Hemp, marijuana growers provide strategies for success in producing field-grown cannabis

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Image of Wesley Ray

Wesley Ray grows hemp commercially in Bend, Oregon. Photo by Megan Baker

We’ve all heard the idiom, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” But the sentiment is especially true for the spring outdoor planting season.

Whether producing industrial hemp or outdoor-grown marijuana, growers can take steps to prepare themselves—and their operations—for success. These steps include:

  • Proper site selection and soil sampling.
  • Securing contracts with buyers.
  • Selecting genetics and young plants.
  • Protecting crops from pests and disease.
  • Mitigating the effects of natural disasters.

Agronomists and growers weighed in on strategies they use and offered a range of recommendations for how outdoor cultivators can improve their chances of success.

Selecting a Site Is About More Than Climate

Choosing where to grow is one of the most important decisions a cultivator makes, and the choice should be made carefully for cost- and labor-intensive crops such as hemp or marijuana. Each state has its own rules that growers must follow for site selection.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), for example, requires a review as well as a disclosure document that shows the impacts of a development. The agency then offers the public an opportunity to weigh in on the project, according to Natalynne DeLapp, executive director of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance in Eureka, California.

But DeLapp said just because a development might be zoned for marijuana cultivation doesn’t mean that a community will accept that type of development.

“If a developer is seeking to purchase a piece of property, they ought to invest in doing some sociological research to determine how accepted (cannabis cultivation is) going to be, because it could get very expensive,” she said.

DeLapp said she has witnessed developers invest a great deal of time and money into expensive projects that went through all the proper zoning, environmental review and permitting processes, only to be denied after they received a “very caustic response” from the community.

“They’re not denied based on facts or evidence—they’re denied based on politics and feelings and perception,” she said. “Even here in Humboldt … the epicenter of weed, I still regularly deal with angry misconceptions of what this plant is and what’s going to happen to the neighborhood, like whether property values are going to decrease.”

But with 70% of the counties in the state not allowing commercial cannabis grows, the real problem becomes a lack of access to markets, DeLapp said.

In Oregon, growers must show that an area can be farmed through a land-use-compatibility statement, according to hemp farmer Wesley Ray, co-founder of Combined Hemp in Bend. These documents, obtained through the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, show that a site’s plans mesh with local government master plans and land-use regulations.

There isn’t much anyone can do about neighbors complaining about the smell of the crop, other than to give them ample warning, Ray said.

“I think it’s just a neighborly thing to do to go tell your neighbors what your plans are, and that it’s going to smell in the summer months,” Ray said. “Especially talk to the ones that are downwind from you, because they’re the ones that are going to be smelling it … and they’re going to complain.”

Proper site selection is also important for agronomic reasons. According to Scott Propheter, an agronomist, farmer and hemp-CBD executive based in North Carolina, hemp crops can grow in any type of soil, but the principle that applies across all healthy crops is good drainage.

Additionally, growers need to look at crop history and the controls that were applied on a particular field, as many chemistries are extremely persistent in the soil.

“Things like heavy metals are particularly important if you’re going for a smokable product, because obviously you don’t want you customer to be inhaling mercury, cadmium and arsenic,” Propheter said. “Get a soil sample off for analysis of pesticides and heavy metals to ensure that there’s nothing out there in that field that’s going to come back to haunt you later on.”

This is especially true for first-year growers who are just taking over a property and might not know the land’s history, he said.

“Even if it’s organic land, it’s really important to get that analysis done because organic does not mean ‘not contaminated,’” Propheter said.

Learn about the area’s ecology, as well, advises Ray. In addition to having soil tested, growers need to know whether they can sustainably grow a crop in that field, whether that means adequate water or if the land has issues with invasive species such as ants, deer or other pests.

 The Cultivator’s Quandary: Contract or No?

One of the first rules of cultivation is to have a contract in place with a buyer before putting live inputs such as seeds, transplants or clones into the ground. But not just any contract will do. Growers need to do their research and vet potential buyers to ensure they are reputable before signing on the dotted line.

