nature we weren't able to get another cover crop down before we got into our main planting phase. So we've just been cultivating in between the rows to keep the weeds down.
Cool. All right. So harvesting, let's get into that a little bit. So how do, you know, when it's ready to harvest? What are the indications?
Sure. Well with the hemp plant, you know, you'll obviously see it start to go into flower about now (mid-August), we're in transition, or some of our fields that get more shadow are. And when those flowers have reached a density that the farmer is happy with, the size and density, that's typically, you know, the main indicator. With hemp you also have the, you know, the federal oversight of the THC levels. So I would advise most farmers to be spot checking their field if possible throughout August and into September up to their harvest window watching for both the CBD percentages and the THC percentages. You want to avoid a THC spike, and CBD comes on a little bit earlier than the THC anyway so if you can find that happy window, that's kind of one of the big ones.
Are you testing every few days or how do you keep track of those cannabinoid levels?
Yeah we're testing about once a week starting here this week. We go out and take one tissue sample per, you know, five to 10 acres it's not a super detailed sampling, it's just enough to give you an idea of what's going on in the field.
And then what's the turnaround time on the results of that test?
Well the machine we're using is onsite, immediate. It's just you take a tissue sample, you pop it in, it runs a few things, and then it just returns a response.
Wow, what's that machine called?
You know, I'm gonna have to go check that. I was meaning to look at the name of it yesterday and we'll come back to that.
But that's very interesting. I didn't know.
There are a couple on the market and I don't know depending on where your listeners are. I don't know exactly, you know, what companies are big in their area. But definitely there's gonna be some local guys that are probably capable of that. The one thing I would like to stress on that is: It's not an accredited test in my state, so I can't use it for the state regulations for CVB/THC testing. So I have to bring in an accredited lab for that right.
But it's helpful in the field to sort of know where you are.
That's cool. Okay so you've got the field test. You have the look of the flowers in the field. Are there other indicators to let, you know, that it's time to harvest.
Really once we've come into heavy flower in September and we're pushing towards October, The weather's going to be the largest dictator. The plants start to get really heavy as they get wet. If wet weather or wind comes in, you know, you have a substantial chance of branch breakage or, you know, just losing the entire plant. So also mold becomes a larger concern as we get later into the colder waters part of the season. So really if the weather outlook is not looking good for the next week or two and you're in late September it's probably time to consider cutting, because you really don't want to bring that mold into your dry room If you can help it.
Right. So when you cut is that all by hand? are you doing that with machines? What? How does that work.
Sure. Well we're focusing on the farm this year on both what they're referring to as smokable CBD Flower and the CBD biomass for extraction. CBD biomass for extractions is simple. We have a combine that can cut it down 60 acres a day. We've got an oracle baler that's capable of producing a compression Bale that I personally have seen store "wet material" for nine months without really any degradation.
Yeah it's quite amazing. You know, why reinvent the wheel? There's all these amazing agricultural technologies out there already. So yeah. That buys us the wiggle room, you know, with biomass to just go in there and chop it all down.
Smokable hemp flower is a totally different story.
We've been traditionally treating that like cannabis flower and that is a very time consuming labor intensive process. The flowers delicate, very easy to bruise, when it's in its wet state. So you do have to come into the field and cut it by hand, you know, and then fairly delicately transport it to your drying facility, you know, by use of, you know, bins or something like that. Your typical field harvest would look like however many people you can get. I think we had 200 people for last year's harvest. Obviously if you're scaled small you'll have fewer people. Identify early on these sections you'd like to hand harvest, you know, the farmer will see throughout the season where the flowers are biggest and densest and, you know, the best. And you send them out to cut roughly a foot and a half to two foot sections of the plants off going for mostly the top flowers, what's referred to as the colas.
Depending on if you're hang drying or if you're screen drying would dictate how you cut the flower.
So if your screen drying you're gonna take slightly smaller sections because you're going to lay them out flat in a screen on a screen in your drying facility. If you're going to be hang dry and you can take slightly longer sections and specifically you want to try and cut to the main stalk so you can get what we call "the checkmark" to give yourself something to hang. Very simple thing but it actually really saves a lot of time on the other end, having that checkmark. And that's really it.
