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Miami County Farmer Reflects on Hemp Crop Grown This Year

by Darrell Boone

Published: Friday, November 9, 2018

In 2018, Mark Boyer became the first farmer to have grown legal hemp in Indiana since World War II. And while he doesn't feel one year's experience with the crop qualifies him as an expert, he definitely feels he knows more now than he did a year ago.

"I learned a lot—sometimes dramatically—that hemp is much different than the commodity crops we're used to growing," he said. "Much of what I learned was the polar opposite of what I expected. And I also learned that I still have much to learn."

Boyer, who raises corn, soybeans, wheat, canola and sunflowers near Converse, in southern Miami County, grew about 12 acres of industrial hemp as a research plot, in conjunction with Purdue University Agronomy. Currently, hemp is illegal to grow in Indiana. It is a form of cannabis, but without the psychoactive properties of its more notorious relative, marijuana. To be able to conduct the research, Boyer had to get special licenses to grow and process the hemp, plus a permit from the Indiana State Chemist.

Industrial hemp could potentially have a very broad range of commercial uses, including manufacturing, culinary, clothing, pharmaceuticals and more. Boyer said there are three types of hemp that he could have grown—for fiber, for oil or dual purpose, which includes both fiber and oil properties.

While Boyer believes that fiber will eventually be the "heavy hitter" for Indiana hemp production, he chose to grow the dual-purpose type this year. His hope is to eventually use the hemp oil to add to the lineup of canola and sunflower culinary oils from his side business, Healthy Hoosier Oil LLC. These niche products are processed on his farm using a cold press process, and sold as part of the Indiana Grown program.

Boyer's hemp plot was grown strictly for research, with no potential for profit this year. He clarified that his goal of eventually growing and producing culinary oil from hemp was a markedly different product than CDB oil, which is currently being sold for its purported health benefits. CDB oil is extracted from the inner bud leaves of either marijuana or hemp. Hemp oil comes from the plant's seed, a somewhat darkish-looking seed that is roughly the size of a plump grain of wheat.

Boyer planted his hemp seed on June 7 with his John Deere 750 no-till drill, and was initially surprised at how well the early phase of his new crop went. It had a 94 percent germination rate, and produced a "wonderful stand." Then heavy rains set in, which provided his first big lesson.

"I found out that hemp—like soybeans—'doesn't like wet feet,'" he said. "We're not talking flooding, just saturated soils. What I wound up with was a very good stand in the high ground, and a very poor stand in the low ground."

Other lessons from Boyer's first hemp experience included:

• Plant it sooner. Because he was waiting on his permit to grow hemp, Boyer wasn't able to plant this year's crop until June 7. Although hemp is only a 120-day crop, ideally, he said late April would have been a much better planting date.

• Because of the problems with hemp "not liking wet feet," Boyer suspects the crop might be well suited for sandy soils.

• Hemp was a heavier user of nutrients than Boyer had anticipated, especially nitrogen. "Hemp really likes nitrogen," he said.

• Boyer planted the hemp following corn, which in retrospect, he said was probably a mistake. "With it being such a heavy nitrogen user, it would probably better follow soybeans, wheat or our other oil crops," he said.

• Harvesting went better than expected. Boyer had anticipated some difficulty with the stalks of the plants wrapping around the reel of the grain head. But with minor modifications to the combine, that was not a problem.

• Dry it right away. Hemp is harvested at 15 to 20 percent moisture, but has to be dried down to 8 percent or less to be stored. If the harvested seed doesn't go to mechanical drying right away, it will start to heat up almost immediately.

• Hemp is a high-management crop. "I've experienced many of the same issues on our other oil crops, but this was dramatically more different with hemp than what I'd expected," he said.

Boyer said the plot yielded 34 bushels per acre, and being his first crop, "I have no idea whether that's good or bad." But he's glad for the experience, and said given the opportunity to grow hemp for profit, he would "absolutely entertain growing it," although probably not a large acreage. He also feels that industrial hemp has good potential to be a viable alternative crop for Indiana farmers.

"I believe the potential is there for industrial hemp to ultimately be a very lucrative alternative crop, compared to just corn and soybeans, especially once we get our marketing and manufacturing infrastructure in place," he said. "But some people have the idea that this is going to be like Colorado, which has legalized recreational marijuana, and that there's going to be 'money falling from the sky.' This is not going to be a Colorado."

But for any Hoosier farmers who can't wait to start raising industrial hemp, Boyer urged patience, and anticipated that it could be a number of years before raising hemp commercially becomes a reality.

"There are a lot of farmers waiting for the gun to go off, but we're really not even at the starting line yet," he said.

Before commercial production can begin, Boyer said that farmers first need to be able to legally grow it. That's a provision in the 2018 Farm Bill, which is currently stalled in Congress. Once hemp is legalized on a federal level, then individual states need to develop their own common-sense rules for growing it.

After that comes what Boyer called a "chicken or egg" question—whether hemp production would proceed before the infrastructure to market and manufacture it was in place, or whether the infrastructure needs to be in place before farmers will be willing to grow it.

Boyer said the demand is there, but the infrastructure is lacking. He cited FlexForm Technologies in Elkhart as an example of an in-state company that's currently importing 40 to 60 tons of industrial hemp fiber from Southeast Asia each week for manufacturing. But before the company can use the fiber, it has to be lightly processed, and there is no such processing plant in Indiana.

"Right now, everybody's dragging their feet to see what comes out of the farm bill," he said.

In the meantime, Boyer suggested that farmers who would like to learn more or get involved to check out either of two organizations, the Indiana Hemp Industries Assn., or the Midwest Hemp Council, both of which are working on grassroots legislation. He felt doing so could possibly speed up the process.

"I believe that industrial hemp can be a viable alternative crop for Indiana, and we need one," he said. "I've taken that path myself, with our oilseed crops. I'll always be an Indiana corn, soybean and wheat farmer, but alternative crops have added much-needed diversity to our farm, which has helped us in times like these."

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