Ohio farmers got their first shot at growing hemp in 2020, after the crop spent decades as a controlled substance. But the new crop didn’t come without strings attached, or without challenges.
THC regulations and testing, in particular, were a major concern for growers this year. If hemp crops test over 0.3% THC, they cannot be harvested and must be destroyed, instead. But despite concerns about THC level limits, only about 7% of the hemp planted in Ohio tested hot and had to be destroyed.
“I’m actually really surprised … that seems really low, considering how strict our regulations were,” said Julie Doran, hemp farmer and founder of the Ohio Hemp Farmers Cooperative. “That means that Ohio did a really good job at testing their crops and staying on top.”
Some other states, including Pennsylvania and West Virginia, grew hemp for several years before 2020 through research programs under the 2014 Farm Bill. Ohio, on the other hand, did not have a hemp program until after the 2018 Farm Bill removed hemp from the controlled substances act.
Now, after a relatively successful growing and harvesting season, hemp farmers are looking to the next step — marketing their 2020 crops and making decisions for the 2021 growing season.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture approved 195 hemp cultivation licenses for 2020, and approved 24 processing licenses. About 555 acres of hemp were planted in the state.
That’s less than the 510 grower permits and 68 processor permits issued in Pennsylvania. Out of the 510 grower permits, 458 of them were for CBD varieties and 110 for fiber.
West Virginia issued 311 licenses for the 2020 growing season, but ended up with only 261 active licenses, since many chose not to plant due to concerns about markets, COVID-19 and other issues.
Out of the approximate 555 acres of hemp planted outdoors in Ohio, just under 40 acres, or about 7% of the planted acres, tested high for THC and had to be destroyed. An additional 25 or so acres could not be harvested due to other factors, like crop failure.
Most of the farmers in the Ohio Hemp Farmers Cooperative were able to harvest their crops, with only a few having their hemp test hot, Doran said. The cooperative has more than 50 farmer members.
“I think that’s tremendous, given the fact that we have to grow under total THC,” Doran said.
There were just under 1,000 acres planted in Pennsylvania. Just over 26 acres, or, about 2% of the hemp planted in the state, tested high for THC and had to be destroyed. Another 222 acres were destroyed due to issues like pest pressure and poor germination.
Farmers in the state harvested nearly 470 acres of hemp. The department of agriculture did not have data on the other approximately 270 acres that were not harvested or destroyed.
Out of the 215 acres that the West Virginia Department of Agriculture sampled and tested, about 20 acres, or 9%, tested high for THC and were destroyed.
Tim Johnson, of the Ohio Cannabis & Hemp Chamber of Commerce, said first year has been a learning curve, and, he believes, some farmers might have started out a little too big.
“I think a lot thought ‘we will grow, and they will come,’ and that just didn’t happen,” he said.
Hemp takes time and effort to grow, and the market is still young. Some, Johnson said, either underestimated the amount of labor and time they would need to spend, or harvested their hemp and now don’t know what to do with it.
The Ohio Hemp Farmers Cooperative is getting ready to send hemp to Kentucky to process. With the industry so new in Ohio, the coop was unable to find a processor in the state for this year.
There are a few companies that are close to having entirely Ohio grown and made hemp, Johnson said, but none are quite there yet. Most of the processing for Ohio hemp went out of state this year.
After the hemp is processed, the cooperative will get it back as processed products, like oils, salves, lotions and edibles. The next step, Doran said, is to sell it, some in bulk to wholesalers, and some directly to the public.
“I think we really do have an edge … being an Ohio brand,” Doran said.
CBD is already being sold in the state. With farmers from all over Ohio, Doran believes that the cooperative’s brand has an advantage because it is local, and people buying its products will be supporting local farmers.
White labeling has been a challenge for the industry, Johnson said. White labeling is essentially buying a product, labeling it and selling it as your own.
“That’s been one of our downfalls with hemp nationally, and within Ohio,” he said.
He expects to see that start to go away over the coming years, but right now, there are too many companies doing it, and, he said, it’s hurting the industry. There’s also still an overabundance of CBD hemp in some areas, where farmers dove into hemp head first and flooded the market, and a lack of infrastructure on the industrial hemp side, Johnson said.
Doran said the over saturation problem that started a few years ago should start to get better, as some farmers get out of the industry.
“This isn’t a product that you can hold onto for year after year,” she said.
In 2021, Johnson expects more Ohio processors to be up and running, and more farmers to be prepared for production and marketing. He also expects less people to grow hemp in Ohio.
“I think rolling into next year, farmers are going to be more cautious on whether they get into it or not,” Johnson said. “I think we’ll see less people involved, but we’ll see more as far as those that are involved; as far as what they do.”
In 2021, Doran plans to increase her acreage a little bit, but grow fewer plants, since she likes to keep her plants spaced out enough that she can work around them.
She expects that the first few years of hemp in Ohio will be a mix of farmers trying it and dropping out, or taking a year off before growing hemp again. Because hemp typically needs to be processed before it can really be sold, Doran said, it takes longer for farmers to make money off of their crops, and some might wait to see whether they end up making money on it before deciding to grow again.
She believes whether or not regulations change when the U.S. Department of Agriculture finalizes its hemp rules, and whether or not state regulations change, will also have a big impact on whether or not more farmers start growing hemp. If the THC level limit is raised to 1%, or regulations are otherwise made less restrictive, she would except to see more farmers get involved.
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