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So You Want to Cultivate Hemp?

by Zera Hemp Labs / May 22, 2020

Steps Needed to Begin Planting

Many farmers, cultivators, and agriculturalists are looking into growing hemp, and with good reason.

With the adoption of the Interim Final Rule to the establishment of the Domestic Hemp Production Program, it’s now a legal crop in the vast majority of states with a lot of potential as a commodity.

Cultivating hemp is not significantly different than working with other crops, but it does come with some added complexity. The regulations for growing hemp are new and written with the intent of differentiating the plant from its illegal cousin, marijuana. This can make hemp farming seem intimidating, but the challenges are very manageable. 

Here are the steps to take and info to consider for those interested in trying their hand at hemp cultivation.

Step 1: Obtain a License 

The first step to growing hemp is obtaining a license to produce industrial hemp. Only a handful of states have had their hemp production plans approved by the USDA. If a state’s plan has been approved, then a license must be granted under that state’s hemp production program. If a state does not have a pending or approved plan, then growers may apply for a USDA hemp production license

You will have to contact your state agricultural department or whatever group is tasked with regulating in-state hemp production. When you contact them, it might be a good time to brush up on your state’s hemp regulations, as laws can vary greatly state by state

To obtain a USDA license, growers will be required to provide a copy of their FBI criminal history report. 

For more information, visit the USDA’s Hemp Information for Producers page

Step 2: Select the Appropriate Place to Plant Your Seed

Indoor cultivation for cannabis sativa, the species hemp belongs to, requires extensive electrical infrastructure for lighting as well as ventilation and humidity control systems. The benefit is being able to perform very precise cultivation to achieve specific results, but the upfront and maintenance cost is significant. 

Outdoor cultivation is more common for hemp and allows you to harness the sun, wind, and your plants’ naturally evolved systems to produce more biomass at a more affordable cost, but you are at the mercy of nature. In addition, hemp is a great bioremediator, meaning it sucks toxins like heavy metals from soil and water.

That’s why when growing hemp outdoors, the plot you choose has a tremendous impact on how your product will turn out. 

Here are two variables that are important to consider:

Variable #1 - Look to the Past

In the late 1800s, lead arsenate was widely used to control outbreaks of gypsy moths and other insects, and farmers continued to produce their own lead-arsenate insecticides all the way into the 1940s. Practices like this and other factors mean that heavy metals or other contaminants can persist in the topsoil to this day and may be easily taken up by a hemp plant’s robust root system. 

Elements like these can be found at trace levels in pretty much any soil on earth, and regulations limit how much is allowable in harvested hemp flower to preserve public safety. Prior to purchasing a tract of land to begin your hemp farm, it's critical to get a soil test done to determine if a plot is safe for large-scale cultivation. 

Variable #2 - Know Your Neighbors

Aside from impacts on your hemp caused by farmers of the past, there are also worries about what neighboring farms can do to your grow in the present. 

Along with restrictions like heavy metals and THC limits on your hemp crop, you must also be cautious about pesticide residues. While many hemp farmers are able to produce excellent harvests without the use of banned pesticides, they lack the protection of four walls and a roof granted to indoor growers. The smallest amount of imidacloprid residue may cause your hemp or cannabis product to fail testing, but the corn farmer next door is able to apply it liberally to protect their harvest from insects. 

Before investing time and money into your hemp operation, pay close attention to any other farms in your area. If you are downwind from an industrial corn producer, you don’t want to lose your entire harvest because they decided to crop dust with a banned pesticide that ended up drifting into your hemp farm.  

Step 3: Plant Your Crop

After a field is selected, you’ll want to wait for the right season (between May and June in most areas) to start your seeds. 

Temperatures should be hovering around 50F or higher. Planting is best done with a grain drill or corn planter. Seeds should be planted in a shallow and firm seedbed; you’ll want to target a depth of ½ inch, ¼-¾ inches deep. The soil should be rolled and packed after planting. 

Hemp farmers generally agree that planting seeds closer together yields hemp that is better for industrial uses because of the amount of fiber and seeds produced. They can also be harvested using traditional farming equipment. 

Conversely, planting seeds further apart is better for growing female plants that will produce hemp flower for use in extractions and manufacturing hemp or CBD-infused products. These crops should be harvested by hand. 

Because hemp is very intolerant of wet weather and soil, a field with good drainage is important.

Step 4: Test Your Hemp to Make Sure It’s Legal

According to the USDA, all industrial hemp growers must test their crop at least 15 days before harvest.

Due to federal guidelines, you'll want to test your THC content to ensure your plants are below the 0.3 percent THC limit. 

Consult your state’s specific regulations and guidance to be aware of any other legal considerations to take into account in your state. 

