The hemp industry is new and exciting for farmers across the county. People are looking at this crop as a golden ticket and, in some cases, as a way to save a family farm. While many new opportunities exist in the hemp industry, farmers with only one growing season under their belts will tell you that hemp production comes with challenges that many prospective farmers may not expect.
I could write a book on all the problems hemp farmers may encounter at some point during their journey, but there are a few huge issues with hemp production that every prospective grower should know about. These issues begin with seeds and clones and grow into poor-quality plants that cause headaches throughout the growing season.
Farmers expect the seeds or plants they purchase to be of a certain quality. Our current standards for seed quality in other crops set the bar high with adequate germination, years of breeding for specific traits and seed labels that match what is in the bag. Because we had such a large gap in hemp production, we do not have the same standards for hemp that we do for other row crops, such as corn or soybeans. While I expect the quality of hemp seeds and clones to improve with time, prospective hemp farmers need to understand the advantages and disadvantages to planting seeds or clones.
Farmers who are planting hemp for grain or fiber will always purchase seeds to plant, but those who want to grow hemp for cannabidiol (CBD) or other cannabinoids and terpenes have to decide whether they want to use seeds or clones.
Growing From Seed
Planting seeds is a favorable option for growers who not only seek to cut costs, but also want the convenience of ordering seeds and planting when conditions are favorable. This allows growers to purchase and store seeds in a cold room ahead of the growing season. Farmers who have seed-planting equipment will want to purchase seeds to use their existing equipment.
One of the most apparent disadvantages we have learned at Purdue University is the low germination rate of hemp seed. The Office of Indiana State Chemist (which is located at Purdue and administers agricultural laws involving animal feeds, fertilizers, pesticides and seeds to ensure truth-in-labeling, food safety, user safety and environmental protection), has performed germination tests on hemp seeds for the last three years, with average germination rates for grain and fiber hemp seeds just under 70%. While we do not have data on average germination rates for feminized seed, we have heard from several Indiana growers that they saw germination rates as low as 50% in controlled indoor facilities. One explanation for low germination could be improper seed storage. Hemp is an oilseed crop and is prone to degradation at high temperatures.
Other issues concerning hemp seeds also exist. Many growers are purchasing feminized seeds—hemp seeds that are mostly females. An issue with feminized seeds is regarding the percentage of males to females. Companies producing feminized seed typically claim 90% or higher feminization; however, this has turned out not to be the case in some instances. This issue came to a head when a Kentucky hemp business filled a $44 million lawsuit against an Oregon hemp seed company in October because the majority of the seeds it received were male, according to The Oregonian.
This is not a stand-alone incident. Data from Cornell University found that the feminized seeds it tested were far from the 98-99% feminization growers find on the seed labels and closer to 50% female. While a 50% female population is typical in a bag of fiber or grain hemp seed, it is a huge problem for growers purchasing feminized seed, where they are typically paying $1/seed.
Genetic instability in hemp seed exists because there was such a large gap in production of hemp grown for grain and fiber, not to mention that CBD production is also relatively new. Many growers are observing a lot of phenotypic diversity within the same cultivar from the same company. These genetic inconsistencies have caused variation in maturity time, the amount of CBD that can be extracted at harvest (percentage-wise), observed disease susceptibility and overall plant size. As breeders work with the same genetics, a refinement of quality and consistency should occur in the hemp industry.
Because new breeders are entering the industry, they may be unfamiliar with standard practices when it comes to selling seed with proper labeling and certificates of analysis (CoA). Growers should receive a lab-based CoA with their seed or clone orders. I have seen seed labels that state the cultivar, germination rate, feminization rate and that the seeds will not produce more than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This is not a lab-based CoA and should be a sign that the seeds will likely not perform in a way that matches the label. State agencies are going to start hammering down on proper CoAs and seed labels, so hopefully we see better labeling and accurate CoAs with future seed orders.
Growing From Clones
Clones or rooted cuttings are a favorable option for growers who want to ensure an all-female population, but they come at a higher cost per plant. Many Indiana growers have paid up to $5 per clone. Farmers need to keep clones alive while waiting for the optimal planting date. What’s more, there have been incidences where growers receive clones that are not all female and were likely cut from male plants. In addition to receiving male plants, many Indiana growers received cuttings that were infested with aphids or mites or had poor root formation.
Phytosanitary practices need to be followed to ensure growers are receiving high-quality hemp that is healthy at the time of transplanting. My advice is that growers always thoroughly inspect clones prior to accepting them and make sure they have a contract protecting them from spending money and accepting infested plants.
Aside from all these issues growers may encounter, with more production predicted in the coming years (the U.S. hemp-derived CBD market is expected to reach $23.7 billion by 2023, up from the current value of $5 billion, according to analytics and research firm Brightfield Group), there could be shortages of seeds and clones, leading to higher costs to produce hemp. However, we may see a higher quantity and quality of seeds and clones as the industry continues to develop.
Most of us will not experience another crop that has grabbed everyone’s attention like hemp. Hemp has the potential to change agriculture by drawing people back to the farm.
While all of this excitement exists, hemp growers should develop a thorough plan to prepare for the issues outlined above as well as changes in a developing market. The hemp industry is growing incredibly fast, but growers should remember that it took decades of breeding and research to get where we are with row crops. I would recommend prospective growers reach out to more experienced hemp farmers to try to identify sources of high-quality seeds and clones. I think we can glean a lot of great information from Canadian farmers, and I often refer growers to Canadian production guides as a way to start learning about production.
With adequate planning and realistic expectations, prospective hemp growers will be better prepared for the 2020 growing season.