Farming hemp for cbd oil

Hemp’s Hard Lesson

Inside a portion of a large industrial warehouse in Gas City, Indiana, farmer-owned Heartland Harvest Processing is at the forefront of the effort to move beyond the initial boom — and near bust — of the hemp-growing CBD (cannabidiol) oil market.

The company is the creation of Kline Family Farms — Jim Kline and his son, Adam, an attorney by trade — in an attempt to diversify their row-crop business. The 2018 Farm Bill essentially legalized the growing of hemp, the cousin to marijuana that doesn’t create a “high.” The CBD oil derived from hemp has been touted for its multiple health benefits, and national interest in the product and acres devoted to hemp has exploded (see “Demand Now and in the Future,” below).

In early 2019, a liter of CBD oil (slightly more than a quart) was worth about $7,000, and a grower who could produce 25 liters on 1 acre could gross $175,000. Numbers like that drew a lot of attention — so much so that the supply ballooned, and the price nosedived.

By the end of 2019, a liter of CBD oil was worth as little as $300 per liter, a cataclysmic 95% drop in price. The $175,000 gross per acre plunged to $7,500. The market had become flooded with too much product, and growers and processors stockpiled the oil waiting for better prices.

One problem with that plan is that a little CBD oil goes a long way. Less than 1 acre’s worth of production, 16.5 liters, is enough CBD oil to produce 8,300 oil retail bottles if each contains 1,200 milligrams of CBD.

Not only did the Klines suffer when the market tanked, they learned (and are still learning) a hard lesson about how difficult it is to grow hemp for oil and expect to handle the crop mechanically. Their acres devoted to hemp the past three years tell the story — 60 acres in 2019, 43 acres in 2020 and 2.5 acres this year.

“We tried to mass-produce hemp like a row-crop farmer,” says Jim Kline, “believing we could mechanically find a way to efficiently harvest it and handle a large volume. Guess what? It did not work.”

He now better understands why tobacco farmers in the South still hang that crop by hand in ventilated barns. “If you want a good quality product you have to hang dry it — and that takes a lot of space,” Jim Kline says. With all that in mind, 2 1/2 acres now seems like plenty.

That’s the Catch-22 when it comes to hemp, says western North Carolina’s Brian Lyda, who has years of experience growing medical marijuana and now hemp. If you want to grow more than a few acres, there is a desire to find a mechanical way to harvest, store and dry the crop, because otherwise, the labor needed to do it all by hand “will kill you,” he says.

However, “hemp is a tough plant to handle mechanically,” says Lyda, whose family members have been growing apples and produce in this mountainous region near Hendersonville for seven generations. Mechanical harvesting greatly adds to the amount of biomass — stalks and stems — that will have to be processed to derive the oil. This adds greatly to the time and cost to move from plant to oil.

Mechanical harvesting is also hard on the plant’s open flowers, where the trichomes, which produce most of the oil, are located. The trichomes are the fine crystalline hairs on mature flowers and leaves. Densely packed and ripe, trichomes are laden with oil and have a “frosty” appearance.

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Lyda helped establish the hemp-growing business, Healthy Harvesting LLC, with its line of CBD products under the HempOfy label. Under his direction, their hemp is largely handled by hand. In 2020, they grew 6 acres, enough to occupy nine workers for weeks on end weeding, pruning, fertilizing and harvesting.

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Harvest on their 6 acres begins in late August and lasts for nearly three months. Workers cut off the plants’ branches by hand, leaving a solitary stalk in the ground. They then hand-strip the individual leaves and flowers, which are placed on racks inside one of six climate-controlled trailers at 60 degrees F with dehumidifiers running.

After three days drying, the plant material is ready for processing, which Healthy Harvesting does itself. Even so, as summer 2021 approached, they were still working through plant material from 2020. Bottlenecks often occur at processing. Lyda’s operation can only produce about 4 gallons of oil per day, derived from about 300 pounds of biomass.

Like Lyda, Adam Kline understood that in order to make the venture worthwhile, Indiana’s Heartland Harvest would have to process the hemp themselves to capture existing margins.

“Pricing is the way it is for two main reasons,” Adam Kline says. “First, a little oil goes a long way; and second, regulations as to what hemp can be used in have been slow to develop.” The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still hasn’t issued regulations regarding various uses and the sale of CBD oil products.

