After four years of research, the hard work put in by the staff at the NDSU Langdon Research Extension Center (LREC) will help producers get rolling with hemp. Once the final hurdle of regulations at the federal level have been decided, the 2020 growing season will kick-start the commercial hemp production in the country.
By Melissa Anderson
Pioneering the hemp industry in the state of North Dakota is no small feat and may prove to be incredibly lucrative for the few who do. Photo courtesy of Plantology, Inc.
“Early on, it was strictly screened by the DEA which made it somewhat of a burden and the Langdon REC was the only site authorized for testing in North Dakota until 2019,” LREC Director Randy Mehlhoff said.
Since beginning their research into the production of industrial hemp in 2014, the LREC has had high success with the crop. The primary focus of the research has been planting dates and varieties that work best within the area. The center began their research with 12 different varieties from four countries, including France and Canada.
“Today we are testing 16 varieties, all from Canada as Canadian varieties perform better,” Mehlhoff said. “All varieties we test are for the fiber and seed/oil industry. The CBD plants are a whole different ballgame.”
While the industrial hemp is slowly gaining ground, the varieties used more for production of CBD (Cannabidiol) oil have been a focus for one fledgling company as they began growing hemp this year. Plantology Inc., based in Fargo, shared their experience thus far growing the crop for commercial production. Troy Goltz, who is one of the founding partners for the company, covered everything he had learned thus far with growing hemp, which is that the CBD varieties like the perfect growing conditions.
“It’s kind of fussy on a lot of different things, but it does like a pH between 6 and 7 for the most part,” Goltz said. ”Micro nutrient levels are very important. Unlike some of the other plants, this plant is very fussy when it comes to this. If it’s short something, it’s going to let you know.”
Doing the research on soils that are planned to be used to grow the CBD hemp is a must because of how sensitive the plant is. Conducting a soil test to determine the nitrogen, salt, and micro nutrient levels within the soils of a prospective field can help take some of the gamble out of growing hemp.
Plantology has focused more on the CBD oil producing varieties while LREC has solely planted industrial hemp in their research plots . The LREC research has shown that Cavalier County is an ideal location for the growing of industrial hemp as it has rich soils and a climate that supports hemp production.
“It does like our well-drained loam soils here, but it doesn’t like heavy clay soils more so found in the valley cause it doesn’t like to get wet feet or standing water. It can affect it pretty severely at times,” Bryan Hanson, Research Agronomist at LREC, said.
LREC research over the past three years is showing early indications that planting in the latter part of May is better than June plantings. At the LREC, the varieties have been grown strictly from seed, but Plantology has experimented with growing from clones. The reason for using clones rather than seeds is more specific to the end product use of CBD oil. Using clones provides an almost zero risk of having a male plant which could fertilize the hemp field and reduce the CBD oil yield.
“We planted clones which is about a 6“ to 8“ plant,” Goltz said. “The plants are already grown and healthy.”
Planting clones will have the producer needing more specialized equipment to plant. While the clones are also further ahead in terms of growth, they are also more expensive and limited in supply.
“Once they are gone, they are gone. You can only produce so may clones in the spring. You have a month, month and a half to do it,” commented Goltz.
When using seeds, existing equipment can be used with high levels of success. Hanson shared that conventional farm machinery typically used for canola and wheat production adapts well to hemp.
There is a note of caution to producers when planting the crop. Field selection is key for more than just the soil health but also for the pest potential within the selected field. Hemp is extremely sensitive to glyphosate. So much so, that even drift can decimate a field, making application of surrounding fields also cause for concern.
“Once you plant it you can’t spray any weeds out so you need to pick a field that doesn’t’ have a lot of perennial weed problems in it- one that you know is more clean than maybe some other fields,” Hanson shared.
Having a good stand will help to alleviate the burden of weeds. Tighter row spacing, 6” to be exact, has been found to be a good spacing as it creates dense coverage. Once planted, the LREC has found that hemp is no more labor intensive than canola or wheat. When growing industrial hemp, producers do need to keep in mind that they will be required by state law to sample their hemp field to ensure that the THC levels are below the .03 percent. Fields found to be in violation will be destroyed at cost to the producer.
At Plantology, the selected field where their CBD clone varieties were planted had some additional help with weed control. Goltz explained that within their field they utilized mulch between the rows, weed barrier around the plants, and drip tape to assist with irrigation.
“You got to figure out what row spacing you want. Do you want to be wider? Do you want it to be narrower? These are the things you need to know ahead of time. These are the things you need to be thinking about if you want to get into CBD hemp,” Goltz said.
Harvesting hemp for CBD oil is a labor intensive process. Goltz stated that harvesting hemp for this use is similar to tobacco. At Plantology, the crop will be harvested by hand and then hanging the crop in the building with good airflow.
”You are going be hanging it in the building. You are going to be drying it. You are going to be using racks . You are going to use tables or whatever you can,” Goltz said.
At the LREC growing hemp commercially for anything other than CBD oil has hemp being harvested using the same combines as canola or wheat. Modern combines utilizing a draper header are generally recommended. Hanson advises that going slow will help to avoid the long fibers of the hemp stalk wrapping around the machinery.
“Harvesting is more difficult. This plant is somewhat indeterminate so you always get some green material in with the seed so you have to make sure you dry it down within four or five hours. If you get mold in the seed it could actually make it rejected wherever it’s contracted at,” Hanson cautioned.
If growing strictly for fiber, producers would harvest much earlier- before the hemp starts producing seed. Harvest for this end product could begin in early August. There are dual varieties that can provide both fiber and seed. In this instance and depending on the contract, after harvesting the seed, producers could go through a field again swathing the stalks for additional product potential, turning the long stalks into bales for storage.
“It depends on what is contracted and what they want,” Hanson said.
The pioneers, as Mehlhoff called these first producers of commercial hemp, are beginning to weed their way through the early years of growing this new crop. The research conducted by LREC and other research sites will help them to avoid the costly mistakes. Having companies like Plantology that are rolling out their own methods of hemp production also provides growers with a valuable resource. Both are available to answer questions and assist the potential grower of industrial hemp.
Bryan Hanson and Randy Mehlhoff can be reached at the NDSU Langdon Research Extension Center, 701-256-2582.
Plantology, Inc. will be offering a variety of services to potential growers starting with the 2020 growing season including consult, custom mulch laying and planting, irrigation, and their own CBD oil producing variety clones. Contact Troy Goltz at 701-793-2970 for more information.