CBD hemp – the what, the why, the how, and the economics of raising hemp on a small scale farm?
Rand Gifford grew a crop of CBD hemp on his farm in NC this year. He learned a ton along the way. He sells to 5 different locations and is starting to make value-added products through his own brand.
In this interview, he shares with us the details of what this production looks like on his farm and why you might consider growing it.
How did you initially get into CBD Hemp? (3:15)
I went to a farm conference and I initially thought it was only for large scale production. I’m only on half an acre. But then I saw hemp flower and hemp oil and it was around that time I got some CBD oil and started sharing it around my family. That’s when I started seeing how big it was going to be.
We have six 14’x100’ high tunnels in which we fit 4 30” beds and we dedicate the two center beds in each tunnel to the hemp. We hope to put out a crop in those tunnels at the beginning of April 2020 that will finish mid-summer and a second crop in late June to finish in late October. Typically people will plant in June and harvest in the fall.
Do you think it’s viable on small scale farms? (5:20)
I think it’s going to come down to if you can build a brand around that product. The market is flooded, so wholesale isn’t an option if you aren’t selling on a large scale. But if you are selling value-added products like CBD oil, salves, and the flower itself that you can sell direct to the consumer it can be viable.
Think of it like craft-brewing beer. You can create a following with a high-end product. It comes down to growing a high-quality product. If you are growing it in a greenhouse you can keep the flower dry and perfect the product. Actually, the large scale growers still have to harvest and trim the plants by hand, so you are on-par with the big guys in terms of efficiency.
Can your growing practices affect the final product in a way a consumer would be interested in? (9:30)
I think you’ll always get a better product the more attention you can give a plant. Big farms send the flowers through a machine trimmer that makes you lose a lot of trichomes. Those plants are out in the field so they are more susceptible to rain, mold, and decomposition. We are trellising, pruning and focusing light on the buds to let them get high density. Also, growing unique varieties can get you to stand out in a crowded market place.
Last fall the market was flooded for what’s called biomass, or ground down, mixed product, not top-shelf flower. If you are small scale you want to grow with a focus on nutrient-dense soil, growing under protection, proper pruning, and trellising techniques, harvest at peak time, dry it in a temperature and humidity-controlled space with good airflow. Then, send it off for a full panel test. Test for potency, terpene profile, microtoxins, microbial activity, etc. That way you can go to a buyer and present a high-quality product.
Even if you didn’t want to make the end product yourself you could look for who has a quality product and sell to them. You may get $400/lb for that quality product now the market is flooded.
Is this just a fad? (16:00)
It’s definitely not a fad because it’s truly helping people. It helps with insomnia and anxiety significantly without a pharmaceutical. Just make sure you have a passion for growing it because it is a lot of work. There’s nothing cheap about it. The seeds are expensive. Harvest time is a lot of work.
Let’s talk about the growth of the plant. (18:40)
We plant 3’ apart and stagger them. You could go 4’, but you need to know what variety you are growing. We put posts every 6-8’ and put horizontal trellis netting over them at 3’ and 5’ so the plants can grow through them, which keeps them upright. We use drip irrigation because you want to keep the plants dry. They are susceptible to mold and fungus, especially when they are budding. We can also fertigate through the drip line. They can get tall so you might have to trim them, ours were over 12’ so I had to cut them back from the top of our tunnel.
There are 3 kinds of plants. Cannabis sativa, indica, and ruderalis. Indicas are short and stocky. Sativas are tall and lanky. Ruderalis are daylight neutral where the others are photosensitive, so the ruderalis will go to flower at varying times of the year instead of just 12 hours of daylight. So you can grow multiple crops regardless of what the sunlight is doing during a year. We are going to get two growing cycles with these auto-flowers since they only take 60-70 days to harvest.
The disadvantage of the auto-flowers is they are in early stages of genetic selection, so they can be more sensitive than other cannabis plants. We sent a succession into early flower last year when they got stressed out from transplanting. They weren’t even a foot tall.
