Kevin Krueger has been growing hemp for three years on his farm, six-and-a-half miles south of Thornhill in south-central Manitoba. The first year he grew 70 acres, the second 25 acres and 30 acres this year. “I’ve called it an experiment every year,” says Krueger. “The experiments are starting to work so next year, I’m thinking about planting 130 acres.”
Krueger tried hemp because he was looking for an alternate crop with potentially higher returns, and hemp has certainly lived up to that expectation. “So far it’s been my highest returning crop, even the second year when I got just 750 pounds of hempseed per acre,” he says. “There are different prices out there but I think that there’s a good $100/acre more return on it than canola.”
Krueger is having a hard time coming up with an average yield, as his have varied considerably each year from 1,450 lbs./acre in Year 1, to 750 lbs./acre in Year 2 and over 1,600 lbs./acre this year, but he estimates 1,000 lbs./acre would not be unreasonable as an average yield for his growing area.
A steep learning curve
Hemp isn’t hard to grow, although it does have different management requirements than other crops, and Krueger admits he’s still riding the learning curve in terms of tweaking the fertility program and a few other things.
Krueger seeds at 20 to 30 lbs./acre depending on the seed size of the variety he is growing, and plants shallow at half to three-quarters of an inch depth like canola. He likes the fact that he can seed hemp late — usually at the end of May — as it prefers warm soils. He’s been varying his fertility program, and put a slightly higher rate of 130 lbs./acre of nitrogen on this year than last, half as regular urea and half as slow-release N, as well as 50 lbs. of phosphate – 20 lbs./acre with the seed and another 30 lbs./acre with a pre-emergent application of herbicide.
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The first two years Krueger didn’t use any chemical weed control, just a pre-seed cultivation, and found the hemp crop out-competed weeds well. This year he used Edge, a Group 3 herbicide, to help prevent dockage because of wheat kernels in the finished hemp crop, which is a concern because hemp seed and oil is sold as a gluten-free food product. “You have to make sure that there is no wheat in it and it’s hard to clean out of hemp,” he says. “The first two years, I had pretty heavy cleanout and I thought if I can stop a few wheat kernels from germinating and lower my dockage by two or three per cent, that would pay for the chemical. But from a weed standpoint it was very acceptable without putting any chemical down.”
Even volunteers are easily dealt with at a young stage with a cultivator pass or a “sniff” of chemical says Krueger.
Ideally hemp is best following barley, oats or alfalfa, and although Krueger grew it on canola ground this year, he says that’s probably not the best practice, as there can be a risk from Sclerotinia, although he suspects from his experience this year that the disease may infect hemp at a later stage, protecting it from any significant yield loss.
Harvest horror stories unfounded
Krueger admits he had some concerns about harvesting hemp, having heard more than a few horror stories about it, but says he’s had no trouble, although he has made a couple of modifications to his older, John Deere 9600 combine. “The biggest thing was I pulled the feeder chain out and put in a conveyor belt which covers the drive and the top sprockets, which is where the hemp would get caught up,” he says. “I haven’t had any issues.”
He’s had different experiences combining hemp with varieties of various heights. The first year he swathed the crop when it was about five-and-a-half feet tall and left it to dry out for three days. “I didn’t have any problem with it, it was close to dry, and the product was easy to handle,” he says. Year 2 he grew a taller variety, which he straight cut at around 6-1/2 feet tall. “I was taking the product off at 28 to 30 per cent moisture, and from the combine it needed to go straight into a dryer, and drying can be a bit of a challenge because it has to be dried slowly and not overheated because it’s a food product,” he says.
Year 3 Krueger grew a much shorter variety, which proved to be the best for harvestability. He swathed at 4-1/2 feet tall, waited three days and combined it dry with a lot less hassle than a canola crop. “A year like this I would gladly get rid of my canola rotation,” he says. “It was so easy to swath the hemp. I set my reel as high as it goes and my cutter to six inches off the ground and just drove. With canola you are always fighting lodging, and are up and down on the header all the time, but I know every year is different.”
Moisture is critical
Although there were yield differences across the different varieties, and he has made some minor adjustments to his fertilizer program, Krueger believes the amount and timing of moisture during the season is crucial to push yield potential, as is field choice. “I’ve chosen my best, well-drained land to grow hemp on,” says Krueger. “There are still some low spots, but in those areas it’s a very weak plant coming out of the ground because hemp doesn’t like compaction or excess moisture at a young stage. But once it is established, it will suck up moisture and that will help determine the final yield. This year we got 30 inches of rain and I got my biggest yield yet. The year I only got 750 lbs./acre we were very short on moisture near the end of the growing season.”
Hemp growers do have to cope with certain regulatory requirements, including obtaining an annual licence from Health Canada to grow and store hemp, as well as undergoing a criminal record check every year. But changes recently announced to the regulations will make the licence application process easier and more efficient. Krueger particularly welcomes being able to apply electronically through email, having grown frustrated by the long delays to process licences via “snail mail.”
Another major change is the extension of the licence — which is currently issued on a calendar year basis — to March of the following year to allow growers more time to store and sell their hemp crop from the previous year. “In the past the licence ran out December 31 and I’d have to get a new licence otherwise it would be illegal to store it after that date,” says Krueger.
Hempseed that is used for food or oil must also be 99.9 per cent clean of any contaminants because it doesn’t go through any procedure at the processor to kill bacteria. “You need to treat hemp seed as if it’s coming off the combine and going onto your plate and you don’t realize the criticalness of that until you’ve been in it for a little while,” says Krueger. “If your bacteria count happens to be high because it maybe wasn’t quite dry enough and you got a hot spot in the bin, the whole batch would be rejected. It’s not like wheat where it gets downgraded to No. 2; now it’s bird food.”
Markets a risk factor
The fact that hemp is still a niche crop means there are also risks associated with how well processors and food companies predict market potential. “Processors are trying to guess what supplies they need, but they don’t necessarily know what yields are going to be out there or what the year will bring,” says Krueger. “In 2014 and 2015 they were expecting their market to grow more, and they had some extra acres out there, but everybody grew a good crop and they were sitting in a big surplus position. I was lucky enough to get mine out in a timely fashion but there were some producers who only got rid of their 2014 crop a short time ago, and they weren’t happy about that. But the pipeline is cleaned out now and so I think it’s going to be a good year, but if the market fails there some risk there too.”
Although the high returns are the biggest benefit to growing hemp, Krueger believes he’s also helping to improve his soils. “The following crop has been good every year, and that could be related to many things such as field choice or moisture, but I’m thinking hemp may be doing something good to the land too,” he says. “I need more experience with it to say that for sure, but I do know I have grown good crops on the hemp ground.”