Straw: ‘We learned it takes a lot of money’
CHRISTIANBURG, Va. — The excitement over growing industrial hemp and the reality of doing it are coming together in Virginia this first year of farmers being able to grow it legally.
John Straw, head grower for TruHarvest Farms here, shared some of the experiences from the growing season and offered a word of caution to members of the industry in a recent telephone interview.
Straw’s job this year has been growing 10 varieties of hemp on an 85-acre tract along Interstate 81 in Montgomery County, Va. One of the larger hemp farms in Virginia, the farm is owned by Matt Hagan, a drag car racer, businessman and beef cattle farmer.
Straw was emphatic when asked what they have learned this first year.
“We learned it takes a lot of money,” he said. “We confirmed that. It’s been kind of interesting.”
Straw told news media in October their yield was better than average and they are planning to increase acreage. They also had to deal with some theft of their crop, a problem many growers face.
Early on in the season, he said they encountered a problem many plant growers have: Worms. Specifically, corn worms. They came early and stayed into the fall.
“We didn’t find anything to effectively control them,” he said.
There are no pesticides labeled for use on hemp. They and other growers are effectively growing it organically. Best management practices did not help.
Straw estimated that they lost between 20 and 25 percent of flower to the worms. He said some varieties suffered a lot of damage and others had very little or no damage.
Change in the new industry has been rapid. It hit again mid-season with a growing popularity for smoking hemp like marijuana. It does not give the high that marijuana does but this trend caused changes in marketing, Straw said.
He said most farmers planted the crop planning to sell it as biomass for extraction of the oils the plant contains.
The smoking trend brought predictions of sales of $300 per pound for the smoking market as opposed to $30 a pound for biomass.
“A lot of people thought they could get rich,” Straw said.
But reality did not match the prediction. He said challenges included a flooded market and hemp not being cut or dried properly. This lead to it not meeting early expectations.
Straw said TruHarvest sold some hemp, 8,000 pounds, to the smoking market but sold 900,000 pounds was sold as biomass.
The biomass consists of the whole hemp plant that is cut off and chopped.
The Hagan farm used a corn chopper to harvest its crop, then baled and wrapped it using a specialty forage baler made in Norway, Straw said.
The procedure gave the possibility of a longer shelf-life, Straw added, but it was not crucial to have this year.
“Luckily all our hemp has been processed this year,” he said. “It was shipped to the Carolinas and was processed into crude oil,” he said.
The oil contains the CBD that is added to a wide range of products.
Straw said the farm will raise its own plants next spring in a 30,000 square-foot greenhouse now under construction.
Success in hemp means having a pollen-free crop, he said. Seed production is not an option.
This means growing all female plants. Using all female clones guarantees these, Straw said.
It is hard to identify the male plants but it is necessary to do so to prevent pollen production and seed growth. Fields need to be scouted routinely and male plants have to be identified and destroyed, both labor intensive and hard work.
Straw said while they had success this year and are planning to continue to grow, they will continue to be on guard.
“The biggest issue is everybody over-promises and under-delivers,” he said. “Nobody does what they promise. Look out for your own interests. It is not a very trustworthy industry.”
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