The team at Western Farms hopes to make industrial hemp easier for local producers to add to their crop line up.
Industrial hemp is used for a variety of products from CBD oil and health foods to paper, textiles and biodegradable plastics.
Currently, the Western Farms had 750 hemp plants in three varieties that are well-known for their high production levels and the success other growers have had with the plants. A partnership with the University of Nebraska Extension will involve cross-breeding plants to further develop plants with traits that would work well in the panhandle.
The focus at Western Farms is the seed. Industrial hemp has a 90-100 day growing period and when the current growing cycle ends in January, they expect to harvest 15 million seeds, according to P.J. Hoehn, the company’s president.
All of the plants in the greenhouse, located at the former Aulick TLC building, have been feminized. This means that the plants are female, producing flowers instead of pollen sacs.
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“It is critical for oil production,” said Hoehn. “We don’t want any male varieties.”
Because the plants still need to be pollinated, a few are selected to be male. The plants are exposed to stressors, such as a change in light, which causes them to start producing pollen. Even the male plants have a higher probability of producing female plants because they were feminized to begin with.
Once the seeds are harvested, they will be coated with an inert substance — in this case, a clay compound — which will make the size of the seeds more uniform, according to Mark Johnson, an owner of Western Farms. This will allow producers who are already growing crops like corn and sugar beets to use equipment they already own to plant and harvest their own hemp seeds.
“I think it will be a very easy transition,” said Johnson. “Whether you grow beans, corn or even tomatoes in your back yard.”
Hoehn agreed, noting that industrial hemp isn’t just for established farmers. It can be grown in limited space, making it perfect for hobby farmers as well, he said.
Growers considering adding hemp to their roster shouldn’t go crazy planting, Hoehn said. Western Farms’ own field of the crop was only an acre.
“We wouldn’t recommend more than 10 acres,” he said. “Start smell.”
That’s because, even though growing hemp wouldn’t require additional equipment, it is still labor intensive.
“There’s a lot of hand labor,” Hoehn said, such as weed removal and tillage.
The seeds require a depth of 1-1.5 inches. Although they don’t need extensive watering — Western Farm’s acre was watered with a garden hose and drip line — they do require timely watering, Johnson said. This was a challenge that Western Farms has noticed in the field, but it hasn’t been an issue in the greenhouse.
Moving to an indoor operation has come with its own problems to solve, including pests. There are currently no pesticides approved by the EPA for hemp, although there are some companies who market pesticides with hemp as a potential use.
Despite the challenges, Johnson and Hoehn believe hemp can be a successful field crop, in part because of its hardiness.
“This summer, we did endure two different hail storms,” said Johnson, but the plants remained relatively undamaged. “It still produced a nice crop.”
Additionally, the plant could have a positive impact on the economy, both locally and on a larger level. It’s not just limited to production, Johnson said, but will also benefit the processing and transportation industries.
While some producers may be weary about taking on the crop because of the learning curve, others are still hesitant because of the plants relation to marijuana. Johnson made it clear that while the two are “distant cousins,” they are not the same thing.
Both plants are varieties of the Cannabis sativa species, however, marijuana plants are grown for the purpose of harvesting Tetrahyrdocannabinol, or THC, which is the psychoactive ingredient in the plant that is responsible for producing a high.
Cannabis grown for marijuana can contain upwards of 20 percent THC, while cannabis grown for industrial use must contain less than .3 percent of the substance, according to federal laws.
The nearly non-existent THC content of the plants mean they are not psychoactive. In other words, the plants can not be used to get high.
Hoehn said that it’ll take time for more producers to get on board the industrial hemp train, but he’s optimistic about the opportunities it could bring to the panhandle.