One of the most intriguing aspects of the emerging hemp industry’s first few years has been watching the plant’s boundless potential unfold. But the variety of products and technologies poised to enter the hemp marketplace has been matched by the variety of farmers with diverse backgrounds, growing methods and goals. In last month’s issue of Hemp Grower, producers from five hemp farms shared some of the top business lessons they’ve learned in the industry’s early years. Here, in part II of this special two-part feature, these farmers delve into the top cultivation tips they’ve learned throughout their time growing hemp.
Tips from …
Pete Shafer, Co-Owner, Nanticoke Gardens/Nanticoke Hemp, Endicott, N.Y.
With a long-standing reputation for innovation, Nanticoke Gardens is well known as a premium grower of ornamental bedding plants. When the Agricultural Act of 2014 (the 2014 Farm Bill) made New York’s Industrial Hemp Agricultural Research Pilot Program possible, brothers Pete and Chip Shafer expanded production to include hemp.
A 65,000-square-foot, four-bay, state-of-the-art greenhouse built specifically for hemp production now shares the property with their bedding plant business. In 2020, the brothers further expanded into hemp processing with the launch of Nanticoke Hemp. Looking back on four seasons of hemp production, Pete Shafer offers these tips:
1. Capitalize on your skills.
Shafer says it’s important for growers to recognize their existing strengths and make the most of them. Eager to “get a foot in the door,” Nanticoke planted its first—and only—outdoor hemp crop in 2017. As soon as the 5-acre crop was in the ground, it rained for three weeks straight. Shafer estimates he lost more than a third of the crop, leaving a final harvest of around 9,000 plants.
“It was a great first-year learning experience. One of the biggest things we learned was we’re greenhouse growers, not field crop growers. That was a big takeaway for us,” he recalls with a laugh. The Shafers refocused on their propagation expertise and found success growing starter plants.
2. Expect learning curves.
The brothers realized early on that many people entering the hemp industry had no plant background or growing experience of any kind. “That segue was just so much easier for us because that’s what we do for a living,” Shafer says.
But even so, he says every new crop—including hemp—is distinct, though some similarities translate. He points to elements of tomato nutrition as well as light deprivation with poinsettias and other photoperiodic greenhouse crops. “You’re taking that knowledge from another crop and applying it to cannabis, but there’s still a learning curve involved,” he says.
3. Be proactive in your approach.
Before its expansion into hemp, Nanticoke was already moving away from reactive, old-school greenhouse pest control. The entry into hemp accelerated the shift toward more proactive, preventative approaches, Shafer says.
With limited pest interventions approved for hemp crops, Shafer says being proactive is critical. Nanticoke's approach includes meticulous greenhouse sanitation—before and after crops go in—and leveraging beneficial insects and biological controls.
Nanticoke even breeds its beneficial insects on-site. “My brother would joke that we grow more bugs than plants,” Shafer shares.
Tips from …
Jim Rexroth, Partner, Rexroth Farms, Windsor, Pa.
From vegetable farm beginnings, Rexroth Farms has evolved into a large-scale commercial farming operation. The company’s history reflects innovative approaches to opportunities and farming practices, as well as openness to cutting-edge techniques and crops. Corn, soybeans and wheat comprise Rexroth’s current focus.
With an eye on new possibilities, Jim Rexroth was open to trying his hand at hemp production once the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (the 2018 Farm Bill) set the stage for Pennsylvania’s first modern-day hemp crops.
In 2019, Rexroth grew 255 acres of high-fiber hemp for seed production under contract for a local private investor. The crop was the fourth largest in the state. But in 2020, after Rexroth saw the instability of the hemp supply chain and how the disjointed market impacted other industry players in his area, all Rexroth land reverted back to growing traditional agricultural crops. He offers these tips from a commercial agriculture perspective:
4. Research best management practices.
Commercial farming contracts for new crops in traditional agriculture typically include a sort of best practices playbook on crop management for growers to follow. Rexroth says his hemp contractor provided the cultivar and some growing guidelines, but confusion about true best practices for hempseed production ensued.
“… The playbook they gave us was wrong,” Rexroth says. “They were positioning us to grow something, and we had something else completely.”
Rexroth and others did their own research, consulting agronomists and growers from Canada. They then implemented management practices aligned with their research and their commercial agriculture expertise—and Rexroth says they wound up exceeding expectations.
5. Plant on your cleanest fields.
With few control products labeled for hemp, Rexroth understood weed control was critical to success with hemp. He chose to plant in his cleanest fields—those originally slated for corn, prepped extensively through previous years’ crop rotations. Rexroth mowed field perimeters to keep weeds down as well. That extra effort helped him deliver a superior crop.
However, Rexroth cautions that the resulting crop may not produce higher dividends. As an example of infrastructure problems that kept him out of hemp for 2020, he reports that area hemp processors had no grading system in place for the 2019 harvests. While farmers growing high-fiber hemp mowed, raked and baled their crop, less-conscientious growers delivered bales heavy with foxtail. Rexroth says they were paid the same per-pound rate. “There was no discount. ... There was no grading system. The guys got paid per pound for the bales they delivered. Period,” he says.
