Don't Hurry Into Hemp

By Brad Bergefurd & Bradford Sherman
South Centers/CFAES

Although now legal to grow hemp in Ohio, farmers should be cautious of immediately investing a lot of time and money into this risky crop, warns Horticulture Specialist Brad Bergefurd of The Ohio State University.
The passage of Senate Bill 57, signed into law in mid-December, decriminalized hemp and paved the way for the development of a new industry in the state. However, factors such as the high cost of planting and harvesting the crop, a potential for taking a total loss due to elevated tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels, and a market price in decline make it hard for experts such as Bergefurd to recommend to farmers.

“It was an interesting year to say the least, we sure learned a lot”, said Bergefurd. He along with co-worker and soil and water researcher Dr. Rafiq Islam were members of a special Hemp Task Force comprised of 25 Ohio State University researchers and Extension specialists within the College of Food Agriculture and Environmental Sciences (CFAES). 

Bergefurd and Islam, together in 2019, led a field trial of the controversial crop at OSU South Centers in Piketon that was one of only two planting sites in southern Ohio. 

They partnered with fellow agriculture and natural resources Extension educators David Dugan (Adams County) and James Morris (Brown County) to design, plant, maintain, and manage data collection and analysis on the pair of cannabidiol (or CBD hemp) plantings. The other site was located in an open field near the Acela CBD warehouse in Winchester, and represented the largest planting in all of Ohio at around an acre in size.

While 2019 marked the first time that hemp was legal to plant in Ohio since prior to World War II, Governor Mike DeWine did not sign the bill, permitting limited growth of the crops for research purposes, into law until August. This was extremely late in the year and the crop at Piketon suffered.

“Hemp is very photoperiod sensitive in that short days trigger the crop into a reproductive stage of growth,” explained Bergefurd. “With legalization not going into effect until August, this was way past the summer solstice, therefore with the shorter days, the hemp never vegetatively grew and remained short at Piketon, greatly reducing yields.”

However, the Winchester site was provided 24 hours of light each day, from planting through October, with the addition of portable lighting that lit up the entire field from dusk until dawn. This modified the plants’ environment and tricked them into a vegetative stage of development, allowing for larger plant size and increased yield.

Hemp is an annual plant that looks and smells like marijuana, so you cannot visually tell a difference. Unlike marijuana, hemp is low in THC, the chemical that can trigger a “high.” Legal hemp in Ohio must have 0.3% THC or less, while marijuana plants have much more. Farmers in other states that have already legalized hemp years ago get paid by producing product that with a high percentage of CBD and low percentage of THC; any hemp higher than 0.3% THC is not allowed to be harvested or sold and is a total loss to the farmer.

Lab analysis of samples taken at Piketon and Winchester showed a high percentage of CBD, but also high percentages of THC. “These high THC results made us very uneasy, for if this was a farmer’s crop, it would be confiscated and not allowed to be sold”, said Bergefurd. 

Research Associate Thom Harker, who performed the analysis of data, says there seems to be a correlation between the moisture content and the CDB and THC levels. “As the moisture goes down, the percentage of CBD oils go up,” explained Harker, “but unfortunately, THC levels rise also.”

In the Adams County plants, those with an average moisture of 44.5 percent were within the legal limits of THC, which was at .23 percent. However, when moisture levels dropped to an average of 13.4 percent, THC rose to .5 percent, making them unsellable. The same relationship between moisture and CBD/THC levels also held true for the smaller plants grown at Piketon.

As if the potential for a total loss on a crop was not bad enough, the costs associated with planting and harvesting the crop are also high. Preliminary results of the 2019 research indicate that hemp costs between $10,000 and $15,000 per acre to plant. 

Also, hemp requires as much or more “hand and stoop” labor as tobacco, hops, or tomatoes. “This is not a crop that can be grown from a tractor seat”, added Bergefurd, “specialized planting equipment and drying facilities are also required.”

Bergefurd says the biggest takeaway from the 2019 season is that farmers MUST have a market lined up and a contract in hand, but that does not always guarantee a profitable crop, either. The price of CBD has dropped more than 50% in three months this season, and there is now a national oversupply of hemp, contributing to many of our neighboring farmers in Kentucky and West Virginia, despite having contracts with processors, not getting paid for their 2019 crop.

“The 2019 hemp season was one for learning and will help us to educate growers on what is required to be successful with this crop in the future,” Bergefurd said.

With no research funding available for hemp at the present time, CFAES administration graciously offset some of the preliminary research costs for 2019 through the purchasing of plants, and members of the task force shared specialty equipment and extra field supplies to get preliminary trials planted.