Learning Curve for Domestic Hemp Cultivators Steep but Rewarding

Despite a myriad of issues, U.S. hemp farmers continue to experiment with their new crop in an effort to research optimal cultivation techniques.

With the passing of the 2014 Farm Bill, hemp cultivation in the U.S. has started again for the first time in over half a century, yet the expansion of hemp cultivation has been slow. Despite 28 states authorizing some form of hemp cultivation, only three states, Colorado, Kentucky, and Tennessee, have farmers who have planted more than 100 acres.

Those up for the challenge of planting this long forgotten crop have showed perseverance as they attempt to grow the nation’s first hemp fields in generations. However, these new forays into hemp cultivation have come with a number of issues – both natural and man-made.

A test crop at the North Dakota State University Langdon Research Extension Center this year was ruined by frequent heavy rains, killing or stunting the growth of the university’s hemp crop.

“I don’t know if we’re even going to harvest it,” says Bryan Hanson, a researcher at the extension center in Langdon.

Last year, the test plot at Langdon grew thick and tall. The team hoped to build on last year’s progress, but weather hasn’t cooperated. Heavy spring rains forced the researchers to replant the hemp crop in May. However, subsequent heavy rains have ruined that crop, too.

“A year’s worth of precipitation in just 3½ months,” Hanson says. “It’s disappointing. We really were hoping we’d be able to learn more that we could pass on to growers… There’s always next year.”

Weather issues were also troublesome in Tennessee, where early dry spells slowed plant growth. In addition, goldfinches made easy meals of the hemp seeds before they could be harvested, further diminishing farmers’ production.

However, not all problems came from Mother Nature. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln ran into repeated administrative issues trying to get their hemp pilot program off the ground this year.

The school’s proposal to plant two acres of hemp was nearly cancelled after delays getting DEA approval to import seeds. The school thought about trying to get seeds from another university, but it is illegal to send hemp seeds over state lines. It is only legal to import them from an international source like Canada or Europe, a policy that makes little sense to many U.S. hemp farmers.

Kentucky ran into a similar issue in 2014 when it was forced to sue the DEA after the agency seized 250 pounds of hemp seed the state planned to use for its pilot programs. The DEA eventually released the seeds, and the state went ahead with planting over 900 acres of hemp crops.

Also in Kentucky, the state’s drug task force is having difficulty telling legal hemp plants from illegal marijuana. In fact, law enforcement across states with hemp pilot programs decry them as the perfect camouflage for illegal marijuana grows.

According to Jacky Hunt, director of the South Central Kentucky Drug Task Force (SCKDTF), his team recently received a tip about a possible illegal marijuana farm. They dispatched a surveillance team that identified what they thought were illegal marijuana plants growing in greenhouses. Thinking it odd that the plants didn’t seem to be hidden at all, he made a call to check up.

“I made some calls on a hunch,” said Hunt. “This was indeed a participant in the hemp production program.”

The task force followed up with a knock on the resident’s front door, and according to their paperwork, the growers were fully authorized to grow the hemp.

“In a normal situation such as this, my agents would have gotten the search warrant and we would have gone in to secure the scene. If these greenhouses were to have been located in the back of a field, we may have pulled up all the plants,” said Hunt.

There are currently 8 authorized hemp farms in the task force’s region. Hunt expects this number to increase next year.

“I see a lot of possible problems coming our way,” said Hunt. “Law enforcement fought tooth and nail with the implementation of this program. For me as a drug task force director, I am looking for the potential of abuse. The bad side entering into the equation. We already have so much to battle, and now we have a crop out there for all intense {sic} purposes looks exactly like the crop we are fighting against.”

Other problems abound, including the cost of importing seeds. Hemp seeds cannot be purchased domestically and must be imported. At a cost of between $5-10 a seed, the price tag to become involved in hemp cultivation is too prohibitive to many.

On top of all this, buried in the DEA’s announcement about keeping cannabis a Schedule I drug was a reminder that hemp cultivation in the U.S. remains federally illegal. Ominous and unprompted, the statement seemed to reinforce the DEA’s prohibitive stance on all things cannabis. Although according to the recent Appropriations Bill the DEA’s funding to pursue cannabis cases in states where the actions conform to state laws has been cut, the announcement still looms over domestic hemp cultivation.

In the face of all this opposition, hemp farmers have carried on: replanting, adjusting, and learning along the way. It is these issues with weather, planting techniques, and even industry regulations that these pilot programs hope to explore and fix before larger scale cultivation takes place. Growers and researchers on these pilot farms are discovering the optimal growing conditions, irrigation techniques, and planting and harvesting methods to help make hemp a viable commercial crop well into the future.

Read more about U.S. hemp pilot programs here, or visit our education page to learn about your state’s marijuana laws.