When the 2014 Farm Bill and, more broadly, the 2018 Farm Bill, allowed hemp to be grown in Kentucky for the first time in over 50 years, the crop captured the interest of many of the state’s farmers, which led the University of Kentucky to launch the research needed to support the state’s growers.
“We wanted to make sure that we started to work on developing the information that we needed in order to help advise growers in learning about this new opportunity for an old crop,” says Bob Pearce, interim director of hemp programs at the university’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.
Pearce, an extension professor who primarily specializes in tobacco, has established agronomic studies centered on many aspects of hemp production, such as fertility, weed control, ideal planting depth and optimal planting dates and cultivars for the region.
His team also works with plant pathologists, entomologists and economists at the university to study disease control, insect management and economic viability in hemp production systems.
Pearce has cast a wide net with his early studies, and he plans to continue refining the research as his team learns more about hemp.
“It’s been a learning curve for all of us, really, in learning how to work with this crop,” Pearce says. “During the last couple years, we are getting some of the basics of how to best go about planting this crop, … so now I think we’re beginning to get to a point where we can design some more specific objectives of what we want to learn.”
With a couple years of experience under his belt, Pearce is looking more closely at the ideal planting date for Kentucky’s climate, as well as planting depth.
“There may be an interaction between those two things, too,” he says. “As the soil warms up in the spring, the optimum planting depth may change over time. We’re interested in looking at that from the standpoint of germination of the crop and its competitiveness with weeds.”
At this stage, Pearce and his team have conducted a few preliminary experiments on planting depth, and they plan to add planting date components to the studies next year to help make better recommendations for growers.
Studying different hemp cultivars is on the research docket as well. The University of Kentucky has long studied hemp for grain and fiber applications, with fiber trials taking place every year since 2014 and annual grain trials launching in 2015. Obtaining seed for trials has been a challenge, so the trials were limited to just a few cultivars early on but have recently expanded to 12 to 15 cultivars.
Pearce has also helped to coordinate a national trial in which 12 hemp cultivars are being grown in roughly 13 states in 2020 to see which ones are best suited for different regions of the country.
“We know that probably not all cultivars are going to be well-adapted to all of those locations, but it starts to give us some ideas about which cultivars are going to be better adapted to some areas than others, and then we can start to maybe work with breeders to select for traits that are specific adaptations for certain regions,” Pearce says.
The University of Kentucky is trying to gather as much information about the cultivars as it can during these trials, Pearce adds, including germination, plant height, yield and other measures to evaluate the plants’ overall growth and health.
A Long Journey
The bottom line, Pearce says, is that the university is just starting to embark on a long journey to research the agronomy of the plants, and the studies will continue to evolve over time.
“As we learn one thing, it leads to additional questions and fine-tuning,” he says. “I think we have to realize we’ve got quite a long way to go with hemp production practices in the United States because hemp was not grown for 70-plus years here. No production research was conducted on hemp due to the fact that it was considered a Schedule I drug for many years.”
This is in stark contrast to other crops, such as corn and soybeans, which have been researched for many years. Their production practices are still being fine-tuned through numerous studies in the U.S.
“Assuming that hemp’s still going to be around, this is going to be a long-term process to try to improve the practices,” Pearce says. “If there’s an industry and an interest to support that research, then we’ll be able to continue doing the research.”
In these very early stages, Pearce says he and his team are still learning all the time, as each year presents new challenges and findings.
“When we first started looking at direct seeding of hemp in this region, we started out planting really shallow because we wanted the hemp to germinate quickly and out-compete the weeds. Now I’m starting to think that maybe shallow planting depth might not be the best thing,” he says. “That’s why we’re starting to look at planting depth in a little more detail [to] better understand all of the processes that go into establishing a stand of hemp from seed.”
As with any long-term project, the research hasn’t been without its challenges. One hurdle, Pearce says, is keeping protocols consistent, which has been difficult in a new industry, where the team has been unable to get access to the same cultivars year after year.
