by Katie Navarra
Industrial hemp is being touted as New York’s next big cash crop. Governor Cuomo has allocated up to $10 million in grant funds to support research initiatives to make the crop viable in the state. In 2015, the state launched the Industrial Hemp Agricultural Research Pilot Program, which permitted a limited number of educational institutions to grow and research industrial hemp production. In 2017, the cap was eliminated and expanded to include farmers and businesses.
In October, Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner co-hosted an event at the Washington County Fair Offices for producers interested in getting involved.
Guest speakers included Larry Smart, a professor at Cornell University, Trey Riddle from Sunstrand, LLC and Tim Sweeney from NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets. They discussed what it takes to grow industrial hemp in New York as well as provided insight into the permit process.
The permit process
Hemp is a Schedule One narcotic and hence is a federally regulated plant. Hemp and marijuana plants share the same plant genus and species (Cannabis sativa L.). The distinction between the two is the level of delta 9-tetra-hydrocannabinol (THC) level. Industrial hemp is less than 0.3 percent. The environment is one factor that can cause fluctuations in THC levels and if they exceed 0.3 percent the crop must be burned off.
The DEA controls the permits to handle live seed. In New York, Ag & Markets is the permit holder. Educational institutions and farms approved to participate in the pilot program pick up the seed from Ag & Markets, explained Sweeney.
Currently, growing industrial hemp is only legal as a research partner in the New York State Industrial Hemp Agricultural Research Pilot Program. The NYS Department of Ag & Markets oversees the program.
Farmers who participate are required to provide social security numbers, date of birth, addresses and GPS coordinates for every field where the crop will be grown. Sweeny explained that applicants will go through a background check as part of the approval process.
Details about the emerging industry are available at https://esd.ny.gov/industrial-hemp .
When the governor authorized hemp research in 2015, Cornell University and SUNY Morrisville formed a partnership and took the lead. Since then, Smart and other researchers have been studying the ideal varieties, conditions and challenges for growing hemp in New York. In addition to determining the most effective methods for growing and harvesting the crop, he and others are busting production myths.
“There’s a myth out there that industrial hemp is a good alternative for farmers with marginal land,” he said.
Results from his research and others in New York State have disproved this. Thus far, hemp grows best on corn and soybean fields. It is a crop that needs well-drained soils and a lot of fertilizer. The ideal planting window is late May. Farmers scrambled to get seed planted in 2017. The research program expansion didn’t occur until early July. By the time seed could be sourced and planted it was mid-July to early-August.
Even with the late start, 24 farms planted 51,000 pounds of seed in fields across the state. Seed planted on no-till ground with burned down sod failed. Fields near Geneva received two inches of rain within a few days of planting. Those crops failed too. Despite the challenges, other areas had good stands. The plants grew six to seven feet tall, provided a lot of data and potential for the crop.
“The best results were in fields that were tilled and planted with a cereal grain drill and had good nutrition,” Smart said.
Hemp can be raised for multiple uses. When grown for grain, the recommended seeding rate is 30 pounds to the acre. A cereal grain drill should be set on a 7.5-inch spacing to allow for four to five plants per square foot. Hemp grown for fiber requires denser plantings. It performs best when planted at 50-60 pounds to the acre. The tighter spacing encourages the plants to grow straight and discourages branching.
Hemp is ready for harvest about the same time as wheat or soybean crops. Some farmers have been hesitant to grow the crop because of concerns about clogging up the same combine that is used for proven cash crops.
“There are specific brand, model and design parameters to combine hemp,” Smart added. “Don’t even try rotary combines.”
Growing industrial hemp offers potential, but isn’t without challenges. Currently there are no herbicides, insecticides or fungicides labeled for hemp in the United States. And since it’s not a specialty crop the labeling process can’t be streamlined. Smart said organic growers may be interested in the crop because it is good at suppressing weeds and may fit in with rotational programs.
Like any crop, it is susceptible to disease and pest pressure. Riddle has observed crop damage on fields in Kentucky and Canada. In New York, Smart indicates white mold, also found in beans, as problematic. “We are concerned that could increase as cultivation increases,” Smart said.
The crop is sensitive to day length and that can be challenging in shorter growing seasons like those in New York. Part of Smart’s research is to identify varieties best suited for New York’s latitude and growing conditions. This past summer, the Anka variety was used in test trials. Variety trials also include varieties that can serve a dual purpose, for example fiber and grain.
The governor’s allocation of grant funding included up to $500,000 for businesses that would buy/process hemp crops. Sunstrand, LLC is one company that has taken interest in the state’s potential for growing hemp. The company specializes in using natural sustainable fibers such as hemp, bamboo and a hemp-like plant called kenaf for industrial manufacturing applications. The company currently works with growers on contract in Kentucky and Canada and is investigating the feasibility of a processing facility in New York.
“New York is in a unique spot to learn from other growers in Europe, Canada and other parts of the United States,” Riddle said. “The state is a strong contender because it is a strong industrial base and there is funding available.”
Riddle was unable to comment on a specific region of the state, but said that they prefer to be within 50 miles from the growers they contract with. This helps control transportation costs. The company tends to look to areas with established, large-scale corn and soybeans growers because these producers already have the equipment needed to produce at large scale. Yields need to reach four to five tons per acre for fiber and 1.5 to two tons for grains to be economically viable for processing plants.
“The quality constraints are high,” he said. “We are regularly on the farms we contract with making sure it is going as planned.”
Aside from use in industrial fiber and grains for animal feed, hemp has an estimated 25,000 uses, among them food, pharmaceuticals, biodegradable plastics and oil for soaps. One farm that participated in the 2017 study harvested 1,000 pounds of grain from a quarter-acre plot and sent it to a local distillery for making hemp vodka.
Within the next five years state leaders hope there will be 20,000 acres in production across the state. “Industrial hemp has great potential to become a significant cash crop for farmers and drive economic growth across New York as it becomes more widely used in major industries,” said NYS Agriculture Commissioner Richard Ball.