Cecil County’s farm community got a crash course in the burgeoning hemp industry at Winter Agronomy Day hosted by the University of Maryland and Cecil County Extension offices.
One of the messages that Nicole Fiorellino, assistant professor and extension specialist at the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, especially wanted to press home is that no one is going to get rich growing hemp, whether for CBD or for industrial use, at least in the current economy.
“It’s a brand new crop but it’s been around for years,” Fiorellino told the audience. She and Andrew Ristvey, commercial horticulture specialist with the college, are doing research in conjunction with participating farmers to identify all the variables and determine if this could be a viable cash crop.
“Our work is solely for the plants with less than 3% THC,” Fiorellino said, THC or tetrahydracannabinol, is the ingredient in the plant that creates the high.
Their research looks into growing industrial hemp for the textile market and for harvesting the flowers from those plants for the CBD industry.
“CBD is everywhere now,” she said. While there is no research backing up all the claims made by purveyors of the oils, tinctures, creams and gummies containing the natural ingredient, she said there is a growing interest. “And there is a market for it.”
According to Fiorellino, growing hemp for CBD classifies it as a specialty crop, while it is considered a grain crop for the textile uses.
Ristvey said he and Fiorellino have been monitoring their own small test plat and the participating fields and already see where the challenges will be for farmers. It’s neither disease nor insect proof. In South Carolina and Colorado growers are reporting vascular wilt fusarium, but that could be blamed on poor plant management, he said.
“Once in the ground they can get crown rot, which is also fusarium,” he said. The plant begins to droop around midday and cannot take up water from its roots.
“And there’s nothing you can spray on it,” he said of the current EPA regulations for applicators.
Then there’s leaf spot, which can create problems with the flowers later in the growth cycle, and leaf rust.
“There aren’t any fungicides labeled for hemp,” Ristvey said.
They have also seen mites and corn ear worm invade the test plats.
“Corn ear worm happens after the corn harvest,” he said. The worms move to hemp when the corn disappears from the fields. “f you are selling (the buds from the flowers) you don’t want this disease because your crop is ruined.”
After spelling out all the pitfalls, Ristvey addressed the potential benefits.
“Getting $60,000 per acre is a myth,” he said, warning farmers against trusting so called case studies found online that promise great profits. He added, it’s a labor intensive crop, especially if it’s grown for CBD. Male plants have to be picked out and some present as both male and female
“We had to look for six weeks. The males would just pop up,” he said of the process that began in August.
Stalks must be brought in from the field and dried, then hand stripped to remove the buds.
“You’re paid by the percent of CBD in the dry mass, which is currently less than $1 a pound,” he said. It was $4.35 per pound last July. Farmers with storage that can afford to sit on their crop until the price swings in their favor could do better. The cost to produce that pound is anywhere from $7 to $14 per pound.
“We still have plants hanging in our high tunnels that we need to strip,” he said, adding that hand stripping is hard, tedious work.
Changes in the Farm Bill from 2014 to 2018 will have an effect on cost and yield, Ristvey said. The 2014 bill allowed for research farming of hemp. Passed in December 2018, the revised bill allows for growing plants with a THC level less than 3%. The 2018 bill removes plant from the controlled dangerous substances schedule if it’s below that amount of THC.
“The difference between hemp and marijuana is the THC level,” he said. Hemp must be harvested before it flowers or it becomes a CBD plant. “If you find you are above 3% you are in big trouble.”
At best, there might be a $24,000 per acre profit, he said.
“This industry is way too young and very worrisome,” he said.
There is good news, though. Ristvey said farmers interested in growing industrial hemp can get grants.
“And it could be used in rotation especially with high phosphorous soil,” he said. “This is potentially a nice choice … as a (soil) mediation tool.”
Also, Ristvey said banks may be more willing to extend credit for industrial hemp over CBD.
For more information check out this website https://mda.maryland.gov/plants-pests/Pages/Industrial-Hemp.aspx