“The industry is changing very rapidly,” he says. “There have been a lot of companies coming in and out of the business in the last couple of years, so just trying to develop those relationships has been a challenge, as has … getting access to the same seed sources. Some of the older cultivars that we’ve been using are cultivars that maybe came from Europe. It’s been a challenge sometimes to know who actually owns the rights to specific cultivars, and whether or not you are actually getting the cultivar that is listed on the label. This will get better as seed certifications are put in place for hemp.”
To be able to publish the studies’ findings in refereed journals, consistent methods must be established, Pearce says. In the meantime, the team has been posting general updates and reports on the university’s website.
Funding is often another challenge for Pearce and his team.
“It takes money to run a research program, and up until just recently, there hasn’t been much prospect of any federal money to do that,” he says. “A lot of the entities in the hemp world are start-ups, so they don’t have a lot of money to throw around at research. … It’s been a challenge to figure out how to fund a program and maintain it.”
Overall, Pearce aims to help growers meet industry needs through producing an in-demand product, whether it be grain, fiber, cannabinoids or something completely different.
“The base of [the] supply chain is the grower,” Pearce says. “The goal is for us to be able to instruct that grower on how to be able to consistently produce a product that the industry desires … year in and year out, and for it to be economical so that the grower can get paid enough to make it worth their while. Then, the product moving into the supply chain [must be] competitively priced with competing products in the marketplace. Ultimately, the goal is to create a sustainable industry, and that starts with the raw product.”
As a developing industry in the U.S., hemp cultivation can come with numerous challenges. In Part I of this two-part series, which ran in Hemp Grower's July/August issue, I addressed those challenges (and solutions) specific to cultivating hemp, from selecting seeds to managing pests. But the difficulties in growing hemp don’t stop at cultivation: Across the country, hemp farmers are facing obstacles that extend beyond the field.
In Part II of this special series, I explore some of the most significant challenges growers face outside the hemp field. Here are five business-related challenges hemp growers are experiencing today.
1. Stigma in some communities.
Unfortunately, a stigma continues to surround hemp and its cultivation in many municipalities. On a semi-regular basis, I get calls or emails from concerned community members about hemp growing near them. Sometimes these calls end with a better understanding of hemp and the industry. Usually, they end with the caller unhappy that they (or I) cannot go and chop down their neighbor’s plants. Sometimes I get ambushed at public meetings, where some community members show up just to complain about hemp. The public is not always kind to hemp growers or educators, but many of us try our best to address concerns. The three big complaints stem from fear of crime (theft is very real in the hemp industry), the smell, and a dislike of the plant because it is Cannabis. While I cannot control the smell, I can try to address misunderstandings surrounding hemp that can lead to theft and a dislike of the plant.
Educating communities where hemp is grown is a great way to try to dispel myths. Even some people who show up just to complain can leave with a better understanding of the hemp plant. A lot of that misunderstanding leads to giggles from the audience, which is benign. All of us in the industry are trying to tell the public that hemp is not marijuana. One of my favorite analogies is the comparison between Chihuahuas and Great Danes. They are both dogs, but they have been bred for very different purposes and therefore have different traits.
When people understand hemp is not going to get them high, they start to open up to the many other uses of hemp. Popular routes to deliver educational information involve public meetings with lots of photos of products made from hemp, field days where plants can be observed outdoors, and workshops where participants can make hemp products (for example, the Midwest Hemp Council and Purdue Extension organized a hempcrete workshop last year). While we are in a more virtual world with the COVID-19 pandemic, educational efforts have not ceased, and many educators and businesses offer webinars as well.
When educating the community, including as many members as possible, as well as policymakers, can be most effective. Policymakers can have a huge impact on the way a community views hemp, so we try to catch them up to speed on the industry.
Community education could also help reduce theft of in-field hemp plants. I have a couple theories as to why we see theft of hemp plants (mostly those grown for cannabinoids): People either think the plants are marijuana, or steal them knowing they’re hemp but sell them as marijuana. The more people who understand that hemp and marijuana are different, the less this may happen.
