Colorado farmer James Bennett has a warning for farmers interested in growing industrial hemp. It’s hard to grow, labor intensive, and the genetics are unstable because it hasn’t been grown commercially in the U.S. for long, he explains.
Bennett has been growing industrial hemp since 2014. Last year he raised 1,000 acres of industrial hemp across seven states. With several growing seasons under his belt and experience as a seedsman, his goal is to compress the learning curve for farmers who want to follow in his footsteps.
“This is not a crop that we can drive across a scale and leave with a check,” he says.
Bennett calls the commodity crops grown across the Midwest – corn, soybeans, wheat – comfort crops. They’ve been grown for years and are backed by well-established supply chains. “Hemp is a whole different ball of wax. This is kind of like crawling on the back of a wild mustang thinking you’re going to just go riding off into the sunset. It ain’t going to happen,” he says.
1. CAN I MAKE ANY MONEY GROWING INDUSTRIAL HEMP?
“Yes, you can absolutely make money,” Bennett says. However, profitability requires good support and planning. The wealth of industry knowledge about planting, fertility, and harvest that farmers who grow commodities are used to just isn’t available for hemp. Hemp may require more research than other crops, he warns.
He encourages people to learn about the market chain between farmers and their paycheck before jumping into growing industrial hemp. Start with learning about the retailers and their products. Take a step back and look into formulation. Find out who is extracting the product. Meet a broker who connects buyers and sellers. Network with more experienced farmers.
I’ve seen people take a run at it. They started a little bit chaotic and felt like they were chasing their tail when they got started. They were chasing their tail at the end of the year, too,” Bennett says. “It’s really important to try and get that market chain developed before you go out with stars in your eyes and grow a whole bunch of it.”
2. HOW MANY ACRES OF INDUSTRIAL HEMP SHOULD I GROW?
Start small, Bennett advises. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Test plots may be a good way to limit your risk while learning how the crop handles conditions on your farm.
Because hemp seed doesn’t have a seed coat, germination in the field can be another challenge. Bennett says the seeds are vulnerable to rot. “You might plant that seed and get 20% germ rate in the ground. Boy, oh boy! When these seeds cost a dollar a piece, that’s a chunk of change that just went out the window,” Bennett says.
Hemp is not a crop that should be grown fence row to fence row. Particularly in the Midwest where feral hemp is common, cross pollination can cause quality problems. To protect your crop, plant hemp inside a buffer zone to keep it away from hemp that may be growing wild in ditches or neighboring property.
However, with proper management, hemp can be very productive on a small amount of land. “I’ve seen people make more money on 1 acre than other people have on 100,” he says.
3. WHERE CAN I FIND QUALITY HEMP SEED AND PROPAGULE?
Not all hemp seed on the market is quality. People with no agriculture background are jumping into the seed business because there’s quick money to be made from farmers who haven’t done their homework, he says. “They’re just out there turning and burning seed because it’s really, really valuable right now.”
Instead, he suggests buying from someone with knowledge of the cultivars they’re selling. A good hemp seedsperson will know how big the variety gets, what resilient characteristics it has, and what end uses it’s best suited for.
“Take your time. Proceed with caution. Try to find genetics with references,” Bennett says. Ask to talk to another farmer growing at the same latitude in similar environmental conditions who has experience with the seed.
It wasn’t his intention when he got into hemp, but Bennett has become a seedsman himself. “I have no problem selling my seed. We sell out every year,” he explains. “The reason is because I’m going to plant the exact same seed lot number that I’m going to sell. I can say that I’m betting the farm on it just like everybody else. That’s how confident I am in the genetics we produce.”
If you’re growing for CBD quality, feminized seed is important. “You don’t want to be out there buying cheap regular seed with a bunch of males because you’re going to cut your crop in half before you ever get started. You pull those out because you don’t want pollination,” Bennett says.
Throughout the growing season keep good records so you can improve your seed selection and decision making for the next year.
4. HOW MUCH, PER ACRE, DOES IT COST TO GROW INDUSTRIAL HEMP?
Bennett says he’s cut his hemp costs down to about $3,500 per acre. “I feel that I’m probably one of the lowest per-acre-cost guys in the entire United States. I’m a tightwad. I’m extremely conservative – really, really frugal,” Bennett says. “I drive 30 series John Deere tractors.” His newest tractor is from 1962.
“Other guys are not doing their own farming,” he says. Farmers who are hiring someone for cultivation, weed abatement, irrigation, nutrient application, harvest, and drying, can rack up costs as high as $25,000 per acre, Bennett explains.
Realistically, he says many farmers can grow hemp for $6,000 to $6,500 an acre.
5. ONCE YOU GROW INDUSTRIAL HEMP, THEN WHAT?
Planning and strategizing isn’t limited to hemp production practices. Marketing industrial hemp requires forethought, too.
“I really believe that with great opportunity comes great responsibility,” Bennett says. “That responsibility is not only for us to be quality producers, but to educate society on how they can consume this product and get them interested in buying it.”
He compares it to soybeans several years ago. “When soy came into the agricultural industry, it took a little bit for it to catch on. It did, and now we have an established industry with a lot of different valuable uses for it.”