by CHRIS ROGERS
After years of earning crummy prices for corn and soybeans, some Minnesota farmers are considering a new crop: hemp. Under the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s (MDA) Industrial Hemp Pilot Program, farmers are now raising hemp in 82 of Minnesota’s 87 counties, including Winona County and the rest of Southeast Minnesota. The industry is still in its infancy and is unlikely to replace mainstay crops, but it has potential, experts said.
“I’ve got a kid whose a cop, and he thinks I’m crazy,” joked Todd Frank, a 40-year veteran of organic corn, hay, oats, and barley farming in Goodhue County, who recently tried his hand at raising hemp.
“It was a full house,” Winona County Farm Bureau President Glen Groth said, describing the crowd of 60-some people who attended a Hemp 101 workshop the local University of Minnesota Extension and Farm Bureau offices hosted this spring in St. Charles.
Hemp is a variety of cannabis plant with very low levels of THC, the psychoactive component in marijuana. Hemp produces fiber, edible grain, and cannabidiol or CBD oil, the non-psychoactive ingredient in health elixirs that are sweeping the nation, but remain largely untested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
In 2014, Congress made it legal for states to license hemp-farming operations, and Minnesota elected to do so, launching a program that licensed 485 growers. The 2018 farm bill will more widely legalize hemp production when it takes effect — hopefully at the end of this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The poor prices for traditional crops have some Minnesota farmers willing to try new things, MDA Assistant Commissioner Whitney Place said. “Hemp is a crop that grows really well. It grows really well across Minnesota," she stated. Asked whether hemp is profitable, she said, “That is the question.” The jury is still out, Place stated. She explained that some growers report earning $10,000-$60,000 per acre in sales of hemp grown for CBD. “On the grain side of things, people are producing food-grade hemp seed, hemp oil. I think the market is still working itself out,” she said. As for fiber, Place stated, “We really don’t know yet because, in Minnesota right now, there’s not really a market for it.” She added, “This is an industry that’s very much in its infancy.”
“We wanted to do the fiber part of it, but, you know, the only fiber [processing] plants are in Kentucky,” Frank said. He reported that there are no processing facilities for hemp fiber in Minnesota, making it essentially pointless to grow here. Instead, Frank and his farming partner went through background checks, got a state license, and are now raising hemp for a seed company that sells hemp seed to other hemp growers. There was a serious learning curve, but Frank said, “I’d like to do a few more acres next year.”
Asked what kind of people are growing hemp, Price said, “It’s kind of across the board. We’re seeing this kind of boom in CBD production right now because that’s where people think the money is right now … Those might not be kind of the traditional farmers in that sense, but I would say that farmers are looking for an alternative crop or something to add to their rotation, so we’re seeing a lot of traditional farmers take this on, plant a couple acres.” Near Price’s hometown, she added, “Some guys are growing hemp that I would never have thought would be growing anything other than corn and soybeans.”
“I think it’s a good alternative, but we’ve got a lot to learn. A lot to learn,” Frank stressed. “Everybody wants to do CBD because they think they’re going to make a lot of money. It’s kind of like the gold rush,” Frank said. “Some people are and some people are going to fall flat and their face.” He added, “I think people will be shocked at how much hard work it takes if you want to be successful.”
One of challenges for would-be hemp growers is equipment and infrastructure. Frank reported that many CBD growers produce their crops in greenhouses, which are expensive to build, while other hemp crops are typically grown in fields. Price reported that most farmers are adapting the machinery they have to harvest hemp, but she and Frank both warned against the potential for the super-strong fiber in hemp stalks to cling to combines and wrap around equipment. “Hemp is kind of like wire,” Frank said. “It’s a very good substance, but every place on a combine if you think it can wrap, it’s going to wrap.” To get around that problem, he harvests his grain while the plants are still green, then gently dries out the seeds. Drying the seed also is a little tricky. Because of the far higher oil content in hemp seed, it’s more prone to “cooking” than corn or soy and it has to be handled and dried carefully, he said.
Then there’s the regulatory risk. Hemp growers must submit to regular testing of their crops to ensure that the THC levels do not get too high. Earlier this year, a Lanesboro, Minn., hemp grower was charged with multiple felonies because his crop THC levels exceeded the legal limits. It is possible for that to happen on accident.
Place said that the 2018 farm bill recently legalized the sale of hemp seed across state borders, whereas Minnesota had previously worked with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to bring hemp seed in from Canada or Ukraine. “What we are finding right now is that some of those seed varietals [from other U.S. states] aren’t as stable as some of these older varieties and are testing higher for THC.” She advised farmers to do their research and get advice from the MDA on which seed varieties have the most stable THC levels. Place said the MDA is also asking the USDA to recommend stable varietals to hemp farmers.
Additionally, for a crop to become truly widespread, it takes a sophisticated and expensive system of processing facilities and well-developed markets to sell the finished product. Minnesota is not there yet with hemp, experts said.
“I don’t know that industrial hemp is ever going to replace a crop like corn and soybeans just because I don’t know if the need will ever be there,” Place stated. “It will depend on how Minnesota farmers, the state of Minnesota, and Minnesota businesses invest in processing capacity.”
“This hemp is a good thing for you, me and my grandkids,” Frank said. “You’ve got the seed, you’ve got the oil, you’ve got the fiber,” he stated, describing how hemp fiber can used for all manner of things, even insulation. “I think it has tremendous, tremendous opportunities for our country and our farmers.” However, he added, “It’s going to take a lot of work to make it all happen … Just like all the things we make from corn and soybeans, I think we can make even more products with hemp, but it’s going to take a lot of machinery to get it done.”
Groth recalled a point during the Hemp 101 class where the speaker asked the farmers in the audience: “Would any of you be in this room if corn was at $4 or $5 dollars a bushel and you were making a lot of money?” Groth explained, “Well, most people looked sheepishly at the floor, and he said, ‘Well, if you’re in that boat, your best bet is to stick with what you know.’”
“The potential is there; there’s a lot of logistic hurdles to overcome first,” Groth stated. “I think a lot of people want to put this out as the savior of agriculture in the area. I don’t think it’ll rise to that occasion.” Still he added, “In the end, I think it’ll be a good alternative for some farmers.”