LANCASTER, Pa. — Commercial hemp production has been legal for only one growing season, but Pennsylvania farmers are already sketching out best practices for the multipurpose crop.
Hemp farmers are basically all researchers at this point, said Ben Davies, a grower from Berks County.
Davies joined a panel discussion about farming practices on Tuesday during the inaugural Pennsylvania Hemp Summit at the Lancaster County Convention Center.
The event was presented by the state Ag Department and the Team Pennsylvania Foundation.
Davies and his wife initially considered growing hemp microgreens, but their research led them to CBD, a hemp-derived compound with many reputed medical uses.
The crop seemed like a good diversification for the couple’s existing vegetable and pasture-raised meat business, which is competing in a saturated market.
The couple’s business, Wild Fox Provisions, now offers CBD distillate, crude extract, tinctures and hemp tea, and they plan to offer a lotion and other products.
They’ve got plenty of company in the rush to enter the hemp market.
Groff North America, a York County-based manufacturing startup, drew 250 prospective growers to an event in March. Groff ended up working with about 20 farms that grew 2,000 acres of hemp.
Ninety percent of those acres were harvested. That’s better than what many hemp farmers achieved last year, when excessive rain wrecked the crop, said Ryan Dohm, the company’s chief development officer.
Hemp farming for research purposes was allowed under the 2014 Farm Bill, but the 2018 edition opened the doors to commercial production for the first time in decades.
Penn State has been researching hemp since 2017 to provide farmers with production recommendations.
The research trials have discredited the early hype that hemp could thrive without pesticides or fertilizer, according to Dr. Alyssa Collins, director of Penn State’s Landisville research farm.
“If you want to actually farm it, you have to farm it,” she said.
Her experimental plots have faced problems with weeds, caterpillars, botrytis and poor emergence.
CBD varieties also showed a lot of transplant stress. The plants were probably held a little long in the greenhouse and got rootbound, which reduced root-to-soil contact, Collins said.
On the relatively few acres where Groff’s farmers didn’t get a crop this year, weed takeovers were a major reason. The problems occurred mainly in fields with a low seeding rate that didn’t get canopy closure, Dohm said.
No herbicides are currently labeled for hemp in the United States, but Penn State conducted herbicide trials this year with the expectation that that could change.
Collins is also conducting variety trials to see which strains of hemp grow best in Pennsylvania.
So far, the European types seem to have fared better than the Canadian.
That’s probably because the Mid-Atlantic gets less summer sunlight than the Canadian prairie does, she said.
Collins is also studying the best time to harvest hemp for fiber.
At pollen shed, the plants have not yet bulked up on lignin, a tough fiber that makes the crop hard to process.
If harvest is put off till seed ripening, though, farmers may be able to harvest the grain in addition to the fiber.
The type of hemp production a grower gets into often depends on what type of farming the person is already doing, Collins said.
Hay farmers generally have the equipment and experience to plant and harvest hemp for fiber, and grain farmers are well positioned to grow hemp for grain.
Vegetable farmers, who are used to working with transplants and plastic mulch, are best suited for labor-intensive CBD production.
And farmers need to know what their processor is looking for before they buy the hemp seed, Dohm said. The company may even provide a standard operating procedure for farmers to follow.
If the crop is going to be used in textiles, the processor will want the crop to be retted, or left in the field for several weeks after cutting.
But if the crop will be used to reinforce concrete, there’s no need for retting, Dohm said.
Even with clear growing instructions, farmers may face some uncertainty when buying seed.
Laura Pottorff, who oversees hemp inspection at the Colorado Ag Department, is finding a lack of uniformity within the hemp strains on the market.
Many of the plants are hybrids that are not developed enough to be true varieties, and certified seed does not yet exist for the CBD market, she said.
Many people entering the market have not done their due diligence, and some are now asking the state government for protection, she said.
Before farmers start growing hemp, Davies recommends they research the crop and talk to people who have already grown it.
“Everybody in the hemp industry is a consultant, so you should be able to find plenty of people that are willing to give you some great advice who have some experience under their belts that are not going to charge you $200 an hour to talk to them,” he said.
For his money, Davies likes growing early-flowering hemp.
Those plants should mature early enough to be out of the field by mid-October. The weather gets chancier after that, he said.
Lab testing can be almost as iffy as the weather — and just as important.
Test results help growers track CBD content and ensure that their plants don’t exceed the 0.3% legal limit on THC, the chemical gives a high to users of hemp’s cousin, marijuana.
Collins has been sending samples from the same plant to multiple labs, and is finding variations between the testing services. These discrepancies could decline as USDA puts out regulations that clarify testing procedures, she said.
Pottorff expects a fairly high number of samples that Colorado tests this year will exceed the THC limit — 25% or more.
“That is very concerning,” she said.
THC levels can spike because of environmental factors such as high summer heat, but crop insurance can mitigate that and other weather-related risks of hemp farming, said Mark Goodhart, vice president of the Strickler Agency, which has offices in Carlisle and Chambersburg.
USDA is still developing its insurance offerings for hemp, so private, nonsubsidized policies are the main options right now, Goodhart said.
Though the first year of commercial production revealed some challenges, there’s still a lot of enthusiasm for expanding hemp output.
“Some of you may have heard that 50,000 products can be made from hemp. The only way we could ever get to that point is if we are farming this on a large scale,” Dohm said.
Tuesday’s panel discussion was moderated by Eric Hurlock, producer of the Lancaster Farming Industrial Hemp Podcast. Lancaster Farming was a key sponsor of the hemp summit.