Hemp growers upbeat, but face unknown future
As harvest of Maryland’s first permitted industrial hemp crop gets underway, growers are enthusiastic about its profit potential but still face many unknowns about its future.
The state department of agriculture is waiting for final federal guidelines from the 2018 Farm Bill to be issued before it solidifies its permitting process for next year.
The crop has no labeled options for pesticide to control insects, disease or weeds and growers and Extension specialists weren’t sure what pests would come during the growing season.
With a wide range of farming experience amongst Maryland’s permitted growers, people involved with the crop said how growers plan to harvest, store and sell the crop also varies in preparedness.
Maryland permitted 65 industrial hemp growers for production this year with 1,487 acres and more than one million square feet of greenhouse production registered, according to MDA. Hemp fields had to be at least 1,000 feet from a school or public recreation area and license holders cannot have a felony drug conviction in the past 10 years.
On Sept. 19, hemp growers gathered at the University of Maryland’s Wye Research and Education Center for a twilight tour of its hemp research plot, get production updates and share information with one another.
“We’re reaching a whole new audience,” said Dr. Nicole Fiorellino, Extension agronomist. “I think this crop has opened up a whole new set of growers.”
University of Maryland Eastern Shore has an Industrial Hemp Field day scheduled for Oct. 31 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., at its Student Services Center in Princess Anne, Md.
A requirement of getting a state permit to grow industrial hemp is partnering with an institution of higher learning on research. University of Maryland is partnering with 13 growers conducting trials to get data on the best nitrogen rates and timing to find the “sweet spot” of yield, both in total crop weight and in pounds of flowers per acre, and phytochemical levels — high in the sought after CBD but keeping the psychoactive THC below its legal threshold.
“We want to make sure we can put forward the best recommendations for nitrogen fertilization for this crop,” said Fiorellino, who is conducting the research with Andrew Ristvey, Extension commercial horticulture and alternative specialty crop specialist.
At the twilight meeting, Emily Zobel, Extension agriculture agent in Dorchester County shared data from her insect surveys in the Wye’s plots and said overall pest pressure was low but noted an abundance of natural enemies to pests. She added with the crop so new to the area, costly pests may not have found it as a feeding source yet.
“We may have a few good years before we get anything major,” she said.
Dr. Karen Rane, director of the University of Maryland’s Plant Diagnostic Laboratory urged growers to send samples of diseased plants for testing to see what is affecting the crop.
“The more we grow this crop the more problems we’re going to see,” Rane said, but work will also be done on finding solutions.
Rane and others from the university urged growers to source transplants from quality growers, in state if possible, to give the plants a good chance starting out, especially without the option of chemical controls.
Jim Drews, program manager for Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Turf and Seed Administration which is handling hemp permitting, said while the state permits expire on Dec. 31, they hope to know the permitting process for next year by early December as USDA expects to have it’s final guidelines issued before the end of 2019.
Fiorellino said this year was a learning curve for all involved in growing hemp.
“We don’t have anymore knowledge than anyone else,” she said. “It was very much a wait and see, see what pops up and determine the best way to manage it.”
In most cases, the solution was to pull the entire problem plant up from the field or greenhouse and destroy it to keep the issues from spreading.
After pursuing but not succeeding in getting a state license to produce medical cannabis, Sudlersville, Md., greenhouse grower John Murphy said industrial hemp ended up a better fit for him and he planted two acres of the crop this year.
With four acres under greenhouse, John and wife Maureen Murphy grow between 250 and 300 different plants in two greenhouse complexes and said hemp should be something farmers consider as a way to diversify and not their only crop.
Murphy’s hemp was planted on more costly white plastic to help regulate heat, staked and had trickle irrigation.
“Everything about this field is done high end and as a result, I’ll probably get about 2 to 2 1/2 pounds (of flowers) per plant,” he said, walking thorough the crop he plans to harvest this week.
It was a high investment relative to most other crops at more than $20,000 per acre but he said if harvest, processing and storage goes well, the return could be more than $100,000 per acre. Even growers who invested much less in growing their crop could bring in $40,000 to $60,000 per acre, he said.
“It’s a big risk like anything else. You put a big risk in you get a big reward — maybe.”
With a willingness to share his information, Murphy said he’s talked with a lot of inexperienced growers and some have fared better than others in the growing season.
One was late in culling male plants out of his field before they flowered and had unwanted pollination that drops CBD levels. He said another began harvesting, collecting the flowers in a plastic bag and left the bag outside all day.
“It just cooked it,” Murphy said. “I’m going to make mistakes too, but, wow, talk about a problem.”
Murphy and Fiorellino said many growers didn’t appear to have a good idea of where they would dry and store their crop or who would buy it.
“I was surprised of the people who planted their plants without a plan of where they’re going to go with it,” Fiorelino said.
That may be less of a worry for growers this year with high demand for the crop, processing the oil for use in a variety of health and wellness products, Murphy added, but he said in years to come, more people will start growing, increasing supply and reducing profitability.
Murphy said along with navigating the uncertainties of growing industrial hemp, there is the risk for foul play.
Many banks have been unwilling to loan money for hemp growing startups and while there are lot of private investors looking to finance a project, Murphy said you need to know who you are dealing with.
He said he’s been contacted by several growing “teams” wanting him to grow hemp on contract with vague terms or for only a small percentage of the sales.
“I’m suspect and getting worried that some people are vulnerable to scams,” Murphy said. “I’m really concerned. I don’t want anyone to lose money.”