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Wawaka Farmer to Grow Hemp

by Jerry Goshert

Published: Friday, May 10, 2019

A Noble County organic farmer is one of nine growers statewide who has received a research license to grow industrial hemp for the 2019 growing season.

Joel Mecklenburg of Wawaka received a pallet of hemp seed last Friday and is looking forward to planting the crop in early June.

Approved in the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp is being grown on a limited basis this year, and is available only to those who possess a valid research license. The information gathered from the nine research projects in Indiana will allow the industry to understand some of the practical issues involved in growing hemp before its widespread use becomes legal in 2020.

Mecklenburg said he is always interested in trying new things. In fact, he is one of very few organic growers who uses center pivot irrigation to water his crops. As an organic grower, he specializes in growing seed corn, seed beans and seed wheat for the organic market. He views industrial hemp as way to diversify his operation. Eventually, he wants to grow organic hemp seed.

The first challenge, though, is determining the right row spacing. The guidelines suggest planting hemp in 7.5-inch rows, to encourage each plant to grow a single seed head. But as an organic grower, Mecklenburg doesn't use any chemicals to control weeds and therefore needs wider (30-inch) rows for cultivation. This will be one area of focus for researchers.

"The (seed) company is slightly concerned (that) it hasn't been done before, but nothing on it has been done before, really. It's just a completely new crop. We have a lot of learning to do."

Mecklenburg, an Illinois native who holds an agricultural education degree from Illinois State University, will have eight test plots totaling nearly 50 acres this summer. He plans to use a conventional planter on seven of the test plots and a custom air-seeder on the eighth plot. Seeds will be planted at a half-inch depth.

His Noble Organics farm will host a research field day on July 31.

Mecklenburg says hemp is a fibrous plant and grows very quickly. He planted a few seeds in his windowsill at home to make some initial observations. After just three days, the plant already had 1.5-inch roots.

He said he doesn't plan to make a profit from the hemp crop this year but sees plenty of value in learning how to grow an alternative crop.

In addition to hemp, Mecklenburg is excited about a field of clover that is functioning as a cover crop rather than a forage crop. In a wet spring, conditions haven't been very good for planting any row crops, and this field of clover, planted in rows last August, appears to be flourishing.

The clover was seeded last summer following the final cultivation of soybeans, and is already 6 inches high. He plans to plow it under this spring before planting corn and hemp. He expects it to produce enough nitrogen to sustain those crops in the early stages of growth.

Not everyone can grow industrial hemp. In order to obtain his research license from the Indiana Office of the State Chemist, Mecklenburg had to fill out an application, receive approval and pass a criminal background check.

Going beyond these measures, Mecklenburg has been proactive to make sure all of his neighbors, and even the state police, are aware of a marijuana-like crop growing in his fields. To be sure, industrial hemp looks very similar to its cousin, marijuana, which is illegal to grow in Indiana. The only way to distinguish between the two plants is to test for their THC levels. Industrial hemp does not possess the same potency as marijuana. Nevertheless, anyone who grows industrial hemp without a valid research license can be prosecuted for violating marijuana laws, at least until full-scale production is approved in 2020.

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