According to Propheter, processors in the industry who are bankrolling millions of dollars in contracts are unlikely to have the money on hand to pay on those contracts.

“Vet that buyer to ensure that they have the financial wherewithal to keep good on their contract—and, to take that a step further, have them put half the money in escrow prior to you even putting that crop out in the field,” Propheter said. “Unfortunately, growers have to do everything they can to protect themselves in this market because so many growers have been burned.”

Hemp prices are extremely low because of a massive oversupply in the market and federal regulatory uncertainty that has hamstrung CBD products. Consequently, any processor that is entering contracts covering thousands of acres might not honor them, Propheter said. He advises growers to conduct background checks and contact references for potential buyers and look at who the processor’s customers are. If a grower can’t access that kind of information or a processor doesn’t yet have customers, the buyer probably won’t generate the revenue needed to pay for the contracts.

Rather than playing in the bulk market, the better deal—at least until the market stabilizes—is to contract-grow small amounts for successful brands, Propheter said.

“Successful brand owners are at the top of the value chain,” he said. “They’re getting the most money for the product that they extract and produce, whereas the folks that are trying to participate in the bulk market—they’re an ingredient supplier. The bulk market is just an absolute race to the bottom, and the margins are compressing significantly. So anyone who’s participating in the bulk market has a level of volatility that I would not be comfortable with as a grower.”

After having signed contracts that processors, brokers and manufacturers ultimately reneged on—or have just flat out refused to pay—Oregon-based Ray said he doesn’t believe in the validity of contracts anymore. Moreover, he isn’t convinced that securing a contract is necessary before growing.

Ray said a farmer who overpromises on a contract only to underdeliver because of faulty genetics or bad weather could end up defaulting. That’s especially true for farmers who are new to the industry and face a steep learning curve.

“Why put yourself in that position?” Ray said. “So many people are about spot buys and pricing, and it doesn’t really matter—they’re going to go look for a cheaper price. Buyers are not loyal to the farm.”

Marijuana growers, meanwhile, are less likely to set up a contract and prefer to sell their crop when prices are high, said DeLapp of Humboldt County Growers Alliance.

“They don’t want contracts in place before they grow their crops,” she said. “If the product can be cultivated, harvested and then properly stored and preserved, they can sell it when the market rate goes back up.”

Marijuana grows such as those in Humboldt County tend to be much smaller, craft-flower operations than the commodity-based hemp market, DeLapp said. But the market is still in flux. She said the current market conditions in California, where much of the stored flower is moved into a “forced distribution model,” are not ideal. Under this model, flower is moved through several distributors before it ends up being sold to a manufacturer
or retailer.

Securing Genetics and Young Plants

In Humboldt County, many marijuana growers are creating their own genetics, and because the area has more than 50 years of cultivation history, growers have access to a “significant repository of genetics” that grow well there, DeLapp said.

The area, which accounts for a significant amount of the marijuana grown in California, has a “reasonable level of infrastructure” in developing new genetics, she said.

“We also have about a dozen local nurseries that our cultivation community can tap into, and within that, our nurseries are working with local breeders or heritage breeders to develop cultivars that are expressing certain phenotypes for the specific microclimates around Humboldt County.”

Despite its legal status, the hemp industry is comparably different, with a few plant-breeding companies working to develop novel, seed-propagated genetics and others selling different versions of the same varieties, according to Propheter.

“There aren’t really a whole lot of unique novel varieties because most of these folks are just buying a variety or stealing a variety from another propagator and then rebranding it as something else entirely themselves,” he said. “Or they’re not conducting genetic development properly, so now you’re ending up with a tremendous amount of genetic variability across what you’re planting, which, in a highly regulated environment like this, is not conducive to having a crop that you don’t have to destroy.”

Because market prices for biomass have dropped off significantly, Propheter said some of the bad actors who were selling faulty seeds have now “shifted their scams” to propagation.

“It’s important for growers to actually go and visit the facility where their seed or clones are being propagated and actually vet the procedures and genetic lines that these folks are providing,” he said.

