HASTINGS, Minn. — Among the familiar corn and soybean fields just south of the Twin Cities between Afton and Hastings, Minn., a strange new crop has taken root.
This spring, John Strohfus, who owns Strohfus Stock Farm, planted 18 acres of industrial hemp as part of a new pilot project through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. He’s one of a handful of farmers in the state hosting test plots of the first legally planted hemp in the state in more than half a century.
“Everybody’s watching what we’re doing,” Strohfus said. “We feel the pressure because, in particular, we are the first and the biggest planting this year. We want it to be successful. We want to prove this was a good idea.”
The State Legislature in 2015 ordered the state ag department to set up an industrial hemp pilot project, a challenge because the federal government lists hemp as a controlled substance, an illegal drug. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration granted Minnesota a permit for the industrial hemp pilot project this past winter.
Eight farmers applied for the project, and seven were accepted, according to Andrea Vaubel, who oversees the plant protection program at the MDA. One application was rejected for being incomplete. No limit has been set yet on the number of applications that will be accepted in 2017.
“We’re learning a lot, too,” Vaubel said. “Only a few other states are as far along as we are.”
About a half-dozen states currently allow commercial hemp production, but Strohfus said it will be tough for the plant to get a firm foothold without federal deregulation — the “Holy Grail” for growers like himself.
“We want to take the momentum from states and push for that. It just makes sense,” he said.
Cannabis is believed to be one of the oldest domesticated crops. Throughout history, humans have grown different varieties of cannabis for industrial and medical uses. Tall, sturdy plants were grown by early civilizations to make foods, oils and textiles. These plants were bred with other plants with the same characteristics, leading to the type of cannabis known as hemp.
Other plants were recognized for being psychoactive and were bred selectively for medical and religious purposes, leading to unique varieties of cannabis known as marijuana.
About 30 people attended a hemp field day hosted by the Minnesota Farmers Union on Aug. 16 at Strohfus’ farm, a beef operation and commercial boarding facility with about 65 horses. In the audience were hemp legislation champions State Reps. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, and Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, Minn.
Growing hemp has been “an interesting adventure,” said Strohfus, who partners with Ben Thurmes in his hay and forage enterprise. He jokes: “(Ben) didn’t have his wits about him one day when I talked to him about this.”
Strohfus said he welcomes a challenge, and when the hemp pilot project was OK’d in March, he put in an application. After he was accepted, he paid a licensing fee and signed a one-year memorandum of understanding with the MDA before ordering seed and planting two separate hemp plots a few miles apart.
“I think it’s really feasible,” he said.
Common advice to farmers is to never plant anything for which they don’t have a ready market, he said, but “we’re flying in the face of that,” and he’s concerned about recovering his cost.
“It was a big risk we took this year,” he said. “Growing hemp would be great, but if you don’t have a plan to sell it and market it, then what good is it?”
Although he wanted to plant the seed around May 20, he said, planting was delayed by red tape and didn’t take place until June 17. Planted a half-inch deep, the seeds germinated 4½ days after planting, he said. Strohfus said his plants have grown quickly, thanks to this season’s ample moisture and warm temperatures, and in mid-August, were about head height.
“For a late planting, we really lucked out,” he said.
Strohfus said his total cost per acre was about $250 for seed and fertilizer. The seed cost about $4 a pound, or about $175 an acre. While a seeding rate of 20 to 25 pounds is recommended, he said he planted 35 pounds because of anticipated high mortality rates that didn’t materialize.
“Next year, we could dial back to 30,” he said. “We had good canopy right away and low weed pressure.”
He predicts that hemp seed costs should go down, especially if a domestic supply of certified seed becomes available for planting and high import costs could be avoided. Canadian farmers have been growing hemp since it was legalized in 1998.
For fertilizer, he followed the general guidelines for wheat, with a cost of about $75 an acre. Spraying could be an issue with hemp because of the quick canopy development, he said. “Unless you’re on it, you’re going to trample a lot of it.”
Strohfus said people grow hemp for two main purposes — fiber and grain. Fiber varieties typically grow 10 to 12 feet tall, while grain varieties are shorter, reaching about 6 feet.
The growing season is about 100 days, with harvest when the crop is 18 percent to 20 percent moisture. Strohfus expects to harvest his crop about Sept. 25, after the male plants have pollinated and are dying off and the females are developing their grain heads.
“The guideline is when birds start coming, you’re maybe a day or so late,” he said. “I’m hoping we can be a little more proactive than watching for that.”
Strohfus said he expects to harvest about 1,500 pounds of hemp per acre. According to his Canadian contacts, 2,000 pounds is possible under irrigation and if you’re lucky. Dryland fiber-type hemp yields closer to 500 to 800 pounds.
Strohfus said some neighbors are concerned about migration of the crop, but that can be controlled. “I hope we’re not creating a nuisance, but I don’t think we are,” he said.
Finding the market
Marketing is the biggest unknown, as there’s no commodity market for hemp at this time. Growers can get $1 to $2 per pound, unless they’re bagging it themselves, Strohfus said. Organic hemp fetches about $6 a pound, but there’s no federal organic hemp certification.
With an established market and price, Strohfus hopes to convince 10 more Minnesota farmers to plant 100 acres each, for another 1,000 acres of hemp. He plans to compete with Canada in the food product market. Manitoba Harvest sells millions of dollars’ worth of hemp food products annually in Canada and the U.S.
“Canadian processors are at max. There’s no new processing going online,” he said. “Canada doesn’t want it. Their bins are full. We’re looking at trying to brand and develop a product and import hulled hemp seed to augment that supply.”
Some weight is lost in the hulling process, he said, adding, “It’s a viable crop if we can get it processed.” If hulling kinks can’t be worked out, he may try to work with a mill and enter the powder market, but questions remain regarding restrictions concerning handling and crossing state boundaries.
The crop is highly regulated: The limit in plants for THC, the chemical that causes the marijuana high, is 0.3 percent of the weight of leaves and flowers. Marijuana plants often have a THC level of 5 percent or more. Strohfus said the variety he planted consistently falls under the required THC limit, but it still must be tested.
“The main focus of our proposal was around developing the industry,” he said. “Our goal is to develop the logistics chain so next year, anybody who wants to grow it will have an avenue and an output for that grain.”