Hemp farmers face growing pains
Steve Bernard grows trees for a living, so he didn't foresee that his first year growing licensed hemp would end with his entire crop being destroyed.
BYRON — Steve Bernard grows trees for a living, so he didn't foresee that his first year growing licensed hemp would end with his entire crop being destroyed.
Bernard, owner and operator of SB Trees LLC, will grow hemp this year in his second season under the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Industrial Hemp Program. He plans to grow about an acre of industrial hemp on his 14-acre nursery in Byron.
According to Margaret Wiatrowski, coordinator of MDA's industrial hemp program, Bernard was one of 380 licensed hemp growers in 2019. That's quadruple the number of licenses the year before, and the number is expected to increase in 2020.
Hemp growers don't plant until June so Bernard said he wouldn't be surprised to see the number surpass 1,000 this year. He's concerned the MDA doesn't have the wherewithal to regulate the entire pool of Minnesota growers.
"I'll say they are doing a wonderful job," said Bernard of the MDA's industrial hemp program. "But it's just a forest fire."
Bernard considers himself to be a natural gardener, which is what compelled him to try his hand at hemp.
"My heart is in working with the soil and growing things," he said. "It's something you can do and treat like a garden, and still maybe make some money."
His familiarity with the tree industry helped, but Bernard said his entire first year as a hemp grower he was on a "learn as you go" basis. He read in detail whatever he could find online about hemp growing, calling the internet his "constant teaching tool".
"There's so much to learn," he said. "You can read for the rest of your life."
Research and success with planting helped Bernard gain some confidence by the time harvest rolled around, which is also when MDA visits growers to take field samples for testing. The MDA conducts sampling in the middle of August once hemp plants have started to flower, because THC content is higher then.
Last year, growers were required to harvest their entire crop in the 30-days after samples were collected. The reason for MDA's urgency is that THC content in plants will increase the longer they are left in the ground.
Three weeks after MDA collected samples from Bernard's plants, he said he discovered there were "really some catch-22's on when to harvest and how to keep crops at the legal limit."
"My hemp tested at .99 (THC)," he said, well over the legally allowed threshold of 0.3.
So after investing a couple thousand dollars into it, Bernard was informed by the MDA he needed to destroy his entire crop, and had 10 days to do so.
Having to destroy his crop didn't bother Bernard as much as not knowing what caused it to contain so much THC. The MDA didn't have an answer for him when he asked.
He read online that it could have been too much or not enough nitrogen, otherwise too much or not enough moisture. But it was most likely the seeds, which Bernard said came from a supplier that had a batch that ran high in THC.
Bernard said the department advised him on how to dispose of the crop properly, but the actual destruction of plants was left in his hands. He ended up putting it in a compost pile.
More frequent testing might have prevented the situation, said Bernard. But testing equipment is not a realistic purchase for a small operator like him, he said.
"Yet you're still responsible for it being over the legal limit," he said. "It's kind of a tough deal for the startup grower."
According to MDA data, 12 percent of samples failed THC threshold tests in 2019.
Another first-year licensed grower in 2019 was Scott Robertson, who grows hemp with a group of individuals in Winnebago, Minn., on about eight acres of land.
It wasn't much of a struggle for them to grow and harvest hemp this season, said Robertson. But the post-harvest path they envisioned actually lead to a dead end.
"We got everything harvested, dried and bagged up," he said. "But now we're stuck trying to find processors, and people to sell the product to."
The company they had lined up for processing quickly became inundated with orders and was unable to handle theirs.
Robertson said growers' options are limited for processors, and dependent on the product they want to sell and how they want it to be done. For example this year, he said, they wanted an oil product and for it to be processed with liquid carbon dioxide rather than ethanol.
With oil, Robertson said it's common for processing facilities to keep half the oil they process for you. That might seem like a raw deal, but Robertson said it's worth it because "oil is much easier to sell than flower."
With the industry becoming more and more saturated, the number of products derived from hemp is crowding shelves.
"It's just like corn and beans -- once there's a bunch of it around, it's tough to move it," he said.
A friendly hemp adviser
Beginning hemp growers would benefit from knowing Ted Galaty, who owns and operates Willow's Keep Farm in Zumbrota where he's been growing hemp since 2018. They grow about four acres outdoors and recently started raising high-CBD hemp indoors.
Two grow seasons under his belt basically makes Galaty a veteran in the state's hemp industry. Maybe it's his experience or because people noticed his farm (and signs with a marijuana leaf on the state of Minnesota) while driving on U.S. Highway 52, but he said people trickle in every day at his store.
"What we do here is just educate and farm, I don't push product on anyone," said Galaty. "Some people simply take the information and go on their way."
It's usually people wanting to learn more about CBD and the various products that can be made from hemp.
Based on data from state departments of agriculture, farmers grow hemp for three products: flowers, fiber and grain. The only thing that differentiates the three is the way they are processed.
The current craze over CBD will likely continue to explode and expand, said Galaty. He's turned more of his attention now to growing hemp for fiber, which can be used for textiles, insulation, floor boards, paper and various other building and construction materials.
One thing he's excited for in the future is seed varieties that can be used for multiple products.
"You could get a fiber variety (of seed) that still has high CBD content, and they'll grow really tall," he said. "Then when you bring them down, you could take the flowers off to process into CBD, and the stalks into fiber."