5 questions farmers have to ask about the newly-opened hemp industry

As I described in my last post, until very recently, the federal government considered industrial hemp a Schedule I controlled substance. But when Congress finalized the 2018 Farm Bill last December, all of that changed; the new bill de-scheduled hemp as a controlled substance and allows it to cross state lines for commercial purposes.

Hemp’s new classification has opened doors for farmers like me to try a new crop. It’s also given rise to more questions than answers.

#1 How prepared are federal, state, and county governments for hemp farming?

Hemp is now, in theory, legal to grow. Still, the law maintains various parameters: industrial hemp can’t contain more than .3 percent THC, and each individual state has to come up with a USDA-approved plan for how to regulate hemp production.

Currently, California has no plan. In fact, the state has basically passed the buck to the individual county commissioners’ offices to facilitate the licensing and registering of approved hemp farms. To date, none of California’s 58 counties have come up with such a registration process.

It’s interesting to me that, even though we no longer need to look over our shoulders to grow industrial hemp at the federal level, we still can’t pull the trigger without registration at the county and state levels. Getting a plan and protocol in place could take a month…or it could take years.

#2 Where can I source seed? Which variety of hemp work well in my growing conditions? Where on my property will it grow best?

For us at Spinaca Farms, growing hemp will be much like growing any other veg: it all starts with finding the appropriate seeds for our needs and growing conditions. Unlike growing vegetables, however, our sourcing options for hemp seeds are very limited at the moment.

For any other kind of seed, multiple producers plant trial plots for us to look over and choose from ― sometimes 40 to 50 different varieties. So far, we don’t have that luxury with hemp; not only do we not know how to get the seed, but we can’t see which types and attributes will grow best in our specific area. We’re still in the vague territory of asking how, where, and which varieties we should start growing. The successful growing of hemp starts with the right variety of seed, on the right type of soil, and the right time of the year.  Just like any other vegetable.

#3 What kind of equipment do I need to harvest hemp?

We can’t assume that the equipment we use to harvest vegetables will be the right equipment for harvesting hemp. We’re currently researching whether we can upcycle or adapt our existing equipment for hemp harvesting. But different hemp applications (eg hemp fiber versus hemp oil) require different harvesting techniques, which begs another question:

#4 What will be the end product? And who will want to buy it?

If the end product is rope, we’ll need to harvest specifically for fiber application; if the end product is powders, we’ll need to harvest toward that outcome. (Furthermore, we’ll need to identify the closest processing facility for textiles and oils on the back end.)

Still, we’re not the only farm looking to capitalize on federal permission to farm hemp; the market will surely flood with hemp products soon. To find our niche, we’re attending trade shows (like Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim and SupplySide West in Las Vegas) to explore market options, potential end users, possible categories like rope on the textile side and powders and oils on the cosmaceuticals side.

#5 Which banks and insurers will support this new, burgeoning industry?

Despite recent deregulations, a lot of people still mistakenly believe hemp is the same as (or too dangerously close to) marijuana, the drug. Are there banking institutions and insurance carriers willing to see past the dark cloud that hangs over much of the hemp industry? Some may not be johnny-on-the-spot to take our money or provide us with a checking account to pay for services or buy seed. So what happens when we can’t sell a crop because a customer can’t pay any other way besides cash?

As business owners and folks with our necks on the line, we need to ask these sorts of questions before diving into the hemp-cultivating future. In many respects, it’s a parallel procedure to growing other crops: we’re conducting typical agronomical research on how to get a crop in the ground, get it harvested and get it sold, no different than a wheat, barley or lettuce-grower. But we can’t plant unless we have the inputs, process, market, and channels to sell it.


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