Growing crops of any type is no easy feat; the number of challenges farmers encounter can seem overwhelming to newcomers and outsiders and can change on a yearly basis or even more often. Hemp growers face a lot of challenges, too—some of which are unique to hemp. In Part I of this special two-part series, I discuss challenges (and solutions) specific to growing the crop. (Part II, which will run in Hemp Grower September/October, will explore some of the most significant challenges growers face beyond the hemp field.) These challenges largely focus on hemp for cannabinoid or essential oil production, though some apply to grain and fiber production. Here are five of the most pressing challenges hemp growers are experiencing today.
1. Seed and clone quality.
One of the first challenges starts with what growers put in the ground—seeds and clones. Many established farmers have quality expectations based on their successes with other crops. Unfortunately, both hemp seed and clone quality varied widely in 2019, significantly impacting production. At Purdue, we have studied seed quality, and one of the biggest issues is a mismatch between the label and what we see in the bag of seed. Getting seed that is clean and has a high germination percentage has been challenging in this industry. Germination and percent feminization were two big disparities for many growers last year. Clone quality was assessed by overall health when growers received them. Growers reported poor root development and pest infestation as two big clone issues last year. In addition, seeds and clones should match the cultivar name on a certificate of analysis (CoA). The best solution to combat quality issues is to find a reputable provider—easier said than done in this nascent industry. Speaking with other growers can help uncover the bad players, and sometimes, the good players, too. Established indoor facilities are starting to break into clone production, so those of us involved in hemp research at Purdue hope they will provide high-quality plants because they have a reputation to uphold in their communities.
2. Labor and related costs.
Another challenge we saw last year was difficulty in securing labor. Labor challenges are not unique to hemp, but many new growers vastly underestimate the need to hire labor for production. This includes labor for planting, in-season maintenance (scouting for males, weeding and pruning) and harvesting. Many growers also underestimate labor costs in their initial budgets. While more mechanical innovations exist in hemp production now compared to six years ago, the expense of this type of equipment could be a barrier to entry and is why some may choose to opt for a more labor intensive model.
Securing labor before you purchase seeds or clones will prevent scrambling to find help at the last minute and help you avoid budgeting challenges. Some enterprise budget models, which estimate production costs and help establish appropriate pricing, also build in labor costs. Make sure whatever model you use includes these expenses.
You may also want to look for alternative, less labor-intensive production models, such as investing in equipment to produce cannabinoid-rich hemp in a row crop model, or purchasing specialized harvest equipment for a raised bed system. You will have specific expenses for different models, but in the long term, it could be the best option for your operation.
3. Weed, pest and pathogen management.
Growers have faced and will continue to face the challenges associated with managing weeds, pests and pathogens. These can be difficult to manage in any crop, but hemp producers have fewer tools that are tried and true. It seems like every time I step into a hemp field, I find a new pest or disease. The more time we spend in the field looking for problems, the more likely we are to find them, but it can also help find solutions.
If you have little experience in farming, one of the first solutions is to turn to experienced crop producers. Growers who have produced many other crops can pull techniques from their repertoire and apply them to hemp. Organic producers can be invaluable resources for hemp growers because they also have limitations on the products they can use. Referencing scouting articles and university resources can help you understand what you should expect to see in hemp fields. These resources can also help you develop integrated pest management plans for different pests, pathogens and weeds. Growers and researchers alike are investigating solutions for specific problems. The more years of production and research we have under our belts, the more management tools growers will have. Scouting your fields and staying up to date on current research is a great way to become familiar with problems in the field and how researchers are working to find solutions.
4. THC level compliance.
A challenge unique to hemp growers is the compliancy testing for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Compliancy testing for THC is nerve-racking for many growers, especially if they planted a new cultivar with limited production data (which makes up a lot of what is on the market today). Failing the state compliancy testing can be economically and emotionally devastating for a grower, and destruction leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.
Researchers have mapped the Cannabis genome, and multiple publications exist on Cannabis genetics and testing techniques. However, even with information to guide breeders and growers, a lot of unreliable genetics are still on the market. One of the solutions goes back to the earlier point of finding a reputable seed or clone provider. Again, I know this can be easier said than done, but this is crucial to avoid bad players and possible crop destruction.
Another solution is to self-monitor during the growing season by testing on your own, which many growers already do. This can be costly if done frequently, so be sure to build testing costs into your budget. This frequent self-monitoring is a smart decision to help determine when to harvest to maximize cannabidiol (CBD), or any other cannabinoid, while still remaining THC-compliant. Eventually, I hope to see all cultivars pass compliancy testing, regardless of when growers decide to harvest.