Although wild hemp has grown on the sides of Kansas highways for more than a century, the plant, known as ditch weed, is now officially reinstated as a viable crop in the Sunflower State.
Last year, Kansas was one of a growing number of states that launched a pilot program for growing industrial hemp. By the end of 2020, Kansas, along with several other states, hope to transition from a pilot program to a viable commercial one.
The owners of Sunnyland Kansas in McPherson and Butler counties, are at the forefront of this movement. This father/son operation both grows the plants and processes them.
After running a similar operation in Oregon, last year, when hemp was first allowed to be grown in Kansas, the Coleman family decided it was time to move home and start another farm.
“Farmers didn’t know who to trust and how to grow (the product),” said Sheldon Coleman, co-owner of Sunnyland. “There’s a very specific system.”
While growing their own crops, the Coleman’s are educating Kansans on where to buy seed, where to grow, how to navigate the red tape and most of all, how to make a profit.
Sheldon’s son Christion, who is president of Sunnyland said a lot of people are jumping on the bandwagon, but they don’t know how to sell the product.
Hemp was grown in China for textile and fiber for more than 1,000 years. During the 1700s, the U.S. and Europe grew hemp and manufactured rope and canvas from the crop. One century later, cheaper sources were found.
By 1970, hemp was completely illegal in the U.S.
The 2014 Farm Bill opened the door slightly to the crop. By 2019, more than 146,000 acres of hemp were planted nationwide.
Industrial hemp, used for CBD, rope, fabric and grain, is a variety of the same species of plant as cannabis; however, this crop yields low levels of THC - .3%, the chemical known to make humans ‘high’.
Last year, Kansas State University and several dozen producers were allowed to be part of the state’s industrial hemp pilot program. All growers and their employees had background checks and their crops were inspected.
Farmers bought seed, planted and learned how to grow this versatile crop on the fly.
Because this is a new program in Kansas, the Coleman’s see this as an opportunity. to return to their roots and help build an industry from the seed up.
The Coleman’s are busy growing CBD plants on their farm in Butler County, sorting and drying the buds at their facility in Newton and teaching farmers about the crop.
“We get so excited about it (hemp) because we’ve accumulated so much information,” Christian said.
Jeff Vogel, Director of plant protection and weed control for the Kansas Department of Agriculture said Kansas is close to getting approval to grow commercial industrial hemp, as opposed to research-based. But, because of slowdowns due to COVID-19, the process might take longer than expected.
“We are waiting on approval of the state’s commercial industrial hemp plan from the USDA,” Vogel said. “This will happen quickly, assuming COVID-19 does not stop it.”
In addition to the legal aspects of growing this plant, there are several environmental issues as well. When growing for CBD, only female plants are viable. During pollination, if a male plant gets near a female, the whole crop can be ruined.
Finding good, all female seeds is also problematic. Weeds and mandated use of insecticides for this crop are a challenge.
According to the Coleman’s, as long as the USDA allows industrial hemp in the US and in Kansas specifically, the future for growing CBD hemp is bright.
The Coleman’s grew industrial hemp for CBD oil in Oregon and understand the particulars of the plant. They say growing CBD makes economic sense.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s still more profitable than most crops.” Sheldon said “Hemp can be your best revenue profit on your farm, thousands per acre.”
But although the profit margin can be good, Christian said there’s a lot of risk and a lot of input costs.
Processing the crop is labor intensive. Picking the bud is similar to harvesting grapes for making wine.
“We strip by hand,” Christian said. “It takes 25 people plus to harvest one acre a day.”
Once the hemp is picked, it needs to be dried immediately before it rots or gets moldy. The Coleman’s invested in a dryer, which takes about eight hours to dry a one acre crop. But if you’re using a barn, the drying process takes days.
The Coleman’s offer a drying service, distribution services, education and unofficial crop testing.
In 2019, 90% of Kansas farms that harvested hemp grew the CBD variety.
“We believe a similar trend will occur this year,” Vogel said. “But we won’t know until harvest.”
This is because not every acre is planted, nor is it harvested.
“Last year, 5,700 acres were planted, 1,700 were harvested,” Vogel said. “People are using this as a learning experience regardless if they harvest or not.”
More than 275 producers applied to grow during the 2020 season. This is up from a little more than 200 during the 2019 season. Last year, licenses were issued in 68 counties.
Research into hemp continues and new products are coming onto the market.
“Once they (Kansas producers) put their seed in the ground, they need to be part of a network,” Christian said. “We all benefit when everybody’s successful.”