In early September, a sudden frost stretched across portions of Colorado and neighboring states, causing alarm for hemp farmers just weeks out from harvest. In some cases, highs dropped to around the freezing point; lows hovered in the 20s.
In ideal conditions, hemp is harvest before any frost hits the farm. The crop tends to be somewhat “frost-tolerant,” as the University of Vermont’s 2018 Hemp Cold Tolerance Trial lays out, but farmers should certainly watch out for related changes in moisture levels and even more unusual effects, like branches snapping under the weight of attendant snow.
We spoke with Derek Thomas, vice president of business development at Veritas Farms, a Pueblo, Colo.-based hemp operation, to get a sense of how his company monitors the twists and turns of weather patterns in late summer and early fall. In Pueblo, Veritas got away from the early frost with its 140 acres of hemp fairly unscathed.
But this wasn’t the first time a sudden temperature drop has affected the farm, and lessons abound for all farmers eager to adjust their pre-harvest protocol.
Eric Sandy: What was early September like for Veritas Farms? And what sort of weather monitoring system is in place for the company?
Derek Thomas: It’s such an important topic, especially for a fully vertically integrated brand, because ultimately our crop is our commodity. It's our lifeblood. So, we’re very cautious. We're very considerate and we're always monitoring. We have a number of SOPs implemented at the farm, which help us mitigate any severe weather concerns, both from a monitoring perspective and an action item standpoint. So, we knew that [this early frost] was coming, unfortunately, and we prepped the best we could and we took action immediately after.
And the damage was pretty negligible this year. We really kind of came out of it unscathed. Where we are, the temperature of the day before was a nice 80 degrees, and the snow really melted before the end of the day. So, the ground stayed nice and warm, and the roots of the plants stayed pretty warm. We were pretty fortunate, at least in our neck of the woods, that no real damage was done.
ES: What are some of the red flags or warning signs that farmers might want to watch out for when we're talking about those colder temperatures and snowy situations?
DT: You know, it's definitely going to depend where you're at in your growing cycle. When we're coming into late summer and early fall, that's obviously when a lot of plants are pretty far along in the process. You’re really monitoring humidity levels and ground temperature, but anything that trends toward freezing is when we start to monitor and engage— anything in the low 50s, in the 40s, that's when we're starting to pay attention. The closer we get to freezing, that's where more of our thresholds are triggered in terms of additional monitoring or even action items. So, it's really the temperature that we're monitoring the hardest.
Actually, two years ago, we had another early frost and it was quite a bit more severe. It triggered a bit of an early harvest and it also inspired us over the past year to play around with some new genetics. And that's another reason why we were really fortunate this year that that frost has affected us even less. The plants on our farm are a little bit squattier. They're not the really tall kind of plants that you see in some other areas of the country. They're really squatty. And they’re really hearty and sturdy. We didn't really have to worry about branch breakage from the weight of the snow. And the ground didn't necessarily freeze, so that was really good for us.
In fact, from what we've seen so far this year, the frost actually might've benefited us a little bit. It causes a swelling in the moisture inside of the plant. And, really, what we're noticing is that our buds are a little bit swollen in a good way. We’re not forecasting any type of negative impact from that snow.
ES: Hemp crops are, of course, in many situations, outdoors and fairly vulnerable to the elements. Are there any physical defenses that might be helpful to think about—whether that's a literal covering or anything like that?
DT: I know that we haven't done [that] yet because we're talking about acres and acres and acres. I think that it could help a smaller grow. That might be more feasible. I'm not sure that the infrastructure exists yet for some type of large-scale covering. Although I do know that's kind of a standard practice in some other agricultural commodities.
One of the main things that we look to do is monitor the water supply of the plants. The less water that is in the ground around the roots before frost, the less chance you have of freezing those roots, which is obviously something that we definitely want to avoid. Depending on the length and severity of the frost, this is really going to depend on some of the actions that you put in. The first one that we always go to is monitoring the moisture level in the ground, because the last thing you want is for the ground to freeze.