2. Support from banks.
Some (but not all) hemp growers have struggled with convincing a bank, payroll company or insurance agency that hemp is a federally recognized and legal crop with a developing market. This is a nascent industry, and we have a long way to go for economic sustainability, but we need cooperation and understanding from the entities that help hemp businesses get started and continue to operate. Some growers are successful with using their local banks, but even growers who have well-documented plans can be denied loans, sometimes because a bank just does not want to work with hemp at all.
So, what can a hemp grower do? Having a prior relationship with a bank has proven to be helpful when it comes to loans and transactions related to hemp. Many well-established farms that have been using the same bank for decades have been successful in securing loans for hemp.
I spoke at a statewide banker meeting at the end of last year, and the bankers were excited to learn about hemp. They are getting questions, and they do not have the knowledge nor the resources to provide accurate answers. Again, education is key: this means good communication with your bank and even requesting that they speak with an extension educator working on hemp, the state department of agriculture, or a hemp industry association member. However, sometimes a bank just will not budge. Having a backup bank in mind and securing loans before you put hemp in the ground is essential.
3. Working in a nascent industry.
The hemp industry is developing and changing, and finding success can sometimes seem like trying to hit a moving target. Breeders, growers and processors are always aiming for the next big cannabinoid or new product. We are all trying to find our place in this industry, but with changes on the regular, it can be hard to identify and hit that moving target.
This is a difficult challenge to address because growers cannot change the hemp market and what consumers buy. However, they can observe what is happening in the industry and adjust production accordingly.
Over-production of crops is common in agriculture, and hemp is no different. There seems to be no shortage of hemp available to processors, and we have seen the price of hemp biomass (as well as other hemp derivatives) plummet over the past two years.
Starting small to get your foothold and only investing what you can afford to lose could prevent serious future financial problems. Realize that this industry shifts, and you may have to adjust and adapt with it. Each year there will be a trendy new cannabinoid product, and some years it may make sense to try to jump on a trend, but doing so is assuming risks. Cannabigerol (CBG) is a good example. We are seeing even more instability in genetics with CBG cultivars this year than we have with cannabidiol (CBD) cultivars in the past couple years. Figure out what you can afford to lose, and be realistic on returns.
4. Finding reliable resources.
Finding reliable resources for production guidance, innovations in equipment and hemp markets, and pricing can be challenging and frustrating for people trying to find their place in this industry. A lot of information about the industry exists, but wading through all that information and sorting out the realistic and helpful resources is overwhelming for many people. This is where hemp industry associations, hemp farmers with multiple years of production, experienced consultants, extension educators and trusted industry publications can be a huge benefit to growers.
Reaching out to people you hear about or have seen at meetings is acceptable and is not a bother to most people in the industry. I have found that so many people in the hemp industry are open to communication and dedicated to progress—they want to talk to people about hemp!
A lot of “consultants” are popping up, but before you spend the money to hire one, look into their background and try to find testimonials and/or check references. Some can come with a hefty price tag, but great consultants are out there.
I try to avoid internet forums, especially for pest diagnostics and treatments. Turn to extension educators and university guides to help with identification and the appropriate control methods for serious pest issues. Finding sound resources can take some digging and time, but the payoff is better information and, hopefully, building a relationship for future questions.
5. Making connections.
Bankruptcies, mergers and new companies are common in this industry right now. It seems like a hemp company files for bankruptcy every month, followed by one or two (or sometimes more) hemp companies starting up. Companies merge or split into smaller companies, and employees come and go. Growers, educators and many others in this industry are trying to establish networks, but with constant flux, this can be another challenge.
I have built a large network of people who are involved with hemp, and in the time I have known them, many have left at least one company or have started their own. One thing that does not change is my relationship with them (assuming they are still working hard to progress the industry).
Establishing contacts with reliable people is important because even if they switch companies, you have an association with the person, not just the organization. With so many moving parts in the developing industry, building a strong network of people and staying in touch means you do not lose your resources.