The lack of regulatory rules and oversight has prevented, for instance, more widespread introduction of CBD oil in foods and beverages. Heartland Harvest is working on formulations of water-soluble CBD that might be added to myriad beverages such as coffee, water or beer.

“There is almost no competition in the drink space,” Adam Kline says. “Water-soluble CBD is rapid-release, and the targeted effect happens quicker.” According to a 2019 Gallup poll, one in seven Americans uses CBD as an over-the-counter treatment for pain, anxiety or sleep problems. There are positive anecdotes about CBD by the thousands but few, if any, definitive scientific studies yet to back up the claims.

Originally, the Klines’ plan was to grow hemp, process the oil and provide so-called “white-label” oil in bulk to other companies and retailers, which would then sell under their own label. While they still may do that, they are also preparing to produce CBD oil products — for foods, beverages and pet products — under their own label.

“The oils have gotten a bit commoditized,” Adam Kline says. “This isn’t necessarily a volume game for us. We want to cut out some of the middlemen to get to a more attractive price point.”

Either way, there is more CBD oil than buyers right now, Adam Kline and Lyda agree. “It is definitely a buyers’ market,” Adam Kline says.

North Carolina’s Lyda sees their business as continuing to produce oil tinctures along with smokable hemp flowers from hemp plants raised indoors. “CBD oil is selling (prices ranged from $700 to $1,200 per liter at the time this was written) if you have a good product,” he says. “Just not as fast as the industry would like.”

Not surprisingly, growers such as Lyda and Kline — in a young, semiunregulated market — want value-added products.

“It’s as if a tomato grower produces the tomato, processes it himself into ketchup then markets the ketchup to a store to get shelf space,” Lyda says. “That’s the way you have to do it with hemp right now.”

Demand Now and in the Future

In 2018, there were 3,500 licenses issued nationally to grow hemp on about 80,000 acres. Even though the crop wasn’t made fully legal until the following year, numerous states had had pilot programs. The next year, with legalization, there were 19,000 licensed growers planting hemp on 320,00 acres across the country.

“The market was hot,” says Eric Steenstra, a longtime veteran of the industry and the president of Vote Hemp, a national political advocacy group. “The vast majority of farmers were growing for biomass at $3.50 to $4 per pound.”

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Instead of following up on USDA’s full legalization with regulations on the crop’s labeling, marketing and handling, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) threw up red flags or simply delayed offering guidance on cannabidiol (CBD) products. Their waffling deterred big-box stores and grocery chains from stocking those products.

The combination of thousands of new growers in the market with fewer-than-expected outlets for products created a “perfect storm” to cool the market, Steenstra explains. Prices for biomass dropped to 50 to 75 cents per pound. Adding to the dismay was that many growers decided to grow hemp on speculation, with no buyer contracted.

There are 14,000 licensed growers in 2021, but Steenstra says there are still processors and growers sitting on oil — and biomass from last year and even from 2019.

CBD oil, however, is not the only product to come from hemp. After all, growing hemp for fiber was once common in the U.S., particularly for use in ropes during WWII. In addition, the hemp seed itself has use as a grain like most any other. There are already growers in the U.S. producing hemp seed for $1.15 per pound with an average yield of 700 to 800 pounds per acre, Steenstra says.

BMW, as well as other companies, already use hemp fiber in dashboards and other composites in vehicles.

How to grow, sell hemp for CBD oil

ROUND 2: Warren County, Ill., farmer Andy Huston harvested a hemp strain called Cherry Wine last fall, building a seed supply he’ll use on expanded acreage this growing season.

Technically, 2019 won’t be the first year Illinois farmers have grown hemp.

The state issued two research permits for growing industrial hemp outside in the 2018 season — marking the first year Illinois allowed farmers to grow the crop in a row crop setting since World War II. Under the oversight of Western Illinois University, self-funded farmers in Mason and Warren counties conducted research on growing hemp for cannabidiol (CBD) oil extraction.

Win Phippen, director of WIU’s Alternative Crops Research Program, says about 80% of farmers’ interest in hemp is for CBD, which is extracted from the flower and fetches a high premium compared to corn and soybeans. CBD is one of 100-plus cannabinoids identified in Cannabis sativa varieties. Any variety certified to be less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is designated as hemp.

