Amid the 32,243 acres of land committed to growing industrial hemp in 2019, Michigan farmers are betting on a crop somewhat foreign to the state.
Others are apparently taking a wait-and-see approach. According to the Farm Service Agency (FSA) Crop Report figures released last week, only 1,682 acres of industrial hemp were planted in Michigan for the 2019 growing season.
Still, planting industrial hemp — a product sold as fiber, seed or CBD oil — is worth the gamble, said Chris Heck of Heck Family Farms LLC.
“We are just looking for ways to diversify our operation,” Heck told Michigan Farm News. “We are only farming 400 acres (of corn, soybeans and wheat). So, we are talking to people in Kentucky and are trying to learn and grow in this field. This year, we got prevent plant, which we thought would make this process easier, but it’s still a lot of work to grow hemp.”
A seventh-generation farmer in Monroe County, Heck is growing 2 acres of certified organic hemp for CBD oil. From hand labor to the constant maintenance of the crop, Heck said hemp comes with many processes, including “pulling out the male plants.”
“If the male plants pollinate the females, it produces seeds which cut the CBD content,” said Heck, who farms the hemp with his brother, Ethan. “It’s an old crop that’s been brought back to life. What does it take nutritionally to thrive? It’s just a learning experience right now in our first year.”
Since the launch of Michigan’s industrial hemp pilot program for the 2019 planting season, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development reportedly processed or issued 541 hemp grower registrations and 389 processor-handler licenses.
The Industrial Hemp Ag Pilot Program is authorized under the 2018 federal Farm Bill, where commercial production and processing of industrial hemp are permitted. Now, the USDA is implementing a national program to be used for the 2020 growing season.
Just this month, MDARD Director Gary McDowell announced the implementation of testing standards for Michigan’s first industrial hemp crop.
The temporary rules establish proper testing methods for measuring the concentration of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in industrial hemp to ensure levels do not exceed .3% on a dry weight basis. THC is a lipid found in cannabis.
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“With these rules in place for six months, we have time for our growers to move forward while we wait for federal standards,” McDowell said in a statement. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to issue federal guidance and requirements later this fall to help better shape a long-term statewide industrial hemp plan.”
“I think how quickly we got this (hemp pilot) program in place speaks volumes,” McDowell added Aug. 13 during a joint Agriculture Committee meeting. He doesn’t know yet on the success probability of the product, but “hopes this will be a great crop in Michigan and (it) really helps our growers.”
Based on Farm Service Agency data, Huron County has the most hemp acreage in the state. Currently, there are two types of registration available — a grower ($100) and processor-handler license ($1,350).
According to Theresa Sisung, associate crops specialist for the Michigan Farm Bureau, there are a lot of remaining unknowns with the crop, including questions about the testing.
“It’s getting close to harvest time, so (growers) are trying to figure out exactly what they are testing for, where to send samples and how to do the sampling,” Sisung said. “Once they get tested and can harvest, or if their crop is too high in THC and they have to destroy it, growers will have a better idea.”
Industrial Hemp must be harvested within 15 days after final submission or testing, which costs $125, Sisung said.
“There are a lot of people still who don’t know how to grow it,” she said. “With the processing capacity and the uses — what are people going to use this crop for? I think it would be a good idea that if you are going to grow a bunch of hemp (acreage) and plan on selling it to someone, you better have it contracted before you grow it.”
According to Heck, there’s not much regulation in the industry — yet.
“It’s kind of like the Wild, Wild West,” added Heck, who wouldn’t disclose if he’s under contract to grow organic hemp. “There are a lot of unknowns and not a lot of safeguards, but it’s only the first year. … It’s just a struggle to make any money to grow the family operation, and that’s why we went with organic hemp.
“Maybe next year we will grow organic and conventional hemp.”