Still, once the hemp industry matures, weed-free product is likely to become as important as in any other type of agriculture.
A tip from …
Colin Clark, Owner, Never Winter Botanicals, Fort Collins, Colo.
With 20 years of hydroponic greenhouse experience under his belt, Colin Clark was already well known in controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) for his work with hydroponic hops in Arizona and Colorado. When his involvement with Colorado State University (CSU) research introduced him to hemp, Clark kept the hydroponics but left hops behind.
Last year was Clark's third season of growing hemp. At Never Winter Botanicals’ 5,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse, he works at perfecting craft hemp cultivation for the smokable hemp flower market. Clark offers this tip for cultivating hemp:
6. Control your growing environment.
In 2020, Colorado’s outdoor hemp growers dealt with hailstorms, early snows and wildfire smoke and ash—none of which affected Clark’s hydroponic greenhouse-grown hemp flower crop.
But minimizing vulnerability to weather conditions isn’t the only benefit to controlled environments.
With hydroponic CEA, Clark knows precisely what goes into his crop—something he expects will be essential once smokable hemp regulations catch up with craft cannabis. “Being able to control absolutely everything we put into the plant is good for our liability, but also it’s just the safety of knowing what’s put in it,” Clark says. For example, CEA prevents the risk of potential pesticide drift from neighboring farms and unknown toxins in the soil or even rainwater.
A tip from …
Ben and Jane Lanza, Owners, Family Tree LLC, Sheldon, Vt.
Ben and Jane Lanza grow artisanal hemp on the Vermont farm where Ben grew up. In keeping with Vermont tradition, they work to honor the land as they nurture the hemp they grow. The Lanzas launched an outdoor grow in 2019. In 2020, they added a 450-square-foot indoor growing environment as well.
Family Tree’s hand-crafted offerings include premium hemp flower from the indoor crop and full-spectrum organic cannabidiol (CBD) oil from the outdoor grow. Backgrounds in mechanical engineering, medicine and medicinal cannabis cultivation flavor their approach to growing and to business. The Lanzas share the following tip they’ve learned:
7. Make the most of your climate.
Vermont’s short growing season limits outdoor potential. But that’s good news for indoor hemp cultivators—a new category for Vermont in 2020. As a result, Family Tree scaled down from 900 to 300 plants outdoors and scaled up indoors last year.
Their indoor growing environment allows them to control elements such as light, pest management and mold prevention. It also allows year-round nurturing of the mother plants that provide clones for the outdoor grow.
“We have a very controlled, consistent variation of [hemp] that goes outside in our field …. So, besides the weather here, the growing indoors for us is a no-brainer,” Jane Lanza says.
A Tip from …
Bill Corbin, Founder, Corbin Sciences, Springfield, Tenn.
For three generations, Bill Corbin’s family grew tobacco contracts. Then, Tennessee’s Industrial Hemp Agricultural Pilot Program led to his first hemp contract in 2015. That first year, he was one of a few dozen growers in that state. Six seasons later, Tennessee has thousands of licensed hemp growers.
In 2018 and 2019, Corbin grew more than 40 outdoor acres of hemp each year and 3 acres in a greenhouse. But 2020’s unstable market drove Corbin’s projections and production lower and lower. He finished the year with just 4 outdoor acres and 1 greenhouse acre.
With the market collapse behind him, Corbin has his sights set on boutique, indoor-grown smokable hemp. With industrial-scale hemp farmers moving into the industry, he feels that’s the best opportunity left for smaller growers like him. He offers this tip from the past six seasons:
8. Grow genetics proven for your region.
Initially, Corbin focused on grain and fiber hemp. He started with Canadian varieties, but he says those varieties didn’t perform well in Tennessee. The Italian varieties he chose the next year proved a better fit. He’s since worked at refining genetics with more promise for Tennessee’s climate and production windows.
“You’ll never know the true expression of what a plant can do genetically until it’s grown outdoors in your area,” he says. “There’s a lot of legitimate breeding operations that are going to be having some good offerings for this area … that will fit the Southeast pretty well.” By growing regionally proven varieties, growers can circumvent losses due to genetics unsuited to their areas.
Bonus tip …
One final tip was heard, in various forms, from all the growers who were interviewed for this story:
9. Watch for market opportunities and fill the gaps.
As the hemp industry continues to mature and uncover more of hemp’s potential, new opportunities are sure to arise. Pete Shafer advises growers to stay aware of “how things are shaking out.” Watch the market, listen to other growers and consumers, and learn where new opportunities lie. Then, be prepared to act.
“It’s really about finding your niche, finding what you’re good at, and filling that gap,” he says. And, as he commented in part I of this feature in the January issue: “Don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and give somebody a call that was already in this space and ask their advice.”