This morning I planted my hemp seeds - one 50-cell tray the size of a large textbook that will grow enough plant medicine for 20 people for a whole year. My goodness how things have changed since this time last year...and I’m not talking about the coronavirus. I’m talking about the absolutely epic crash and burn of hemp farming in America.
A year ago the entire farming community was buzzing with excitement about growing CBD hemp. Every conference I attended, every online message board I was a member of, every casual conversation I had with another farmer - one topic raged like wildfire - the unheard of financial possibilities of the newly legalized CBD hemp market.
I’m a new farmer, trying to figure out how to make a living off the land, and a plant geek with a deep appreciation for the cannabis plant, so naturally I dove in head first. I had been forbidden from growing this amazing plant my entire life and now all of a sudden, for a $50 licensing fee, I could grow all I want and potentially make enough money to fund my entire farm for years - hell yeah! I quickly became obsessed with planning my grow - creating a rough business plan, researching growing methods, identifying sources of seeds and plants, etc. A “conservative” estimate of the numbers showed that even if the price of CBD biomass fell by 75 percent, I could still net a profit of about $10,000 off a 1 acre grow. And if it stayed steady…$40,000!
At this point in the frenzy it was March, and I hadn’t committed to anything. There was no way in hell I wasn’t gonna do a grow, the question was, how big? Here’s where, looking back, I got lucky in a sense. The excitement and the dollar signs were pushing me to go big. I had grandiose visions of taking out a loan to do a 5 acre grow, busting my ass for a season, and banking $200k - what would be a life changing amount of money to my family. Other people in my network were doing it - some were going as big as 20 or 30 acres. Am I gonna miss out on this once in a lifetime opportunity and regret it later? My instincts said go for it!
Fortunately for me and my credit score, my permaculture training kicked in and said, slow down. “Use Small and Slow Solutions” has always been one of the hardest permaculture principles for an impatient go-getter like me to heed. It sounds so trite that it's easy to pass over, but I can’t tell you how many times in my 10 year farming career I’ve looked back on a project and wished I had abided by this simple principle: “Go slow. Grow by chunking. When trying something new, always start with a pilot project”. So somewhere in the middle of all this hemp excitement, I remembered this, and I thought, maybe I should slow down a bit….maybe I should actually listen to that other voice in my head for once. And so I did, sort of…
And hey, I’m not trying to pat myself on the back too much - my instinct was to go big, and it was only my training and history of failure (and the much more level-headed perspective of my wife) that held me back. Kudos to permaculture design and Jenna. So in the end I settled on a half-acre grow - 500 plants - a $3,000 investment. My wife agreed with the plan with the understanding that it was possible that we would lose the whole investment (don’t gamble what you aren’t prepared to lose right?). In retrospect, 500 plants was about 450 more than I should have grown.
And that takes me to one year ago - May 2019. My partner and I are furiously prepping beds and building fencing. 300 clones and 200 potted seedlings sit in the nursery ready to be transplanted. We have an incredible amount of work ahead of us, but an incredible amount of enthusiasm too. The plants are beautiful and so are the dollar signs. This is gonna be a wild season! And wild it was. Even with all of the challenges of a first time crop, we grew amazing, healthy plants. The weather was perfect. Our yields and cannabinoid numbers were as good as we had hoped for, and more amazingly, we pulled off the grueling task of harvesting, drying, and processing without a hitch (albeit with lots of sweat and long days). We thought we had done everything right and were ready to reap the rewards...
Now, fast forward again to today, May 2020. Every time I log on to social media I see headlines like this one from Politico: “Hemp was supposed to be a boost to farmers. It’s turned out to be a flop.” I haven’t sold one cent worth of product to date. I got lucky - I was able to get my biomass processed into oil and so it is shelf stable, and hopefully I will sell it one day. Most people weren’t as lucky and are still sitting on hundreds of pounds of rotting biomass. Of all the farmers I’ve talked to I only know one who was able to sell his biomass last year.
Over 2 months, between July and September 2019, the price of CBD biomass fell from roughly $3.50 a point to $.50 a point. But really, the price fell to zero, because most farmers who didn’t already have good contracts weren’t able to sell it at all. The market was simply way too flooded, and it still is. No one’s talking about hemp any more these days, and the only people left on the message boards are the scammers, people trying to sell used equipment, and that one guy from Vermont who has actually made money off hemp. It’s really depressing.
Me, I’m still worn out from the work we put in last fall processing our hemp - damn, it was intense. But I’ve learned so, so much. As I sow the seeds for the 50 plants I will grow this year, I can’t wait to smell those sweet buds again, to watch them turn purple in the frost, to ogle through my jeweler’s loupe at those crystalline worlds of cannabinoid-rich trichomes. Cannabis is a wonderful, multifunctional plant full of soothing medicine. Despite it all, I am incredibly optimistic about integrating it into my diversified, organic operation. But hemp ain’t a unicron y’all, and the thing I realize now is, it never claimed to be.
I have a lot of reflections from this last year, but one stands out to me right now (besides a harsh reminder of the unstoppable logic of supply and demand). Somehow in the excitement of the hemp “goldrush” I forgot one of the cardinal rules of small-scale farming - a rule that has been passed down to me by many pioneering small farmers of yore: never grow a commodity; the only way to make money on a small farm is to sell direct to your customers; you have to be a price maker not a price taker. Afterall, I would never even consider growing corn for the open market - I’m not large or mechanized enough to compete. As it turns out I would be better off growing corn than hemp, because at least corn comes with government-backed revenue guarantees!
So here I am in 2020. Am I glad I didn’t grow 5 acres last year? Absolutely. Am I still growing hemp this year? Absolutely. I’m learning and adapting like we all are. I am working on a product line of organically grown oils and flowers. I am experimenting with different varieties and different growing methods. One system I am really excited about is intercropping my hemp with my strawberries (the hemp gets transplanted into the field in June right when the strawberries stop producing fruit and the strawberry plants act as a living ground cover for the hemp). I am even dabbling in a little hemp breeding. And all of that, I am doing as small and as slowly as my excitement will allow.