Working with the extension service available through land-grant universities, looking at variety trials data and talking with other local growers about their experiences growing different genetics can help hemp cultivators make a more informed decision about which varieties will work best in their climate, Propheter said.

Combatting Pests and Diseases From the Start

Starting out with a new crop, growers should make sure they are sourcing clean clones or seedlings.

“Always assume that what you’re bringing into your garden is somewhat contaminated—any new plants that are brought in should be quarantined first,” DeLapp said. “Farmers should have an integrated pest-management plan for dealing with pathogens and pests. Test early, assume that it’s contaminated and then work backward.”

Growers should receive a certificate from the nursery where they’re buying their young plants that confirms what they’re getting is clean, DeLapp said.

Growing cannabis is difficult enough, but hemp and marijuana cultivators have very few pest and disease controls available in their arsenal to protect their crops. Before using those that are labeled for hemp or approved for marijuana production, Propheter said, growers should check with their contracted buyers to ensure ingredients in the chemistry will not compromise their crops.

“There are easy solutions to take care of pests and diseases, but nine times out of 10 that’s going to bring your crop out of compliance with your contract, and then you’re going to be stuck with an unmarketable crop at the end of the season,” Propheter said.

He recommends working with university extension specialists or consultants to learn about local pests and diseases and how to treat them. Beyond that, he said, scouting on foot—rather than riding past the crop in a vehicle—is crucial.

“The most important thing you can put on that land, when you have a crop out there, is your footprint,” Propheter said. “You can’t be a ‘windshield farmer’ with this crop—you have to scout this crop every single day and find issues before they become major issues.”

Even then, most of the controls registered for hemp through the Environmental Protection Agency are more effectively used as a preventative than a treatment, he said.

“Particularly when you’re talking about things like corn earworm—there are some organic solutions for that, but you’re going to get maybe 60% control with an application, and you’re going to get better control the earlier you find them,” Propheter said. “So, if you walk out on that crop and you already have big worms, it’s probably a little late to be applying any of those organic solutions.”

Hemp farmer Harold Jarboe of Tennessee Homegrown in Nashville uses “gangster insects”—biological control agents (BCAs) that eat insect pests. While other farmers wonder about the efficacy of releasing BCAs and beneficial insects into an outdoor ecosystem, Jarboe says they’re looking for a “target-rich environment” and using biological controls preventatively “made a quantitative difference.”

Mitigating Natural Disasters

There is little cannabis growers can do to prevent natural disasters such as wildfires, hailstorms, flooding or hurricanes from wiping out crops—but they can take some measures to mitigate potential issues, according to DeLapp.

“Make sure that there is appropriate defensible space, that the lands around are managed to reduce fire impact, have more water storage for fighting fires on the property and make sure that you can keep the ash off the crops,” she said.

Farmers in Humboldt County and other areas of California that are prone to wildfires are stocking up on lightweight shade fabric or frost cloth that still allows diffused sunlight to reach plants but protects them from wildfire ash, she said.

Mitigating natural disasters ultimately goes back to site selection, Propheter said.

“You should be putting this crop on extremely well-drained land,” he said. “It’s a lot like clary sage or tobacco—it doesn’t like to have its roots sitting in the standing water for any long periods of time. In your natural site selection, as you’re taking that into account, there should be some protection there against things like flooding.”

Additionally, growers should ensure that their operating costs are low enough that they can make their money back with the crop insurance that is available to them.

Oregon-based Ray experienced a midseason hailstorm that nearly wiped out most of his crop in 2019, but because of the still-high cost of insurance deductibles, he instead works to keep operating costs low.

“We hear people say they farm for $8,000-$15,000 an acre, depending on what methods they’re using. We did it for almost $2,700 an acre this year,” Ray said. “That allows us to assess crop insurance and see that it’s not worth it—by the time you pay your deductible, what are you really going to get out of it? You’re just putting yourself further behind.”

Short of moving cultivation indoors into a protected environment, outdoor growing is risky and “you just have to roll with it,” Ray said.

“You’re battling Mother Nature every day, and every day, you wake up and you go out and you hope it’s a good day. That’s pretty much all you can do.”

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