by Elizabeth A. Tomlin
Looking for a way to diversify with your farm? Got a bit of land and willing to try a new crop? Growing industrial hemp may be for you.
In a ‘Hemp Growers Round Table,’ hosted by Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Madison County, NYS Ag & Markets Policy Analyst Tim Sweeney; Dr. Larry Smart, Hemp project leader/ Associate Director School of Integrative Plant Science, Cornell AgriTech, Cornell University; and Dr. Jennifer Gilbert Jenkins, Agronomist and lead professor of SUNY Morrisville’s Industrial Hemp Program, led a brisk discussion that included updated research reports – and stimulated some thought for potential producers in New York.
A group of approximately 100 attendees, representing 17 counties, attended the event — in spite of snow and frigid, icy weather conditions.
Jenkins and Smart fielded questions about deer damage and harvesting issues.
Jenkins said although other people reported being devastated by deer populations, and although many deer were observed bedding in the field, she actually saw more problems with groundhogs.
“Groundhog control is really important. Groundhogs will tear out an 11-foot patch around their holes. Other people can handle those, but on our property we’re not allowed to shoot things. Being on a college campus makes it a little more difficult.”
Dr. Smart reported that even though deer had been seen inside of the hemp crop fencing, they had not been observed browsing on the crop. “We have not experienced any deer damage,” he confirmed.
Questions about combines used for harvesting brought forth comments from attendees.
One producer commented that he could pull a piece of fiber off the plant, smaller than a piece of dental floss, and it could not be broken.
This strength of the fiber also presents a problem with combines when harvesting.
“A straw walker type, rather than a rotary type, works generally better,” explained Smart. “We had a farmer do about 10 acres on our field with a John Deere 9600. It seemed to go through pretty well. He didn’t have any of his shafts or moving parts shielded and by the end of that 10 acres things were starting to wrap.”
Smart advises using PVC pipe, cutting it in half, using those halves to cover shafts and then duct taping it, so that the fiber won’t catch on the rotating shaft. He also advises a covering underneath to protect it from the thick stalks, especially if you intend to back up in the field.
“You need to keep your cutter knives sharp,” said Smart, “and there may be an optimal size of cutter knives for hemp, but definitely you want to keep them sharp.”
He advised taking off the straw chopper, as the crop is not compatible with the straw chopper.
“Go to the Canadian Hemp website and get the right air flow and concave settings for your particular combine.”
Dr. Jenkins added, “I don’t know if we have the perfect type of combine yet, but, shield any rolling, moving parts.” She explained that the rented baler used to make round bales from their crop last year sustained about $1,000 worth of damage.
Bearings and bearing housing units should be watched for damage.
“You want to clean those bearing housings,” said Smart. “I did talk to one grower who ended the season, put the combine back in, and all that wrapped fiber dried out. When it dried out the only way to get it off was with a torch, burning it off. So, it’s tough stuff. It’s little tricks like those that hopefully you don’t have to learn the hard way.”
One attendee asked about using a square baler to bale the hemp instead of using a round baler.
“It’s not as good for the fiber,” Jenkins replied. “Rolling the fiber keeps the fiber in better quality. That is what I have been told by all of the fiber processors. They would prefer it in big round bales.”
Stalks are best cut with a sickle or a sickle-bar mower.
“Not with a disc-bine!” Jenkins emphasized. “We started with a disc-bine just to see — and it just wrapped all up.”
“We’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole,” said Jenkins.
Jenkins said once the modified equipment is developed, things will fall in place.
“We know how to change our equipment to go from combining corn grain, to combining wheat, to combining soybeans, right? We need to be able to do that for hemp, too. Once we get this all worked out, I think we’ll make it just as routine of a crop to grow.”
Smart used malting barley as an example. Malting barley crops didn’t meet specifications when they were first tried and there were no malting houses.
“Now we’ve got 13 malting houses in the state and now, after 4 or 5 years of experience, most of the barley crop is a success. We’ve got a barley breeding program at Cornell producing new cultivars, it’s a similar thing.”
Another attendee asked about growing hemp as a no-till crop.
Although Jenkins said SUNY Morrisville had grown exclusively in no-till with good results, Smart reported that Cornell had used a variety of growing methods.
“I would say that of the fields we planted in 2017 — we managed a planting of 1,700 acres — there were mixed results with no-till, and it was related to moisture and previous crops.”
Hemp does not like having “wet- feet” and needs to be in a well-drained soil. Soil testing is advised before planting.
Smart advises using these guidelines:
“Best fertility scenario for successfully growing hemp; pH around 6.5, well drained loamy – loamy clay soils where CEC’s are 12-20. Avoid compacted soils and heavy clay high Mg/ Na soils. Cation exchange level of Mg should be under 20 percent. Good to very good OM, as N is important to hemp.
P according to the Olsen test, should be better than 15PPM and if the Mehlich 3 test is used, then at 35 PPM (Dairy One uses modified Morgan). K range 158 PPM to 235 PPM. Base saturation on cation exchange in the 2.5 – 4 percent range. S is important. Range of availability should be 10N:1S.
“We are still accepting applications for growing grain and fiber,” said Sweeney, explaining that permits to produce Cannabidiol (CBD) are already backlogged.
Regulations apply to all licensed producers and a signed contract prohibits growing hemp for smoking.
Hemp produced must be sold within the program guidelines, and is strictly enforced. It cannot be sold on the open market.
“We want to follow the terms that the regulators have laid down,” commented Smart, “and your license as a grower says that it cannot be used for smoking.”
A question about medical marijuana came up and Sweeney replied that the medical program is not run through Ag & Markets, but through the Department of Health — and under “very tight control.”
Sweeney advised folks to go to the NYS Ag & Markets website for a list of licensed processors, and remarked that processors are distributed throughout the state.
“There were 348 applications received in December,” reported Sweeney. “Approximately one-third of those are for processing and the remaining two-thirds are grower applications.”
Sweeney said currently no funds are available for growing industrial hemp.
A license to produce hemp in New York constitutes a contract between the licensee and the state. Responsibilities of both parties are described on the NYS Ag & Markets website. This program is a continuation of the pilot program for research on hemp. The program requires location of all hemp crops planted. Although there are fewer requirements than previously, Sweeney said officials will still be visiting production sites for sampling and testing to be sure the crop meets the specific requirements of industrial hemp.
Jennifer Lee Farwell, Agriculture Economic Development specialist for CCE Madison County, and event co-coordinator said she was not surprised by the large turnout for the event.
“Hemp is hot right now, and it was great that so many people wanted to become more informed rather than just buying seed and hoping for the best,” said Farwell.
View applications for growing hemp in New York at www.agriculture.ny.gov/PI/PIHome.html .
Find CCE specialists working with the hemp program at http://hemp.cals.cornell.edu/extension/ .