WESTERVILLE, Ohio (Farm and Dairy) — Growing hemp is more like growing produce than like growing corn and soybeans. You can’t just put seeds in the ground and watch them grow. It involves hands-on, intense labor.
In fact, the afternoon of June 6, Julie Doran and several helpers were using a vegetable planter to put plant hemp seedlings on her family’s farm in Westerville, Ohio.
The planted seedlings are spaced out, with about six feet between each plant. Doran picked them up the day before from a greenhouse. Seedlings that haven’t been planted yet sit in trays on a wagon.
Doran has been involved in the cannabis industry for 10 years. She produces fertilizer for cannabis with her company, Meigs Fertilizer. But this is the first year that she’s gotten to grow hemp herself.
Doran is growing five acres of hemp for CBD production. Many farmers in Ohio are growing only an acre or two.
“It’s just not something you do large-scale,” Doran said. “What really matters is the quality.”
She is a sixth generation farmer. On planting day, her dad, Paul Doran, drives the planter while two of her friends, Sherry Russell and Lora Spencer, ride in the back.
Her family has gone from farming thousands of acres to just 40 acres on Doran’s parents’ farm, where she is planting hemp this year. In the area, property taxes are high, making it difficult to farm corn and soybeans and do well, Doran said.
“Hopefully, we can make a little more money on hemp,” Doran said.
Money isn’t the only factor for Doran. Her dad and other family friends have used CBD to help with medical conditions. She believes that the plant can help people.
“It’s changing lives. That’s why you do it,” she said.
Doran was disappointed that Ohio didn’t develop a research program in 2014, when hemp was legalized for research. Over two years, she met with 89 state legislators to talk about hemp.
“I made it my mission,” she said.
While she was trying to persuade legislators to bring hemp to Ohio, she also began hosting hemp summits for other farmers.
The first one was intended to be a small event, but 250 farmers signed up. Last year, about 500 attended the second one. Doran has a third summit set for November this year.
As the industry grows, Doran is trying to teach other farmers about it. She founded the Ohio Hemp Farmers Cooperative right after the 2018 farm bill passed. It has more than 50 farmers growing this year. There are four greenhouse growers providing seedlings for most of the farmers.
In addition to farmers and greenhouse growers, the co-op has processors, CBD product manufacturers and equipment sellers as members.
Being part of the co-op, Doran said, allows farmers to get things like equipment and seeds at a discount, since they buy in bulk.
Mary Flynn, of Raccoon Creek Farms, in Granville, is one of the greenhouse growers in the co-op. Flynn was able to switch her focus to germinating hemp seeds once she got her license this spring.
It was good timing. Flynn grows culinary herbs. Many of her orders go to restaurants, universities and hospitals. Her hospital orders stayed strong, but her other sales took a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“[Hemp] is a very interesting, diverse plant in a very immature market,” Flynn said.
Flynn also has a personal interest in hemp. Her son, who runs the farm with her, has epilepsy and has used CBD products. Flynn doesn’t believe that CBD cures epilepsy, but she does think it has some benefits and wanted to be part of the market.
Out of more than 100 genetic varieties of hemp that Doran looked at, the co-op is growing nine.
Flynn raised 15,000 seedlings for the co-op. On June 11, about 85% of them had been picked up by farmers.
There are no certified seeds for CBD hemp yet.
“It’s a three-year-old industry,” Doran said. “These are all brand new plants.”
Flynn kept records on the germination rates for each variety and how well they grew. Once the co-op sees how the varieties perform and how they work for the processors, they will most likely pare down their list of varieties for next year.
“What I’m looking forward to is the co-op coming together,” Flynn said.
Flynn was researching hemp when she heard about the co-op.
“I thought it was a good opportunity to get together with other farmers and learn together,” she said.
On June 6, less than half of the farmers in the co-op had planted, thanks to the wet weather, Doran said, but they should be done planting by mid-June.
Doran has been preparing her field since last fall. She tilled it in the fall, then again two weeks before planting, then again the day before.
While some farmers will use plastic and drip irrigation, Doran didn’t want to add that extra cost. So, she will be in the field with a wagon and a water tank, individually watering each plant over the summer.
Costs and returns
Getting into hemp isn’t cheap. The planter Doran uses cost $3,500. A hemp planter, which does essentially the same thing, would cost five times that.
“If it’s not for hemp, it’s $3,500. If its for hemp, it’s $19,000,” Doran said.
Seeds can cost anywhere from 30 cents to $4 per seed, Doran said. She spent about $8,000 on her seedlings.
In 2018, farmers could expect to make about $40-$60 on each CBD hemp plant. Now, with more people in the industry, prices have dropped.
“Everybody overproduced last year,” Doran said. “A lot of your big farmers jumped in too big, too quick.”
With more people growing hemp in 2019, revenues went down. Many bit off more than they could chew.
“If you don’t have the time … don’t do it. You’re gonna lose a lot of money,” Doran said. “I’ve probably talked more people out of farming hemp than into farming hemp.”