Marguerite Bolt is the hemp extension specialist at Purdue University’s Department of Agronomy. She received her M.S. in entomology from Purdue University and her B.S. in entomology from Michigan State University. Bolt’s research has focused on hemp-insect interactions and plant chemistry.
The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (the 2018 Farm Bill) reversed a decades-old prohibition on cultivating industrial hemp, allowing a new generation of farmers to plant hemp seeds across the country.
They didn’t waste any time.
Just a year later, in 2019, farmers had planted 285,000 acres of hemp, up from 78,000 in 2018, according to a report from market research firm Brightfield Group. The report predicts that 2.7 million acres will be under cultivation by 2023.
But in addition to launching a potentially lucrative industry for farmers in most states across the nation, the farm bill also introduced an unintended consequence for the criminal justice system. By legalizing the cultivation of hemp, it complicated matters for marijuana prosecutions.
Law Enforcement Conundrum
A November police raid of a farm in Wyoming illustrates the conundrum for law enforcement.
The case began when the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation received a tip last September, according to Wyoming news outlet WyoFile. The caller said a family in eastern Wyoming was cultivating marijuana. Two months later, agents executed a search warrant upon the farm, operated by Deb Palm-Egle and her son, Josh Egle, and confiscated what they believed was 722 pounds of marijuana.
Upon testing the crop, authorities found that nine out of ten tests showed the plants contained more than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), meaning under federal law, the plants were marijuana.
The family, however, said it wasn’t growing cannabis. The crop was supposed to be hemp.
WyoFile’s reporting on a court filing from July 2020 provides key details. In it, the Egles’ lawyer offered a wealth of evidence showing the family intended to grow hemp.
The evidence included the fact that before the state legalized hemp, the Egles had testified in front of Wyoming legislative committees championing the crop. Evidence also showed text messages from the Egles indicating all previous laboratory tests conducted upon the crop registered less than 0.3% THC.
The question of intent poses a significant challenge for law enforcement. A conviction on the offenses charged requires not just an overt action, but also a culpable mental state.
Importantly, none of the results of the potency tests conducted on the confiscated plants exceeded 0.6% THC. In his filing, the Egles’ lawyer shows that THC concentrations that low are far removed from concentrations found in marijuana for sale in dispensaries across the border in Colorado, where a THC potency around 15% is often the lowest concentration available to consumers. In other words, the Egles’ crop was not marketable as marijuana in a legal market. In addition, the lawyer argued that if the Egles intended to distribute their product on the illicit market in Wyoming (where neither recreational nor medical cannabis is legal), the THC concentration is so low that selling it would invite retaliation from angry customers.
Prosecutors charged the Egles with conspiracy to manufacture, deliver, or possess marijuana; possession with intent to deliver marijuana; possession of marijuana; and planting or cultivating marijuana. If convicted, the family could have faced decades in prison. However, despite the Egles not having a legal hemp producer license in Wyoming, a judge dismissed the case in early August, finding prosecutors lacked probable cause that the duo intended to grow and distribute marijuana, according to WyoFile.
The question of intent poses a significant challenge for law enforcement, as a conviction on the offenses charged requires not just an overt action, but also a culpable mental state. Criminal intent is an extremely important concept in law.
Some offenses require only an illegal action. For example, speeding will land someone a ticket even if they didn’t realize they were going too fast. Most offenses, however, require a criminal act and a culpable mental state. While the Egles’ product may have been above the THC concentration permitted by the 2018 Farm Bill, a technical violation alone without criminal intent was a difficult case for prosecutors to try. Among other things, the prosecutor would have had to persuade the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the Egles intended to cultivate illegal cannabis.
With the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill, a large number of pending marijuana cases will likely be dismissed, or prosecutors will present much less punitive plea deals to the benefit of the defendant, because of the difficulty of trying a marijuana case. This is the unintended consequence of the 2018 Farm Bill—this legal gray area of cultivation of hemp as a defense for a marijuana charge.
