MO hemp research field

Hemp grows for research at the University of Missouri’s Hundley-Whaley Research Center at Albany.

COLUMBIA, Mo. — The 2020 growing season will be the first in a long time farmers can grow hemp legally in Missouri.

The 2014 farm bill opened the door for states to legalize hemp production, and the state of Missouri voted to allow it starting in 2020, with universities able to start growing it for research purposes in 2019.

People wanting to grow hemp in Missouri need to apply through the Department of Agriculture. The process includes a fingerprint and criminal history background check. The department began accepting applications for review on Jan. 2.

Ray Massey, a University of Missouri ag economist who spoke about the economics of hemp production at an MU crop conference in December, says it was widely grown in Missouri in the 1800s, but it gradually faded away as other crops produced more money.

“In 1910, there was not a lot of hemp grown in Missouri,” he says. “It was not illegal, it just couldn’t compete.”

But Massey says there are some new uses for hemp that could make it a more competitive crop nowadays. The primary options for producers right now would be to grow hemp for fiber, grain or CBD use.

Massey says growing industrial hemp for fiber production is similar to hay production, so producers would already have a lot of the equipment they would need. But right now, growing hemp for fiber pencils out to fairly tight margins, and it’s a good idea to get a contract for selling it.

“Contracts are essential,” he says. “Really the basic reason I want a contract is I want to know I have a market for it.”

Massey says Missouri currently only has one hemp fiber processor up and running, although other entities are talking about it. Kentucky, which is six years into legal hemp production, has 25-30 fiber processors.

A second option is growing hemp for grain or seed production. Massey says the profit outlook is a little better than growing for fiber, although producers will need to watch yield and price projections closely.

“There’s a lot of possibility there if you can get this yield and this price — and that’s a big if,” he says.

Again, Massey says it’s a good idea to get a contract, and there is only one processor for this type of hemp production, although more might be coming. There are also fairly high standards about seed size and 99.5% grain purity.

The third option is growing hemp for CBD production. Massey says it is similar to tobacco or horticulture production. He says there will likely be a lot of innovation and mechanical solutions coming for hemp CBD production, but right now it involves “just a lot of labor” — much of that hand labor.

CBD production also involves high input costs, although Massey says his numbers showed a potential net income of $7,555 per acre. However, prices have been dipping as more people get into hemp production for CBD, so actual profits could be less, and it remains an intensively managed crop.

Massey says there is not a long-term price history to reference and understand price trends yet.

“Why has it come down?” he says. “It this just seasonal pricing? It could be supply and demand. The supply is going up really quickly. There’s hope the demand will go up with it.”

Tom Keene, agronomy specialist for the University of Kentucky, also spoke at the crop conference here. He says growers and researchers are still learning about the agronomy of hemp.

“We’re just starting with this,” he says. “We’ve been researching corn a hundred years, soybeans 60 or 70 years. With hemp, we have a very limited batch of information. There’s no such thing as a hemp expert.”

Keene says hemp is the same plant as marijuana, but with low amounts of THC, meaning hemp has no psychoactive effect on people. Hemp has 0.3% or less total THC on a dry weight basis.

Kentucky started growing hemp in 2014, and in 2019 CBD represented 92% of hemp grown in Kentucky.

Keene says places with good soils will not have a problem growing hemp, but drainage is important.

“It needs a well-drained soil,” he says. “It does not like its feet wet.”

Hemp is a summer annual, and Keene says it is strongly photoperiod sensitive.

“Day length is critical to this plant,” he says.

Hemp planted on May 15 grows much higher than hemp planted on June 15. Especially when growing hemp for fiber, where height matters a lot, it is good to get it planted early.

Keene says hemp should also be planted shallow, about a quarter inch. It is very important not to plant it too deep. Producers should check their planting depth several times, he says.

There is not currently herbicide approved for use on hemp. Producers can use burndown before planting or till the field. The goal is to get the hemp up quickly to overtake any weed challenges.

“It will germinate fast if it’s good, warm soil with some moisture in it,” Keene says. “The young seedlings are pretty vulnerable. But once it gets bigger it’s pretty tough.”

Keene says a lot of hemp for CBD is grown in plastic wrap with holes and drip irrigation.

His future concerns to watch are the regulatory environment, FDA regulations on CBD, plant breeding, pesticides, insurance and financial backing.

Producers interested in growing hemp can also go to https://bit.ly/35j4mYK to see MU Extension resources.

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Ben Herrold is Missouri field editor, writing for Missouri Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.