By growing the crop outside instead of in a building or greenhouse, where all 21 medical cannabis cultivators in the state currently produce due to security requirements, the two outdoor hemp farmers in 2018 were able to grow much bigger plants.

“When we grow CBD, we’re planting with 4 to 5 feet between plants, so now it looks more like a Christmas tree farm than anything,” Phippen says. “And they get to be about the size of a Christmas tree.” He says the spacing worsens the impact of wind, particularly at the Mason County plot, which is located on sandy, flat ground with soybeans surrounding it.

“We got a ton of rain and high wind in July at that plot. It flattened everything. We didn’t harvest a single thing off that crop,” he says. “Once it lays down in the soil, it’s essentially worthless.”

With a mid-June planting date, the hemp grew 6 to 8 feet tall by the end of September on Warren County farmer Andy Huston’s third of an acre. Since it was seeded in a valley, it was protected from high winds. Extra moisture helped stand establishment early in the season.

Growing plan

Huston, part owner of a Canton dispensary, plans to grow 17 acres this year by using seed he gathered from last year’s crop. He also sells the seed, sending a royalty to the Colorado cultivator that first developed the high-CBD, low-THC hemp strain known as Cherry Wine. He’s holding deposits and seed orders until permits are issued.

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“For our acres, we’ll start out seedlings in a greenhouse, transplant them out into the field, and when we’re doing that, we’ll also lay down a film of plastic with an irrigation drip line for the plants,” Huston says, adding the plastic helps with weed control and retaining moisture. “We’re also drilling some of our acres and looking at planting into cereal rye.”

Since hemp has no approved chemical insecticides or herbicides, Phippen says farmers have to hand-weed every other day from roughly June 1 to August, when the canopies of the plants finally close the gaps in the rows that give sunlight to weeds.

“You’re going to hand-weed for a while. You’re going to be watering every two to three days, to get those plants well-established, keeping an eye out for insects, aphids, that sort of thing,” Phippen says.

Huston says he’ll control weeds with 4-foot tillers at first and then move up to narrower equipment as the canopy closes.

“The rest of it is done with a garden hoe, which is very labor-intensive. Just normal weeding in a big garden,” he says, adding he has full-time employees through his family’s 2,200-acre farm, as well as their earth-moving and trucking businesses.

TRIAL RUN: Hemp plants grown for CBD are given 3 to 5 feet to grow depending on variety. Andy Huston pruned and weeded by hand in the 2018 growing season.

Huston has a small-scale oil extractor on order and plans to start pressing his hemp into CBD oil starting in July. He doesn’t have a buyer yet. “You really can’t step into that market until you have the oil in hand to sell,” he explains.

Huston knows of several processors ready to buy biomass from farmers to produce oil. His eventual goal, however, is to start a profit-sharing, large-scale facility for farmers to have oil extracted from their harvest — essentially, a CBD cooperative.

“Just like any other commodity, people are going to try to get it as cheaply as they can from the farmer for processing. What I would like to do is get something set up that’s more of a co-op,” he concludes.

How to sell it

Revolution Enterprises in Delavan will be purchasing hemp biomass for CBD oil production in the fall at a fair market price, says Kevin Pilarski, chief commercial officer. His company owns a dispensary and medical marijuana cultivation facility and has been pressing CBD oil for four years.

“It seems like there’s going to be substantially more CBD on the market in the 2019 growing season,” he says, citing a statistic from Kentucky showing registered acres are up 162% from last year. When asked if there will be demand to match a surge in supply, he says, “We think there will — especially after some of the bigger investments in CBD by companies like Constellation.”

Constellation Brands, the distributor of Corona beer and Robert Mondavi wine, made an investment in Canopy Growth based on CBD. In addition, both InBev and Coca-Cola have been looking at possibly launching CBD products. And CVS and Walgreens recently announced they will be selling CBD.

Revolution Enterprises will not be contracting with farmers, because prices are still volatile in the new market and have come down dramatically from highs. But Pilarski says they hope to give farmers a place to turn to. They’re offering THC testing for farmers as well — the portable machine would cost farmers $15,000 otherwise.

“When the hemp starts to get closer to 0.2%, you probably want to think about harvesting, so testing is really important,” he says. “Our intention here really is to make sure that the hemp market in Illinois gets a decent start, and eventually, we believe the seed and fiber side will be where there’s probably going to be substantially more acres in Illinois.”