Conservation Conversations column: The uncertainty of the hemp industry
Hemp has been replacing hay and alfalfa fields throughout the valley for the past several years. Changes to agricultural practices are evidenced by plowing up fields, a beacon that hemp will likely be grown in that field.
However, this year there have been changes to practices that leads to lots of questions for most of us who know nothing of the subject. To get a better understanding of this new crop, we talked with John Lyons of the Colorado Hemp Institute to better understand the budding industry.
As we work on the integrated watershed management plan, the question comes up about how much water hemp uses compared to other crops. Formal studies have not been conducted, but Lyons believes it to be similar to a hay crop. Further study is needed. Hemp plants benefit from drying out, which makes the roots grow to seek out water, resulting in a stronger plant.
While many farms use subsurface drip, Lyons indicated the best irrigation method is likely furrows. While drip saves more water, the use of plastic weed barrier and drip lines results in a lot of waste. Some fields are being planted under center pivots, which some suggest causes mold. Lyons has worked with growers in Tennessee that have not found this to be an issue. With our arid climate, mold is not likely to be a problem.
The control of weeds also presents a challenge. Fields are being hand weeded, which is not ideal. Lyons indicated that this stems from hemp being a new industry that hasn’t quite perfected cultivation methods. The spacing of hemp plants comes from the marijuana industry, where plants are spaced about 4 feet apart in rows that are 5 feet apart.
For hemp production, large plants are not desirable as they are more difficult to process. The spacing results in bare ground where weeds take over. Lyons suggested that reducing the spacing could deter weeds as the plant canopy will shade the soil preventing weeds on its own. He suggested the use of best management practices like cover crops and mulch to promote soil health and control weeds.
Cover crops, like clover, can fix nitrogen in the soil. These practices reduce the need for chemical fertilizers and prevent weeds. Lyons indicated that many hemp growers strive for a fully organic product, and reducing the dependence on chemical fertilizers is highly desirable.
Hemp plants are tested throughout their growing stage, again when the raw oil is extracted, and again once a final product is bottled. These layers of testing by independent labs ensures consumers know what is in the products.
Growing hemp is a balance of the vegetative state and flowering state of the plant; this is why hemp is planted later than traditional crops around mid-June. This gives the plants several weeks in the vegetative stage before the length of daylight triggers the plants to start flowering and maturing in early August.
This brings another question to mind: Which are more productive, seeds or clones? Fields planted with seeds this year appear to be struggling. Lyons apprised that seed stock is not yet at a point where you can get reliable germination rates or ensure a feminized seed. Lyons thinks that for now, clones are the best way to go but opined that in five years the industry will likely look completely different.
With so many questions and unknowns, there is one thing for sure, growing hemp is hard work. Growing hemp is labor intensive, and there are no guarantees of a productive crop. Did I mention any stress to a female plant can cause it to change to a male plant?
Lyons laughed as he told me he only works a half a day while reminding me there are 24 hours in a day. The industry will mature not only here in Colorado, but nationally and globally. Lyons believes that as long as a producer can plant and make money from hemp, it will continue to be grown in Colorado, even with national legalization.
The Conservation Districts are currently able to provide technical assistance regarding soil health and noxious weed control to assist with these challenges in transitioning acreages to hemp cultivation. We are waiting for federal guidelines to be completed to determine the level of financial assistance NRCS and the districts can provide.
If you are interested in any of the programs that the Bookcliff, South Side or Mount Sopris Conservation Districts provide, or you need technical assistance, please feel free to visit our website at http://www.bookcliffcd.org or call 970-404-3439.
Wendy Ryan works for Colorado River Engineering.
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