By Matt Reese
There is certainly plenty of interest in Ohio hemp production, but there is also quite a bit to learn about the diverse, newly approved crop.
After being prohibited for many years, commercial hemp production was legalized in the U.S. by the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018. Then on July 30, 2019, Senate Bill 57 was enacted to legalize hemp production in Ohio. Hemp produces three main types of crops — fiber, grain, and metabolites — each crop with very different genetics, production practices, processing methods, and end uses, said Craig Schluttenhofer, assistant research professor of natural products for Central State University Agricultural Research Development Program.
“Production wise, metabolites are very labor intensive, handled by hand and very similar to growing a tobacco crop. The grain plant gets 5 to 6 feet tall. It is harvested with a combine and stored and dried in grain bins like small grains with some modifications,” Schluttenhofer said. “The fiber is like a forage crop that grows very tall. It is a single stem that gets cut like you would mow a forage crop. It has to sit outside to ret — which is a controlled rotting process — for a few weeks. Then it is baled up in big round bales and sent to a processor.”
Each type of hemp is a cousin to marijuana and has a risk of reaching illegal (in Ohio) levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which causes hallucinogenic effects. Hemp crops with levels of THC over .3% must be destroyed, Schluttenhofer said. Under current law, hemp growers and processors in the state must have a license from the Ohio Department of Agriculture, which oversees the testing of THC levels. If the THC levels are acceptable, the hemp must be harvested within 15 days of the test.
“Managing THC is a challenge for every hemp grower, particularly with a metabolite crop. It is best managed with consistent testing once the plants flower. You need to do a nice, uniform random sampling protocol. You have to send the samples to the laboratory for testing. It is expensive, but watching that THC level in the plants at any given point in time is the only way to really manage it,” Schluttenhofer said. “There are a number of anecdotal practices to do that can supposedly lower the THC levels but it really just comes down to a rigorous and consistent testing protocol up until the point you see the levels of the metabolites you want while it is still compliant and getting the official samples taken so you can harvest that crop.”
Hemp needs well drained soils, warm temperatures and plenty of moisture. Irrigation is used in some production, though it may not always be necessary in Ohio. In addition, seed can be expensive, difficult to find and expensive. Good seed from a reputable source, though, is very important to grow a successful crop.
Maybe the most important part of profitable hemp production, regardless of the type, is a known destination for the crop after harvest.
“The market is a fundamental question for every hemp grower. This is a new crop and we have to develop the infrastructure. There was a quick development of the metabolite infrastructure in some places because there was a high profit margin to be made there and they were able to pay off the expensive equipment they need for those facilities. Ohio didn’t necessarily get in early enough to catch that benefit. Now everything is a lot more competitive in that space,” Schluttenhofer said. “For grain and fiber, there are just not a lot of processors in general in the U.S. Finding a processor to buy your crops is critical. Over time I think we’ll see more development in the grain and fiber side as more people learn about those crops. We should see those develop to establish a successful industry in the state.”
With so much uncertainty, Ohio hemp growers started cautiously in 2020.
“There were 197 licensed growers in 2020, not all of them planted. There were 555 acres planted in Ohio and of that, 491 were actually harvested, which is pretty good. I think we’re off to a good start,” Schluttenhofer said. “People were very cautious after seeing problems with crops planted in other states in 2019. We took a prudent and cautious approach. A lot of them just planted a little bit just to try it to feel it out and that is a good way to start. The numbers reflect that. You need to know what you are dealing with before you invest too much money in it. Otherwise, you can lose a lot of money. This is a good start for Ohio to build the industry within the state.”
In general, chemical weed and pest control options are very limited in hemp production and Ohio has very limited current processing capacity for any of the hemp types.
Schluttenhofer is the author of Extension Fact Sheet ANR 20-1 on hemp available at centralstate.edu/academics/cse/agriculture/im/CSU-ANR-20-1-Hemp.pdf that outlines some of specifics and differences between the different types of production.
“The type of hemp most people are familiar with is metabolite hemp which is going to be grown for cannabigerol (CBG) or cannabidiol (CBD),” Schluttenhofer said. “It is produced for extracts that companies are using in a number of herbal supplements and dietary type products. It can also be directly smoked as a non-intoxicating product.”
