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growing marijuana from hemp seeds

How to Grow Hemp

“Sooner or later, somebody is going to make a joke about you getting high,” says Brennan Gilkison, a 42-year-old hemp farmer in central Kentucky who has no interest in getting high. For centuries, American farmers grew hemp for fiber, oil and many other uses. George Washington cultivated it at Mount Vernon to mend fishing nets. Gilkison’s crop goes into products containing cannabidiol, or CBD. People still titter. Practice your explainer, which should go something like this: Marijuana and hemp are varieties of the same species of cannabis plant, but hemp contains less than 0.3 percent of the mind-altering tetrahydrocannabinols, or THC, and will not get you high. “You become an educator,” he says. (Third graders visit his farm on field trips.)

Don’t sow any seeds until you’ve researched state and federal regulations. The 2018 Farm Bill contained provisions legalizing hemp production, but you still need a license to grow it. Plant in an inconspicuous location. Gilkison knows a farmer who lost much of his crop to thieves who, he suspects, were selling his hemp buds mixed with marijuana. “If you want something that’s going to yield good, put it on good ground,” he says. He prefers deep, humus-rich soil. Hemp seeds contain sex chromosomes that produce male and female plants. For CBD, you’ll want to keep only the more robust females. Either weed out the male seedlings or plant female-only clones.

Put your seeds or starts in the ground in late spring and harvest in the fall. Weeds will be your biggest challenge. “We’ve weeded by hand, with machines, even with fire,” Gilkison says. Because, he says, he can’t use herbicides or pesticides on his hemp, Gilkison spends much of the growing season battling back pigweed, Johnson grass and crab grass. Prune the maturing plants to force them to produce more buds (some farmers use tobacco topping machines to mow the upper vegetation). Some growers in Kentucky have recently turned land over from tobacco to hemp. “Everywhere you look, it’s CBD this, CBD that,” Gilkison says. The money has been good, and a giddiness has taken hold, thanks to this plant that has been effectively prohibited since the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. “It’s the first time in our lives that we’ve had a new crop and had to learn how to grow it,” he says.

I have some Cherry Wine hemp seeds. Do you think with the right nutrients and love I can make these seeds produce THC or will it just grow hemp?

This is a question that goes to the heart of the genetic code of cannabis.

Generally speaking, all strains of cannabis require a specific range of temperature and humidity — about 70-75˚F and 40 per cent humidity — for optimal growth. They also all have a range of lighting requirements over their different phases of growth. They need mild light at the beginning and strong photosynthesis photon flux density during vegetative growth and flowering. During the flowering phase, supplemental ultraviolet-B (UV-B) stimulates the creation of the phenols and terpenes that are transformed into cannabinoid acids, which are stored in the secretory reservoir of the trichomes.

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While these conditions will grow great weed, they can’t change the strain’s genetic code. The strain you are discussing — Cherry Wine — is specifically bred to be a cannabidiol (CBD) strain. Hemp is generally a tall-growing, high-CBD, and high-cannabigerol (CBG) type of cannabis. It has different genetics than your typical sativa, which is usually high in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and indica, which is usually high in CBD. Cherry Wine hemp has a potency of 15-25 per cent CBD and 0-0.3 per cent THC, depending on time of harvest and climate variables. Judging from this THC/CBD output, sativa genetics were never bred into this strain. So, you cannot make this strain produce THC because the genetic code to make THC is not available in any meaningful amount.

Much like there is no food to turn brown eyes to blue, there is no plant fertilizer that can cause a plant to create a compound that is not written in its genetics. It’s simply not possible.

For high THC levels, try Kwaza Zulu. It’s an original land race variety from Africa with a very high-THC and low-CBD genetic code due to its history of development at a lower altitude, which shielded the plant from strong UV light. Tetrahydrocannabinol is not as UV-dependent as CBD is. Indica cannabis land race strains developed at high altitude in Asia where UV levels are very strong. These strains had to react with compounds that could deal with the UV, resulting in the natural selection of CBD strains. These land races were the strains cross-bred to create all the different ratios of CBD and THC found in modern strains. But not Hemp. Hemp is a predominantly CBG (which transforms into CBD) genetic code. As such, hemp is now being investigated as a major source of CBG, a compound of interest in the “farmaceutical” industry right now.

For Young Farmers, Hemp Is a ‘Gateway Crop’

After the recent legalization of hemp production, new and beginning farmers are following the green rush, though obstacles abound.

October 21, 2019

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January 20, 2021 update: The USDA has finalized the rule for growing hemp in the U.S. Effective March 22, 2021, the new rules will extend the timeline until hemp growers must get their crops’ THC levels tested in Drug Enforcement Agency-approved labs, increase the allowance of THC in hemp, and give farmers additional options for disposing of hemp that exceeds federal THC limits.

Asaud Frazier enrolled in Tuskegee University with plans to study medicine, but by the time graduation rolled around in 2016, he’d already switched gears. Instead of becoming a physician, Frazier decided to farm hemp.

