Despite having to battle the lack of rain and severe weather, red ants and weeds, some local farmers who added hemp to their mix of crops this year as part of a pilot program in Alabama say they’ll plant it again.
“My first year, I wanted it to be a learning process,” said Steve Posey, manager of Posey Farms, located in Lawrence and Colbert counties. The family-owned farm also produces soft red winter wheat, soybeans and corn.
“There are so many unknowns (with growing hemp), but I’ve learned a lot about how to handle it," he said. "I know I can grow a better crop next year.
“I think there’s money to be made,” he said of the crop that can be processed for the growing CBD market or for fiber to make rope and other products.
Posey was among dozens of interested growers and processors who received licenses from the Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries to take part in the state’s Industrial Hemp Research Pilot Program.
The department accepted applications at the beginning of the year for the 2019 growing season, after the 2018 Farm Bill was passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump, which declassified hemp as a Schedule I drug.
Agriculture Commissioner Rick Pate said he's pleased with the participation in the program’s first year.
A total of 182 applications were received from growers, processors and universities and, in March, 157 applicants were notified that they qualified to participate in the program.
“Only 126 approved applicants actually planted a crop,” Pate said. “Some of (the growers) have been very, very successful."
Just like any other crop, though, there can be issues like dry conditions and choking weeds. One grower in Baldwin County gave up on a crop when the field was overtaken with weeds.
Even though the Farm Bill redefined hemp as an agricultural commodity, production fields must be sampled before harvest to ensure that the tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, level is below 0.3%, according to Pate.
Hemp and marijuana are both forms of cannabis, but hemp has only trace amounts of THC, the substance that produces a high.
Some growers were concerned that samples would test “hot,” exceeding the legal THC levels, Pate said. But, as of last week, 143 samples have all tested below the 0.3% THC level as required by state law, according to Pate.
“So far, not one (sample) has tested higher than 0.3%,” Pate said.
Amy Belcher, an ADAI spokeswoman, said the number of samples tested is higher than the number of applicants because a grower may have multiple locations or have staggered harvests.
CBD market growing
Posey planted 1,700 hemp plants on a 5-acre plot, but a recent storm, dry conditions and fire ants took a toll on some of the crop.
About a week and a half ago, what Posey believes could have been a microburst hit right over the farm shop where the hemp field is located. Posey had wanted to wait a couple of weeks for the plants to mature further.
“We had to go ahead and harvest what we had,” he said, after agriculture inspectors pulled samples at the farm for testing.
About 1,450 plants were harvested last Saturday and Sunday, and they’re now hanging in a drying facility before they’re taken to a processor.
Posey is growing hemp for the CBD market, as hemp-derived CBD moves toward being a multibillion-dollar market, with products ranging from tinctures and oils to gummies and CBD-infused water, purporting to relieve ailments from pain to seizures.
U.S. sales of CBD products are projected to reach $5 billion by the end of the year, an increase of more than 700% compared to last year’s sales, according to the Brightfield Group, a Chicago-based market research firm studying the industry. The company is predicting the CBD market will exceed $22 billion in annual sales by 2022.
Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration held a hearing in May and took public comments to gather information on CBD’s safety, product quality and other issues.
State Health Officer Scott Harris has said that the industry is in need of regulation, with concerns over unsubstantiated health claims made about the products.
“The least we ask is if people make health claims, they have scientific evidence to support that,” Harris said in June.
Jason Marbut, who farms in western Limestone County, planted fewer than 1,000 plants.
“We’ll have a decent crop,” he said, adding that the plants are now, on average, about 4 feet high.
“There’s a lot of red tape,” involved in planting the crop, said Marbut, who’s also growing hemp for the CBD market. “But I’m going to submit a new application. I plan to do this again.”
Last week, he was waiting for agriculture inspectors to pull samples for testing so he could start harvesting.
Dry conditions also had an impact on Marbut’s operation.
“I had to water the plants by hand to keep them alive,” he said. “We haven’t had any rain in over a month.”
Planting areas for hemp are identified on the growers’ applications to facilitate required monitoring and sampling of the crop, according to Pate. Once the sample is tested and it’s confirmed that the THC level is below 0.3%, the licensed grower has 14 days to harvest the crop, according to Pate.
“We’re turning around samples in a day or so,” Pate said.
One of the licensed processors in the Alabama program is Bluewater Hemp LLC in Florence.
According to Alan Gerling, a co-owner of the firm, Bluewater is working with five hemp farmers, including Posey, to make sure they’ll have a “salable product” and access to markets.
“That won’t be a problem,” Gerling said. “There’s a demand.”
There’s a market for both hemp flowers and hemp biomass, the material that remains after the large flowers have been harvested from the plant, according to Gerling.
Gerling said Bluewater Hemp relies on an extraction process that uses heat and pressure to produce a rosin to sell to wholesalers and another process that extracts CBD to be mixed with coconut oil to produce a tincture.
“We bottle (the tincture) and sell it to retailers,” he said. “We don’t sell directly” to the public.
Gerling said a third-party independent lab tests products for CBD content and to make sure the THC content is still below 0.3%.
The Alabama Department of Agriculture & Industries planned to open the application period for the 2020 program last Monday, but is now awaiting interim rules pertaining to hemp from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The expected dates for accepting hemp applications for the 2020 program will be Oct. 7 through Nov. 14, according to the ADAI. Hemp applications will again be open to growers, processors and universities.
“We expect the (hemp) acreage to go up and the number of growers to go up,” Pate said. “I think people are excited about it.”