There is a book Teaming with Microbes in which the author Jeff Lowenfels proposes that auto-flowers will be the way the home gardener can start producing their own plants.
Should someone start with seeds or clones? (29:20)
It can be hard to find quality seeds. The big guys who have the best genetics typically don’t want to sell anything less than $5k orders. At a dollar a seed it’s not affordable. I prefer seeds to clones because the root-stock on them is incredible. The genetics on the clones are nice for uniformity, but overall the roots for mine were much smaller. The clones are $4-10 apiece and the seeds only $1-2.50 each.
They grow so large so fast, are they very heavy feeders? (33:00)
You do want to feed them a high amount of nitrogen fertilizer when they are getting established. When they go into flower you want to give them a bloom fertilizer the week before, during and after. They also need a lot of calcium and magnesium. I would walk out and make observations every day. I use a company called AEA – Advancing Eco Agriculture and they go through my results with me. Typical cannabis nutrient lines don’t assume living soils and so over-prescribe nutrients and say you should flush after feedings which doesn’t make sense to me in soil.
Is it as profitable per bed foot as some of your more valuable market garden crops like salad mix? (44:50)
It depends. If you can produce a top-shelf flower or value add the product I think hemp will be far more profitable. That being said there are a lot more expenses. It’s not as much can you grow it, or how much can you grow, but how much can you sell. There are some people I know who are sitting on it right now because they can’t sell it to make a profit.
How storable is the product? (53:40)
Making sure you are drying and storing it properly is important. Dry it until you crack the stem and can hear it snap. Then buck it down into big 55-gallon turkey bags which are airtight. We used a little nitrogen tank to push oxygen out of the bags which is what turns the flowers brown. If you do that it should keep for at least a year. We’ve sold a decent amount of what we’ve stored but are still sitting on some. I’ve heard it can even last two years. I’ve had to sell it for a lot less. The regulations are in flux and so is the market, so you can err on the conservative side.
How do you create your processed CBD products? (1:01:20)
Once it’s dried and bucked down you can contact a third party processor. You couldn’t easily afford to do it yourself as you need the expensive facilities and essentially a degree in chemistry. There are different forms of extraction that processors can use, such as ethanol and butane, consider which is best for your context or brand. I vacuum sealed the nugs and sent it to them. They will create it into an oil, and a salve is the oil mixed with a wax with botanicals included to create a desirable scent such as mint.
You can pay via a toll method which typically means they keep 40% of the oil they create and you get 60%, which is a good option for people because typically money is tight during certain times of the year.
Can you do third party testing to show the product’s quality to the customer? (1:05:00)
You totally can. You can test for CBD and other cannabinoids and terpenes. Certain extraction methods may yield more but you’ll lose terpenes. What you’ll find in gas station CBD gummies may just be an isolate, pure CBD without other cannabinoids and no terpenes. With that, you’re not getting the full effect or the entourage effect. Another thing you want to take into account is the source. Cannabis plants are bioaccumalators and are taking nutrients, even such as heavy metals, and are storing them. If it is grown across the world in someplace where they are not testing you can be exposed to a concentrated form of any pesticides or metals from the oil.
Is getting organic certification worth it? (1:10:30)
It could help differentiate you in a crowded marketplace since most other growers are not certified. Moreso it could tell the buyer you are a serious grower who knows what they are doing since you’ve gone as far as to get certified. We are working on getting our certification right now.
Value-adding CBD product by processing it into oils and salves gives you the opportunity to make the flower more shelf-stable while using inexpensive additives like beeswax and to upcharge to make the product earn more. And who is buying the flowers? (1:12:00)
It’s a lot more work, but in the end, you get a product that is worth more money. We weren’t sure who our customers for the flowers were going to be at first but it turns out there are people, mostly in their 40’s and older, who are interested in having the calming effects of smoking the CBD without the paranoia that can come with THC. They are smoking it for the medicinal or anti-anxiety effects.