The crux of the issue is that hemp and marijuana are the same genus (Cannabis) and species of plant. They are, taxonomically speaking, the same. The only thing that divides them, from the standpoint of the federal government via the 2018 Farm Bill, is the arbitrary determination of 0.3% THC content as the dividing line between the two. If the percentage is 0.3% THC or less, it’s hemp. Otherwise, it’s marijuana.
In many cases, THC content does not begin to flood the plant until the plant reaches maturity. As a result, plants that are confiscated by law enforcement prior to reaching maturity are hemp if they have not yet achieved more than 0.3% THC, even if those growing the plants planned on selling the buds as marijuana.
This complicates cannabis prosecutions.
More Potential Scenarios
A case in Rhode Island was recently brought to our attention that demonstrates a different, but equally complex, law enforcement consequence of the 2018 Farm Bill. In this case, federal agents raided a house and found plant roots, which the agents concluded were to be used to grow marijuana. The raid uncovered other drugs, like cocaine.
The cocaine might be straightforward for prosecutors. But the roots could prove difficult. The reason? As discussed, mere visual analysis of hemp and cannabis plants is not sufficient to determine the difference between them—it requires testing, and plants do not even begin producing measurable THC until they reach certain stages of maturity. Either way, roots—something far removed from a mature cannabis plant—will not contain THC in excess of 0.3%.
In the case of the roots, genetic samples are unlikely to prove anything either. Prosecutors would have to show that the roots are genetically similar to another marijuana plant in a cannabis database, in which case they might have some luck making a case. But the chances the database would have a direct genetic relative of the roots in question are next to nil.
All of this helps expose the serious challenges the 2018 Farm Bill has presented for law enforcement.
If, for example, law enforcement found 5,000 cannabis plants in a basement that were not yet at a stage producing THC in excess of 0.3%, the prosecution would face high hurdles for a marijuana conviction. The prosecution’s strongest tool would revolve around intent. If the grower revealed he was intentionally growing illegal cannabis in his basement through text messages, email, social media, and even personal conversations (with friends or confidential informants), then the prosecution could show intent. It might be enough for a conviction.
Let’s consider another possible scenario: A grower is intentionally cultivating marijuana in her basement. She never revealed this through communications. Law enforcement agents raid her house, confiscate the plants and charge her with various crimes.
She tells them she is growing hemp.
If the plants are not yet mature enough to produce THC above 0.3% at the time of confiscation, the agents technically confiscated hemp.
While not having a legal hemp producer license is a strike against her, it still may not be enough evidence to prove her intent to grow marijuana.
With a crop that is hemp, and no sound evidence that the defendant intended to grow marijuana, gaining conviction now is more difficult for prosecutors than ever.
The development marks yet another step, albeit an accidental one, in this country’s march toward cannabis legalization. The first big step took place in California in 1996 with Proposition 215, which legalized medical cannabis (aka marijuana, or containing above 0.3% THC). Then, in 2014, Colorado became the first state in the nation to permit the sale of adult-use cannabis. Today, 33 states plus the District of Columbia allow some sort of legal cannabis.
The 2018 Farm Bill didn’t explicitly change anything about the legal status of marijuana, but it absolutely made convictions in many cannabis cases more difficult for law enforcement.
Dave Rodman is the founder and managing partner, and Nadav Aschner is a partner of The Rodman Law Group, a full-service law firm based in Denver.
Growers new to container production eventually learn that all pots aren’t created equal. It’s a lesson producers of mainstream container-grown horticultural crops have long known—and that progressive container companies continue to prove. Exploring technological advances in growing containers, often backed by decades of horticulture industry research and use, can help growers decide what pots best suit their needs—and their roots.