Send the guys out with some heavy duty shears, have them start clipping flowers, bring them to a tote or a central location, get them on a trailer, and send them off to the dry facility.
Okay. So there's a few things there I want to go back to. When you're cutting for the flower you said you're just taking like a foot and a half to foot at the top of the plant. You're leaving the rest of the plant in the field?
More or less. So if you are cutting just for flower then you want to take as much of that plant as you see as a viable flower. Bear in mind, they will lose about 80 percent of their mass upon drying. So you really do only want to go for the bigger ones. If you're going for biomass as well as flower then you really really really only select the very best of the best and leave everything else to get chopped.
Now explain that checkmark thing again.
Certainly, so if you were to stand directly over a hemp plant looked down at it, you'll notice that the branch nodes come out, you know, in kind of a spiral pattern around the plant, each one of those branches usually contains a pretty decent sized flower.
And given the size of a lot of people's hemp crops, you can get away with cutting just that branch right at the stalk of the plant. You basically just take the plant stalk off and because you've been doing that all the way down, you're left with an inch or two a plant stalk attached to a foot and a half to two feet of flowering branch, and that checkmark of the stalk, it looks like a checkmark when you're holding it up, it gives you something to hang on when you're in your drying facility, you know, whether you use an trellis netting or a large pig screen or something. It makes it so your guys can hang that really really quickly.
Got it. So it's just sort of becomes the hanging infrastructure right in the plant.
Exactly. Otherwise you have to hang it from a flower node which doesn't always hold.
Is there any way to break down like a ratio between acres and labor hours?
Kind of. Yeah. We definitely had some crews that were significantly faster than others last year, enough to throw our average a little bit, but 15 people were able to do five to six acres a day of hand harvested flower typically. And that's a pretty thorough harvest. That's going through and taking the bulk of the flower off the plant.
All right. And then you said you need to be really careful with the flowers.
Yeah. They bruise easy and they get flat. So I would always recommend using a smaller, you know, like a 27 gallon totes real popular over here, but something about that size to move your flower from the plant to your staging area because those bins you can't fill them overly full to crush the flowers on the bottom. They know they won't hit critical mass before they're full and need to be taken in. OK. So it makes it easier for your field hands because they don't have to necessarily concentrate on "Oh do I have too much in here or whatever," it's full so send it on down the line.
Got it. Okay. All right. Well that's very helpful. And then let's talk about drying. I know some people have mechanical drying, other people just hang it and dry. What do you have experience with. What do you recommend?
Yeah. I've hung dry. I've tried on screens, I've dried mechanically. I've dried in barns and horse arenas and garages and storage containers and houses. I think we even once tried a little bit in a car. So, you know, you can do it in just about any space that you are able to control the environment in. The key to any kind of drying of this plant is air movement. If you're in a mechanical dryer, you know, it's going to be key that your fans are working properly and that your air is flowing at the temperature and in the places, you know, you need it to. And then as far as, you know, drying non-mechanically -- hanging or on screens -- then you're looking at making sure that you have enough fans and in most cases dehumidification to, you know, deal with that space.
What's that usually looks like is you're gonna have usually rows upon rows of either racks or some sort of screen or netting hanging, you know, down vertically for you to hang from. And then I would recommend having your dehumidification, if you can, mount it up near the ceiling. That always is the best because your warm humid air is kind of going to congregate up there. If you can't mount it up near the ceiling fan to push the air down it is always good, and more fans is almost always better. I mean there is too much air movement and you'll see that if the plant starts to dry out a little quick, but the goal is to move the wet air away from the flower quickly and replace that with dry air to continue the wicking, you know, pulling the moisture out.
Is there a way to measure the moisture content? Like how do you know when it's dried to the right spot.
