Editor’s note: This is an installment in an ongoing series on industrial hemp production.
Andy Houston probably knows as much as anyone in Illinois about growing industrial hemp — which means not a whole lot.
“We’re all in experimental mode,” he said.
Houston, who grows corn and soybeans on about 2,300 acres near Roseville, Illinois, in Warren County, is among a handful of ag entrepreneurs getting in on the ground floor of a brand-new crop. He and his brother, Frank, have certainly done their homework.
Following the lifting of federal and state restrictions on growing hemp, they met with commercial growers in Colorado and partnered with university researchers in Illinois in an attempt to fast-track an industry that is heavy on promise but light on know-how.
The brothers unsuccessfully applied for a license to grow medical marijuana, though they did obtain a dispensary license. Then they turned their attention toward hemp, a plant similar to marijuana that has only a fraction of the chemical that gives users a high.
“We were in Colorado quite a bit, talking to people who had raised commercial marijuana,” Houston said. “We made quite a few friends out there. One friend had been working in a large marijuana grow in Denver. He transitioned from marijuana into hemp. That got me interested.”
He’s not the only one. Interest in growing hemp has exploded in the first year it has been allowed in the state. The Illinois Department of Agriculture has released more than 500 permits for farmers to grow hemp on 10,000 acres this year.
Most hemp production projects are on hold, partly due to the excessively wet weather across the state and also the dearth of starter seed.
Hemp is a highly versatile crop. Its fiber can be made into many products. But virtually all planned production in Illinois involves varieties bred for cannabidiol, or CBD oil, which has various medical uses.
Win Phippen, a professor in plant breeding at Western Illinois University, has been conducting extensive research on hemp.
“Everybody’s trying to learn about this crop for the first time,” he said. “There are so many different ways we can grow it. We want to maximize the amount of flower production to maximize CBD oil production.”
Plants grown for CBD content are generally started in a greenhouse as seedlings and transplanted in the field. At maturity, they can get more than 6 feet tall. Because of their size, spacings are wide — about 5 feet between rows and between plants.
“These plants look like small Christmas trees,” Houston said. “You want good air movement around plants. They don’t like moisture. They like it a little drier, kind of like soybeans, which prefer a drier climate to wetter climate.”
Houston uses black plastic mulch and a dripline for watering his plants. Phippen hasn’t used that system for his research, instead relying on hand watering and weeding.
Karla Gage, a weed scientist who is conducting hemp research at Southern Illinois University, is using plastic mulch. The SIU study also involves hemp fiber production, though this year only seed production is in the works.
“We’re looking at how plant biochemistry changes in response to environmental conditions,” Gage said. “We’re trying treatments that will alter the soil microbial community. We’re also going to look at very basic competition studies.”
Gage’s research includes a close look at content of terpenes, organic compounds present in hemp and some other plants. Terpenes are considered important in CBD efficacy.
“A big focus of our program will be terpene profile. It’s thought to have a very important effect on how this is processed in your body,” she said. “We’re hoping to find a treatment that changes the terpene profile.”
Houston is growing his hemp cash crop on 15 acres, with an additional 2 acres planted for research. He uses a transplanter that puts the seedlings through the plastic. Next year he is considering planting winter rye and rolling it down for a mulch covering before planting hemp.
A neighbor will be planting 7 acres of hemp in a wheat field.
“If that works, that will be a great way to do it,” Houston said.
Basic agronomic practices that are relatively well understood in corn and soybean production are in the development stage with hemp.
Phippen is treating the plants in his research plot with 50 pounds of nitrogen. He will be looking for the “Goldilocks” solution of determining just the right amount.
“You’re trying to make the plant big but not too big,” he said. “If you make it too big, your branches get too heavy and you get splitting of branches and the stems get too large. Then it becomes unwieldy. We can figure it out, and people will be able to adjust.”
Treatment protocols for disease and insects is basically an unknown, because the crop is so new. Phippen did see aphids on plants. Japanese beetles can also be a problem, though so far there has been little evidence of damage.
“I don’t think the insects have had time to find it yet,” Phippen said. “Once we get into 10-acre blocks, then the bugs are going to start finding it and start enjoying it. Rabbits will go after little seedlings, so you may want to protect them from that. We also saw deer prints in the plots, but no grazing.”
In the southern part of the state, Gage is in the same boat.
“This season is going to be so critical for us because we’re going to learn what the future problems are,” she said. “Part of our data collection is to note any diseases and identify challenges for larger acreages.
“We need to get our basic agronomic practices down. We’re looking at fertility regimes and schedules. We’re talking about how to fertigate, which I’ve never done before, because I work with row crops. We’re talking to other people to find out what they’re doing.”
Effective weed control may be the crop protection practice that is getting the least attention because much of the early hemp production is in mulched plots. That will likely change if fiber production becomes more attractive. Hemp varieties grown for fiber will likely be seeded directly and grown in rows, in a similar fashion as corn or soybeans.
“There are no herbicides that are labeled for hemp,” Houston said. “Conventional farming doesn’t apply to hemp. We have to do things a lot differently than before.”