While there are no requirements as to how much acreage needs to be tested, the law does require that the samples taken need to represent a homogenous composition of the crop. This means the samples tested must be similar to most of the crop’s individual plants. This can be achieved by sampling different parts of the plant from many different plants across your hemp grow. 

Additional sampling guidelines:

  • The producer or an authorized representative of the producer must be on site during sampling.
  • Sampling must be performed by a USDA authorized representative.
  • Samplers must have complete and unrestricted access to all hemp and other cannabis plants during business hours, as well as all the land/buildings used for cultivation & handling
  • Samples must be taken from one plant per acre

Want more advice on working with samplers? Here is the USDA’s guide to sampling.

Be aware that your samples should be dried to 9% moisture before being sent in to laboratories for testing. 

What if my product runs hot?

If your field tested above the 0.3 percent federal limit of THC, the good news is that you won’t be prosecuted for a federal crime. The USDA has recognized that it's not always possible for farmers to know the THC content before harvest, and therefore will not be considered as criminally negligent. 

Now the bad news - you will be required to dispose of your crop if it fails. You are not allowed to use it in any way according to the USDA regulations. This is where early and consistent testing comes in as a vital tool to save your crop. 

Step 5: Harvest Your Hemp

Harvest generally begins 100 to 120 days after planting, but determining the best time to harvest is vital, especially for hemp being grown for CBD production. Crops will vary depending on region, planting time, and environmental factors. As you near the expected harvest months, weekly testing for CBD content can indicate the optimal harvest time. Additionally, observing the trichomes on the buds themselves is recommended. When the trichomes shift from clear white to milky white, you should begin preparing to harvest. 

When you’ve decided it’s time to harvest, plants should be cut below the grain head to lower the fiber content brought into the combine. The harvest should be immediately cleaned off the combine, and not allowed to sit overnight.

As with any agricultural model, you will have certain plants that just can’t resist molding out during a growing season.  After all, an outdoor crop will be subjected to all of the mold spores the wind can blow and all of the soil-borne bacteria the rain can splash onto the plant during a growing season. So weigh the risk to benefit ratio when harvesting your crop and don’t be afraid to destroy certain plants that might act as a mold-seeding vector in your post-harvest drying area. 

It’s also important to remember that once a hemp plant has been disconnected from its root system, it loses all of the protection its immune system was able to produce as it cures into the finished product.

Step 6: Dry and Cure Your Hemp

After harvest, your crop should immediately be transported to an area used for drying. This area should be under a roof, out of direct sunlight, and be well ventilated. It’s recommended to set up fans to keep air circulating throughout the drying process. 

Temperature and humidity should be considered as well and controlled if at all possible. Somewhere between 60 to 70 degree Fahrenheit is best with humidity around 45 to 60%. 

The plants themselves should be hung upside down and spaced apart enough that air flows easily and branches do not touch. If space is limited, you can hang whole plants to dry, but this can restrict airflow and cause issues with mold. A better practice is to cut branches from the stalk and hang them individually. 

It’s best to dry hemp slowly with high airflow to preserve quality. Depending on conditions, drying can take anywhere from three days or up to two weeks. Hemp will be dry enough to cure when smaller branches snap and break rather than bend. 

Curing is not required in every case, and there is a market for dried hemp. Curing is also not necessary for industrial hemp that will be processed for its fiber. However, if your goal is higher quality flower that is better for extraction and creating CBD products, then curing is necessary. 

To cure, dried hemp flower should be removed from the branches and trimmed before buds are placed into containers that are large enough to accommodate them without squeezing or bending them. Containers can be made of any material but should be airtight. 

The containers full of hemp flowers should be stored away from direct light, heat, and moisture. The curing process itself typically takes between two to four weeks (some varieties benefit from longer cures), and in that time, oxygen within the containers should be replenished on a weekly basis. This is done by removing the lids for several minutes and then replacing them. 

Step 7: Test and Sell Your Hemp

The final step before selling your hemp is to have it tested by an ISO 17025 accredited testing lab. The most critical test is a potency profile to confirm that Total THC content is below 0.3%, but it’s also important to have safety screening performed. This will provide you with a complete Certificate of Analysis that states the cannabinoid content as well as affirms the batch is free of contaminants like pesticides, mold, and heavy metals. 

With a CoA for your crop, you’ll be able to legally sell your hemp. The added benefit of the CoA is that it will inform buyers of exactly what they’re getting so that you can price the hemp accordingly. It goes without saying that this is important for profiting off of your hard work. 

These steps are a great start, but as with any crop there are nuances and factors that will be different for every grower and every season. Hemp is a popular topic right now with a lot of potential uses, so if it’s a crop you’re interested in growing, then there’s no better time to ask questions and begin planning for the next season. 

Tags: Cultivation

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