Looking Beyond Traditional Plastic
Standard plastic nursery containers are a common choice for many container growers. Used throughout the nursery and greenhouse industries, solid, straight-sided plastic pots are easy to source through suppliers nationwide. But experienced growers will tell you: This relatively inexpensive, easy-to-sterilize and re-usable option can sometimes spell trouble. Plants held in solid plastic pots often develop circling roots, which inhibit growth, complicate transplanting and limit yield.
When Matt Spitzer, founding partner of Triangle Hemp in Raleigh, N.C., moved into hemp from the hydroponic produce space, he soon discovered the negative impact solid plastic and girdling roots had on the company’s seedlings and clones—especially if Triangle had to hold starts longer than expected when field farmers faced weather delays.
In looking for solutions, Spitzer turned to the ornamental tree industry. “They were the industry that really had the biggest issue with regard to root girdling,” he shares. As he explored container options being used in the tree industry, he learned that container-grown tree roots respond differently when they hit air instead of solid container walls. Rather than circling the pot’s interior, roots stop outward growth—as though they were pruned—and instead focus on dense, fibrous, lateral growth instead.
This natural air-pruning response has spawned an industry of container companies aiming to capitalize on this reaction and optimize healthy root growth. These “aeration pots,” available in materials from papers to plastics, offer increased air-to-root interfaces that have been proven in traditional horticulture to air-prune roots, release root zone heat, discourage root disease and promote higher yields.
Working with aeration pots has been key to Triangle Hemp’s success and given rise to its rootbound-free guarantee, says Spitzer. “That actually gave us a leg up [in the] second year of production because not many people were really aware of the issue with transplants,” he says. “So, we were able to produce a superior product that was not rootbound. The people who had never planted hemp before didn’t quite know that was so important. But if you had planted the year prior, you knew it was very important.”
Propagating with Paper Pots
Some container growers opt for paper alternatives, but choices transcend pulp pots and corrugated trays. Daniel Ortega is head grower at Denver-based Yabba Cannaba hemp company and its sister company, ornamental grower Botany Lane Greenhouse. Ortega has used paper Ellepots for ornamental propagation for many years.
Made from degradable, environmentally friendly papers, the permeable air-pruning pots seemed a natural match for hemp propagation in Ortega’s eyes. “Hemp roots very vigorously, very quickly, but we saw that even though it roots quickly, the roots aren’t as strong,” Ortega says. He explains that’s a problem when roots attach to the outer edge of a regular plastic plug tray and get pulled loose, causing stress at transplanting time.
“Because of the air porosity that’s available there with the paper Ellepots, it roots a little bit quicker, but I think when you’re transplanting is the biggest benefit,” Ortega says. “On the Elle[pots], because they’re wrapped in paper, they take that transplanting a little bit easier. There’s not that big of a transplant shock.”
Lars Jensen, national sales manager for Blackmore Co., which distributes Ellepots throughout North America, says the aeration technology gives hemp transplants a big advantage. “It just has an explosion of feeder roots on the inside, so that it takes off so much quicker and bigger once you’re trying to transplant,” he says.
Exploring Fabric Container Alternatives
Fabric growing containers have flooded commercial and retail outlets in recent years, but Oklahoma City-based High Caliper Growing’s fabric container technologies date back more than 30 years. Known as Smart Pots, these time-tested fabric aeration pots are well known in the ornamental tree industry. Dustin Locks, Smart Pots West Coast key accounts manager, says the pots are gaining fans among hemp growers shifting to controlled greenhouse environments to grow hemp strains for cannabidiol (CBD) year-round.
Locks says the consistency and purity of Smart Pot’s permeable fabric—designed specifically for growing plants and air pruning to maximize root mass and nutrient uptake—are strong draws for hemp growers.
He says hemp growers especially appreciate the difference with mother plants, which are constantly stressed by the cutting process. “If you don’t have that root mass for that plant to generate more vegetative growth, then you’re waiting longer and longer to take cuttings,” he says. Another plus is the ability to get custom Smart Pots built to specific dimensions, with prototypes ready in weeks. “Everybody’s garden is different, and we can make that unique product for their needs,” Locks says.