This type of hemp, immediately following legalization in the U.S., had very high profit margins. Producers responded quickly.
“The price used to be very good for metabolite production — that’s why a lot of people jumped into this market sector. But in 2019 those prices really crashed and they come down from what was around $3 a percentage point of CBD per pound to in the realm of more like 50 cents for percentage point per pound and so you’re looking at a much lower value material,” Schluttenhofer said. “In part this is because in 2016 there was just shy of 10,000 acres in the U.S. licensed. By 2018 it went up to 78,000 acres and by 2019 we had over a half a million acres licensed. That crop could potentially be at 7% CBD. Making some assumptions that could be 2.8 billion kilograms of CBD isolate, which will be roughly enough to give 100% of the people in the U.S. 20 milligrams of CBD per day for a full year. Another way of looking at that is it enough to give the entire world population one milligram of CBD per day for a full year.”
Metabolite hemp can be planted in Ohio from late-May to mid-June using a tobacco transplanter or hand planting seedlings at 1,000 to 2,500 plants per acre in 4-foot by 4-foot or 6-foot by 6-foot spacings. The crop needs 50 to 100 pounds of nitrogen, 45 to 60 pounds of phosphorus and 35 to 100 pound of potassium per acre. Male plants need to be removed to leave only female plants to produce flowers that can be harvested from mid-September to mid-October by hand with a machete or chain saw. As plant height increases so does the difficulty handling the crop. Crops in excess of 6 feet can be challenging to handle and dry.
After harvest, plants are typically hung to dry in a barn before being stripped of flowers dried to 8% to 10% moisture that are placed in totes for storage and transport.
Fiber hemp grows much taller — up to 16 feet — than other types of hemp because it is harvested for the stems.
“People think about the rope used in World War II. That is a lot of people’s most recent recollection of this crop,” Schluttenhofer said. “This is a very different plant you grow for the stems. You have to get the fiber separated from the thick stem and there are a number of industrial applications.”
Fiber hemp can be planted in mid- to late-May with a drill at 1.3 million to 1.5 million seeds per acre. The crop needs 50 to 100 pounds of nitrogen, 45 to 60 pounds of phosphorus and 35 to 100 pounds of potassium per acre. The plants can be harvested in August with a sickle-bar or disc mower and left lying in the field for retting (controlled rotting) to separate the outer fibrous portion of the stem from the inner woody part. This process takes 2 to 6 weeks depending on the moisture. Higher moisture results in faster retting. After retting, the hemp stalks are baled in one-ton round or square bales at 10% to 16% moisture. The fiber can be used in a wide array of industrial products.
This type of hemp may be the best fit for large-scale Ohio agriculture because it can fit into crop rotations and handled similarly to other small grains like wheat or barley. With some tweaks, exiting equipment and infrastructure can be modified to accommodate grain hemp. The oil and whole seeds are used in human food.
A seeding rate of 435,000 to 650,000 can be planted with a drill from late May to late June. The crop needs 100 to 130 pounds nitrogen, 45 to 75 pounds of phosphorus and 35 to 100 pounds of potassium per acre. The crop grows up to 8 feet tall and has a single grain head on a stalk that can be harvested in September or October with a draper head on the combine. The grain should be 12% to 18% moisture at harvest and quickly cleaned, stored in a bin and dried to 8% to 10% moisture.
To learn more about hemp, Central State University Extension and Ohio State University Extension are collaborating to present the 2021 Land Grant Virtual Hemp Conference: Looking Back to Plan for the Future. The virtual conference will be held 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Friday, March 5, and features a wide variety of speakers focusing on growing and marketing hemp.
A virtual trade show will be held from 1 to 5 p.m., Saturday, March 6, and will feature hemp processors who will provide information to help potential growers discover possible markets.
Registration is required for the virtual events. To register or for more information about the hemp conference or trade show, email Cindy Folck at afolck@CentralState.edu or call 937-376-6101. For more information about growing hemp, visit go.osu.edu/hemptips.