What about the legality of CBD? (1:14:40)
The legality of it right now is going under the 2018 farm bill which says that any product that contains less than 0.3% delta-nine THC is hemp and is therefore federally legal in all 50 states. Some states have their own laws. Louisiana says that no hemp flower can be sold regardless of the THC content. NC is talking about passing a similar law. But federally it can even be shipped across all 50 states, but it has to have all the accompanying paperwork with it.
That’s why they are talking about making it illegal in NC because police can’t tell the difference. It looks the same, it smells the same, you have to bring it to a lab to test it. They’re still trying to figure all of this out. When they passed laws to legalize hemp I don’t think they’d imagine people would be smoking it. When you get stopped and it smells like weed in the car as a cop I can’t bring them in on charges if they say it’s CBD and I don’t have time to have it tested.
You can test positive for it, however, given the low levels of THC in CBD products that will still show up on a drug screen. What they should do is raise the levels they test you for so people who operate machinery who you don’t want using drugs, like truck drivers, can still benefit from CBD.
Is it worth it for a farmer to grow CBD for the flower vs. growing THC for the flower? Isn’t THC far more lucrative? (1:19:20)
Growing a quality CBD flower is actually where a farmer will likely differentiate themselves. With oil and other value add products at the end of the day it’s going to be hard to tell the difference, so large farms may have the advantage there.
Smoking a blend of 20% THC flowers with equal parts of 20% CBD flowers is also likely to cancel out the negative effects of the THC for users, such as the paranoia and anxiety. In the future people will be looking to grow for a balance, with equal parts THC and CBD bred in one flower. But for now, people have long been focused on just THC so you won’t find blends available until some breeding work is done.
For a gram of THC, you’d pay around $15 and for CBD anywhere from $5-10. It’s a supply issue. Since CBD is available nationwide, and the permits for it are much less expensive (we paid $500 our first year and $250 the second) it raises supply and hence lowers the price.
Are there any other legal hurdles beyond getting a permit? (1:24:00)
Every state has its own different pilot program. In NC you have to be an existing farm, meaning you filed a schedule F the year before you apply for the permit. You then pay the fee, everyone I know that applied got the permit, and then you need to report where you purchased the seed from and show an analysis that they are indeed hemp. During the third week of flower, a compliance officer will take a sample of the flower and send it to a lab. As long as it passes that it’s good to go.
Federally they are looking to make a change to test for under that 0.3% THC 15 days prior to harvest. Right now they are only regulating delta-nine THC. You also have TCH-A which is THC in an acid form and that is non-psychoactive until it is combusted, at which point it converts to delta-nine. If they are to pass this law it would render most varieties out there useless.
What if you wanted to simply grow the plant and not have to process it at all – is there a way you can do that? (1:27:40)
It depends on your area. Where we’re at there’s a company called Harvest Moon that offers a full range of services. I could harvest it and bring it to them and they would cure it, trim it, and even have a brokerage service so they’d sell it. The prices for that service will depend on the market, but I think it’s about $100/lb to have them perform the whole service, and then they can give it back to you to sell or help you selling it.
We had to convert part of a general store on our property to create a drying room, and that was a lot of work. Some other people I know used shipping containers. This can stop a number of farmers from wanting to produce it because if you don’t do it properly you’re going to end up with a product that smells like hay. Sending it off-farm to be dried could be a good option if you don’t want to do this process because it may end up being cost-effective since it’s not only costly to install and run the equipment, but also requires considerable labor.
You can find Rand on the web at his farm’s website; Akira Botanicals. He also has a YouTube channel at Greenshine Farmers, which he started back from the beginning of their farm. You can follow him on Instagram @AkiraBotanicals and @GreenshineFarms.
What do you think about this episode? Do you want to hear more from Rand or more about growing hemp? Reach out on Instagram @DiegoFooter and let me know.