Sure sure you can use a probe. There's many of them on the market. You get him on Amazon for 20 or 30 dollars., you know, just a simple little metal probe that you stick into the flower the stem and it'll give you a moisture reading, you know, under 15 percent is kind of the golden standard down to twelve and you start to get away from the amount of moisture that mold needs. So, you know, us old school guys will walk in and we'll start squeezing stuff.
It'll be dry to the touch but not like crumbling. And the most important thing and the thing that I always come back to and one of the first things I was taught is the stalk will snap, not bend but actually snap.
When it's ready?
When it's ready. You take one of the smaller branches that you have a little flower on and you just snap it and it is either bend or it'll give you a good crack.
Is dust a concern in these drying areas? And the reason I ask that is because there's a lot of guys here who, you know, have old barns that they're figuring on drying in and these can get dusty, you know, they've had hay in them for 100 years or whatever. What should people consider when they're drying in old barns.
Sure. Well first of all, a good clean out if you have the time, you know, a lot of these old hay barns the dust usually is pretty settled. So once you start getting activity in there, it starts getting disturbed. So if you can clean it out before you get in, there that's always ideal. I recommend tarps or Visqueen plastic or painter's plastic or something like that. If you're on gravel or a dirt floor that you're worried about, you know, kicking up a lot of dust as you're moving around in there. You know, the side benefit of that is if anything that falls off of your hanging racks isn't immediately in the dirt.
So, you know, the other thing is it's just the kind of, if you're in a barn that's going to be dusty, you just have to minimize the activity in there because that dust will stick to the trichomes, the flower, and there's going to be a level where it does impact the quality but you do have, you know, a little bit of breathing room on that. So yeah I would say put down something for a dirt floor or a gravel floor if you can. If you've got a shopvac or a leaf blower or something like that and you can give, you know, things a good blow out of the cobwebs and everything while you're setting everything up. I'd advise that. I mean the reality is most farmers are going to have to use whatever infrastructure they have and so instead of going and building a new building Yeah I think a decent clean out on most of these old ones will be fine. I haven't had a problem necessarily with smell or anything coming off these as long as you take proper precautions.
Now here's a question that might only be Pennsylvania specific. What about farmers who are using electricity. Is there anything you can recommend for drying the hemp flowers without plugging fans in or dehumidifiers?
Well airflow, you know, if you're in a situation where you don't have the electricity to run the fans and all the other toys then you're going to really need to focus on putting it in a place where you can still control that airflow. You want to you'll want a constant steady breeze to move through and then, you know, hope that the humidity stays fairly low, the ambient humidity stays fairly low.
It's kind of tricky to do because in that first 24 hours they off gas a lot of their moisture, and that's kind of a critical point when you really want to make sure that you have that air movement. Historically what we did is we'd run generators in areas where we didn't have power so that we could have those fans and have those two modifiers and possibly a heater depending on the climate, you know, I've done a lot of grows up in the mountains and stuff that are very very remote and yeah we've almost always at least run a generator. Not saying it can't be done, it just it adds a level of difficulty that I'm not sure a first time farmer would really want to do.
Okay. And how long should we expect the drying process to take.
Sure sure. Typically three to five days if you're able to control your humidity really well it can take up to seven to ten if, you know, the ambient air is really moist and, you know, conditions just aren't ideal. Three days is about as fast as you'd want to go, you do get some terpene damage if you go faster than that and it will kind of ruin the smell on it. And at least for smokable flower. On the biomass it's a totally different story. You can dry that in 24 to 36 hours pretty easy and without any problems.
So then it's dry. How about like packaging or, you know, what's the next step after that. Like how do you put it together to send to a processor? Or maybe you've got a processor on site. What happens next?
Sure well, and this is why again it's such a labor intensive process. So your flowers dry and it's in your facility, it's hanging, the next step is taking it down and getting it off the stalk. And this, you know, kind of depends on how your processor or your buyer actually wants it, but typically the process would be shucking, removing it from the stalk and getting the flower individual. And then we actually cured ours which is a two week to four week process, which is pulling the last little bit of moisture out of the very center of the flower and it stabilizes the flower gives it a longer shelf life. And that's where you hear the terms like burping. Because you package your flower in, we used lined super sacks. The little half ton super sacks with a plastic liner, and we filled those about half full. Again, you know, want to crush the stuff on the bottom. And then, you know, set them aside and I had four guys that I paid 40 hours a week to walk around and open those bags and check them and let the air exchange between what's in the bag and what's out in the environment. And then they closed it back up and you do that for two weeks to a month.
