This is the first of a two part series. Monday: processing and uses of hemp.
Jeff Wilkens and Tina Kelly have an increased appreciation of farmers.
“We’ve stressed,” Kelly said. “Our farmers are laughing. I don’t know how they do it every year.”
Growing industrial hemp seemed like something they could do when Kelly first saw a newspaper article about it in November 2017.
Wilkens has been a landscaper for 16 years, owner of Big Red Fencing and Landscaping of rural Abilene, so he’s not a total stranger to the process.
“This is our first year actually doing farming stuff,” he said. “This has been a new experience.”
It’s been a learning experience. They called hemp growers in other states, particularly Kentucky and Colorado, which have been growing hemp for a few more years, but it wasn’t much help.
One guy does one thing, another does something else, Wilkens said.
“We’ve just learned so much because there’s not very much information out there,” Wilkens said.
New for everyone
Growing hemp is not only new for Wilkens and Kelly, it’s new for everyone in the state.
This is the first year it’s been legal to grow industrial hemp in Kansas for many years. Kansas is one of several states to launch a pilot program to learn how to grow the versatile plant.
“Industrial hemp is not marijuana,” said Tony Whitehair, the K-State Dickinson County Extension officer for agriculture.
Hemp contains very little THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana, and any crop that has more than 0.3 percent THC is destroyed. The state will come out and test each crop about 10 days before it’s harvested.
The state issued four licenses in Dickinson County, covering about 75 acres.
Each hemp plot has a large sign in front, declaring it to be an industrial hemp, and not a marijuana, field.
“They have to have the sign so people know it’s not worth going in and taking the leaves,” said Steve Marsh, with the Kansas Department of Agriculture.
Wilkens and Kelly formed New Horizon Hemp Processing to grow and process hemp. Their state license includes farmers Mark Swanson and Mark Miller.
Wilkens said seven people are on their license so everyone on it can help where needed, planting, cutting or processing. Everyone who works with the hemp has to be fingerprinted and go through a state background check.
Growing industrial hemp is strictly regulated, but the rules are changing all the time. Marsh, from the KDA, said he helped write the original regulations but they’ve changed so much now that he refers questions to the KDA.
Until July 1, the licenses had to include a research component.
For New Horizon, that research was how to grow hemp, how much water it needed, how much sun, what fertilizer and pesticides it needed.
All done by hand
It turns out that, for Wilkens and Kelly, growing hemp is labor intensive, with almost everything done by hand.
They hired a company to plant 10 acres June 3. But the seeds were planted too deep and didn’t grow.
Losing a crop like that is expensive, Wilkens said, because the tiny seeds cost about $1 each. This year, only varieties from certified seed could be grown.
So they planted again July 3, with Kelly riding the back of a lawn seeder and planting by hand.
They did have a few plants started May 19 in the greenhouse, and those had to be transferred to the field by hand, as well.
Rains washed out some plants, high winds blew others over. Of the 10 original acres, Kelly and Wilkens wound up with about 2 acres.
“We don’t have a huge crop, but we have something,” Wilkens said. “We’re going to be able to process and be able to further our knowledge as we go down the road.”
Luck of the crop
By state standards, they’re lucky. Marsh said the state average is four out of five plots aren’t producing.
“I think the CBD oil grows are going to be greenhouse grows,” Kelly said.
People growing hemp in greenhouses have had better luck, but also smaller crops, one as small as 250 plants, Wilkens said.
Kelly and Wilkens weeded their plants by hand. They also weeded out any male plants they found.
“The better quality for CBD oil comes from the female plant,” WIlkens said.
This crop will be processed and sold for CBD oil, which is where the market is right now.
Even so, they found male plants in among their plants.
“Even if we were to get all the males out of ours, we run the risk of being pollinated by the wild, which grows all over Kansas,” Kelly said.
One employee of the Dickinson County Noxious Weed department said he’d been spraying for wild cannabis plants, but the cultivated plants look just like the wild ones, so he has to be extra careful.
Members of about 20 noxious weed departments from Kansas toured the site last month.
Education is key, Wilkens, Kelly and Marsh agreed.
The good news is the plants Wilkens irrigated didn’t seem to do better than the ones he didn’t water.
The other good news is the THC in the plants act as a natural repellant, so they have no problems with grasshoppers or other insects, Wilkens said.
“We’re trying to keep everything as organic as possible,” Kelly said.
Wilkens said they’ll start harvesting in a week or two, but July 3 was late to plant. They are waiting on results from the KDA test last week, then they’ll start drying and processing.
Despite all the problems this year, Wilkens and Kelly plan on taking what they’ve learned this year and doing it again, with a larger plot.
Contact Jean Bowers at email@example.com.