“I was always interested in cannabis because it had so many different uses,” he said. “It’s a cash crop, so there’s no sense in growing anything else. Cannabis is about to totally take over an array of industries.”

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Frazier doesn’t come from an agricultural background, but while he was growing up in Ohio, he watched his father become a master gardener. He also made frequent trips to visit relatives in Alabama, where his family owns a five acres farm. Today, he’s growing hemp on that land as part of a two-year pilot program for small farmers in the state.

“I love getting an opportunity to grow such a beneficial plant,” Frazier said.

A graduate of a historically Black college known for empowering African-American farmers, Frazier said he’s received the training necessary to thrive in agriculture. He has two degrees from Tuskegee—a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and a master’s degree in plant and soil sciences that he completed last spring. Having created a farm LLC in 2018, the 26-year-old joins a growing number of young farmers across the country who are investing in hemp.

According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, released in April, found a small but significant rise in the number of farmers younger than age 35. And the 2018 federal farm bill’s reversal of a decades-old hemp ban has led agricultural experts to predict that the percentage of young farmers will keep rising.

That’s largely because the market for the hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD), used to treat conditions such as chronic pain, anxiety, and insomnia, is predicted to reach $23.7 billion by 2023, up from approximately $5 billion this year. The immense interest in CBD oil has seen the estimated quantity of hemp planted in the U.S. more than triple—from 78,000 acres in 2018 to 285,000 acres this year.

While veteran farmers are among those planting hemp, so are young farmers, both from agricultural backgrounds and none whatsoever, hoping to capitalize off the “green rush.” But the newcomers face obstacles in their bid to strike it rich, including trouble securing bank loans, processing bottlenecks, fierce competition, and inexperience cultivating cannabis.

“It’s harder to grow than most people think,” said Shawn Lucas, an assistant professor of organic agriculture and industrial hemp specialist at Kentucky State University. “You have to understand the life cycle of the crop, understand your soil, and how to feed the crop. If you’re going without [an understanding of] basic biology and good quality soil, you’ll be in trouble.”

Drying the hemp harvest. (Photo credit: Anna Carson Dewitt Photography, courtesy of Third Wave Farms)

Lucas and his KSU colleagues have recently seen so many newcomers pursue hemp farming, they now jokingly refer to it as the “gateway crop.” Since the average age of the U.S. farmer is 59.4 years old, KSU has worked to get young people interested in farming, but high land prices and a lack of expertise pose barriers, said Lucas.

Alongside that growth of and interest in CBD are concerns about encouraging sustainable practices among hemp farmers and CBD producers. Since the Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t approved pesticides for hemp use, the plant is, at least in theory, typically grown without synthetic chemicals. The watchdog group Center for Food Safety (CFS) has raised concerns about the byproducts of the growing hemp market, and recently evaluated 40 companies that make CBD tinctures, capsules, and lotions, giving almost half a failing grade on its “Hemp CBD Scorecard.”

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Findings like these point to the larger issue of whether the rush to enter the market will also spur growth in sustainable production. The public benefit company First Crop, which promotes regenerative hemp farming, launched this year to give cannabis farmers support and services. Michael Bowman, the company’s cofounder, said that hemp has gained such popularity in recent years that farmers in all parts of the country—from the Pacific Northwest to the Deep South—are gravitating toward the plant.

“I could probably point you to someone in every state, to a small group of farmers, who want to grow it,” Bowman said. “We’re seeing red states politically that are grabbing this and embracing hemp at a pace equal to blue states, regardless of ideologies and politics, which is nice.” According to the advocacy group Vote Hemp, 13 new states—including Illinois, Massachusetts, Alabama, Oklahoma, and California—legalized hemp growing in 2019, while 21 new states—including New York, Indiana, Colorado, Washington, and the Carolinas—did so in 2018. Every state has enacted pro-hemp legislation but four: Idaho, South Dakota, Mississippi, and New Hampshire.

The author of a 2014 Farm Bill provision that allowed for hemp cultivation in states that legalized the crop’s production, Bowman is particularly excited about the young people pursuing farming careers. The percentage of young farmers may be rising, but as a group, farmers have aged over the past three decades. A 2011 study found that they’re six times as likely to be over age 65 than under age 35. Hemp is changing this trend, Bowman said.

“We are watching these young farmers, beginning farmers, stemming the tide,” he said. “After watching the drain of our young people leaving agriculture, this is the first sign we’ve had in quite some time—hemp is bringing people back to farming.”

Young people’s interest in hemp excites Kentucky farmer Mike Lewis. In 2017, he founded Third Wave Farms, which grows, processes, and sells hemp and educates farmers about the crop.

“For the first time in generations, people see opportunity and potential to make a decent living from agriculture,” he said. But Lewis also believes there’s a potential downside to the green rush.

“A lot of the newer farmers lack generational knowledge and experience, and unlike conventional crops, there is not an extensive amount of research and information available to newer farmers,” he said. “There is a lot of trial and error still going on. We see just as much failure as we do success.”