And that's the curing process?
That's carrying process. I would highly recommend any farmers wanting to do a smokable hemp flower look into curing because that's the process that's going to give your flower the quality that's going to help set it apart from the rest of the market. It helps lock the smell in, the taste, the look, all of that.
Yeah once it's cured. Trimming. Some people like to trim before it's cured. Some people like to trim after it's cured. I've done it both ways. I think whatever works best for your situation is the way you should do it. But trimming is just removing the larger what we call fan leaves or water leaves off of the plant so that it's just the nice looking tight flower. We did it mechanically with a line of Twister T2s. There are literally dozens of mechanical trimmers on the market. Most of them have a similar type and, you know, again I can't necessarily recommend one over another. It just comes down to, you know, what your price point is and what you need from the machine, because they all do things a little different and that all works for different people. I would say that I would look into mechanically trimming it unless you are, you know, five acres or less. Even if five acres you might want to look into mechanically trimming because hand trimming ends up being fairly expensive and very time consuming.
So yeah and the mechanical trimmers can do. I think we were doing a thousand pounds a day with our trimmer line.
Yeah, from what I'm gathering here in Pennsylvania a lot of the CBD grows are relatively small, you know, a few acres here a few acres there but then there are sort of like Farmer collectives where they've they're working with, you know, like 50 farmers with little plots that's all gonna go to a central processing. So yeah that's great information for them.
Good. Yeah. And, you know, if your operation is small enough and your yield is, you know, of a certain amount then you can probably get away with hand trimming it. And expense, is it going to be that bad? I just noticed for a lot of farmers was scaling that upfront expense in the fall after you've already run the whole summer can be kind of crippling to some.
Is it just the labor costs or are there other reasons why you would lean towards mechanical trimming?
Basically it's the labor costs and the amount of time and processing. Really it becomes a problem of scale-ability. It's a big argument here in Southern Oregon, you know, which is better and I think traditionally a lot of people would say that the hand trimming, you know, has a better look and feel and stuff like that and I do understand that. But when you're dealing with these large amounts, you know, you need to process it quickly and also, you know, what I hope a lot of farmers realize is that, you know, in this industry, if you want to make the best on your crop you're not going to get paid until March, you know, because you're gonna put out all this money in spring, you're going to put out all this money in summer, you're putting out all this money in the fall to bring it in and harvest it, and all your all this overhead is building up, and every other farmer just like you out there is traditionally going to unload their harvest right before Christmas. Prices are traditionally always low and they don't come back up until February/March/April. And so you end up sitting on this product for six months after you harvested. If you want to get, you know, top dollar. So the machine trimming just saves you so much money in the upfront cost. As much as I like the, you know, the hand trimming it just it ends up being exceptionally expensive.
And that not getting paid until March, that's like a supply and demand thing, that's like you wait until the prices are good. That makes sense.
Yeah. You're waiting out everybody else right.
Yeah that's interesting. Landon is there anything else we should talk about as far as drying or harvesting or any other insight you can share.
Yeah I want to touch on packaging real quick. Once you've spent all this time to harvest it and dry it proper and cure it proper and trim it, storage is going to be really important. You want to store it in a bag that blocks UV. You want to store it in a cool dry fairly environment controlled facility. You definitely want to store it out of direct sunlight. And, you know, we have taken to nitrogen purging a vacuum sealed bag, and that gives you a very good shelf life on the product to sit through those long winter months. And I really can't stress enough that, you know, proper storage after the fact saves all that work.
Right. OK. So before we wrap things up if listeners have more questions for you is there a way that they can reach you directly.
Yeah. Yeah. They can reach me at my company email landin@SwanLakeFarmsLLC.com
All right. Thanks.