At Triangle Farm, Spitzer turned to fabric aeration containers to minimize the risk of root disease and binding roots in the company’s mother plants.
Already familiar with fabric containers and their benefits, he settled on the RootTrapper II line by RootMaker, a container company based in Huntsville, Ala., that has served ornamental tree growers for decades. These soft-sided black fabric pots are laminated with a white coating down to the bottom 2 inches of the pot. Designed to eliminate circling roots and stimulate dense lateral root branching, the air pruning pots allow drainage at the unlaminated base while the pot’s coating protects the root ball against rapid moisture loss.
“We found this RootTrapper II container was really well-made and served a purpose for our mother plants extremely well,” Spitzer says. “It just ensures that we don’t have any binding at the base of our plants. This entire line is really quite geared towards hemp production because of their root pruning capabilities.”
Air Pruning With Plastic Options
At Hemptek, a hemp farm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, CEO Dennis McGuire approached choosing containers for the farm’s field-destined propagation with an eye on complementing the farm’s organic focus. “It’s a challenge growing starters and everything just using all-organic products,” he shares.
After buying starts from various companies, McGuire says he grew dissatisfied with tight propagation trays that left little leeway for transplant timing—a big problem in the Pacific Northwest, where fleeting weather windows can put plans on hold for weeks. As a result, he opted for plastic trays that feature an updated design to address potential root spiraling and other issues plants grown in traditional plastic pots may develop—specifically, RootMaker plastic air pruning propagation trays, which offer a graduated, multi-cell design that directs roots toward the container’s air holes.
McGuire compares air pruning and the fibrous roots it creates with the way exercise helps grow new blood vessels to transport blood and oxygen through the body more efficiently. “You can use the best soil you want, but if you don’t have the right propagation tray, the plant still won’t have the foundation—the root structure—it needs,” McGuire says.
He adds that using RootMaker’s air pruning trays from seed to field accentuates the benefits of Hemptek’s custom organic soil. The result is a sturdy transplant, free from spiraling roots, with short internodes and compact growth that withstands Pacific Northwest winds in the field, he says.
Yabba Cannaba’s Ortega also turned to a plastic container option when he looked beyond propagation to larger hemp plants and pot sizes. He worried about root problems that can plague container plants during cool, damp Colorado winters. Ortega reached out to his Blackmore contact, conducted a small trial and quickly settled on HempPots, also known in ornamental circles as Pioneer Pots.
Blackmore’s Jensen says the pots represent years of university and industry research to optimize plastic-to-air ratios and maximize aeration benefits. HempPots combine a grid-like insert with an outer holder that Ortega sees as pivotal. “The air pruning is just one piece, but then there’s the base. The two-piece system adds stability for top-heavy plants, plus the plant is never touching the ground,” he explains.
Ortega emphasizes that the design discourages root disease and its spread. “It’s almost like every plant is on its own little island. If one is struggling, it’s one plant. Everything else is going to be fine,” he says. Last December through March—what Ortega describes as the toughest time of the year—the team grew about 17,000 plants for seed production. “We only lost one or two plants due to a root issue,” he shares.
With the HempPots, Ortega says his plants root out to the edge or bottom in about half the time as traditional pots, plus the increased mass of feeder roots from air pruning results in impressive growth. “Having a good, strong root system is going to really benefit the grower, and this pot helps achieve that,” he shares.
Investing in Your Roots
For growers exploring container options, Ortega says to keep the plant’s root system foremost in mind. “In cannabis and hemp, a lot of investment goes to lights. A lot of investment goes to humidity and temperature control,” he says. “This is investing in your root system. If a plant has a good root system, it’s going to be able to handle a lot of variables.”
Smart Pot’s Locks says that air pruning is still a new concept for many growers, but there’s an increasing awareness about the importance of root health. “That’s something a lot of people forget about,” he says. “You can have the best soil, you can have the best nutrients and the best environmental control, but if the root mass is not performing, then your plant’s not performing. The right container takes care of that.”