2019 was a huge year for hemp production across not only the nation, but Montana as well. In 2018, Montana planted some 22,000 acres of hemp, one year later in 2019, approximately 51,000 acres were planted. 279 hemp licenses were issued in 2019 with 235 of those growers actually successfully planting hemp.
“This is a really exciting, new industry and I think Montana farmers are looking for new opportunities. They’ve got the land, they’ve got the recourses and they are looking for a crop that is going to be successful,” said Mikayla Moore, Montana Hemp Program assistant.
The rapid and successful boom that hemp experienced in Montana is exhilarating, but in some ways, it has proven to be a little overwhelming.
For those hemp producers growing the crop for the extraction of CBD oil, finding processing plants has been a hurdle. Currently there are three fully operational processing facilities in the state. Montana covers a lot of area and hemp was literally grown in every corner of it, but with only a small number of processing facilities, producers have been challenged to get their crop into its final stages.
“We just opened our processor’s license application period, so those are starting to filter in. We will start to see more emerging processing facilities, it’s just so new right now. I don’t think any one was prepared for how big the hemp industry was going to be in Montana,” Moore emphasized.
For Chad and Holly Kuntz, who farm along the Yellowstone River near the little town of Custer, Mont., hemp was appealing because it was another crop to diversify their operation and help pay the bills. After researching the crop extensively, the couple decided on planting a variety that had the genetics to be high in CBD oil and low in THC.
Hemp has been arguably the most labor-intensive crop the experienced farm couple has ever dealt with. Originally, they had hoped to plant the seeds directly into the ground around the beginning of May, but later thought better of it. The variety they purchased cost nearly $1 per seed and they wanted to be sure, at that cost, as many seeds as possible turned into viable plants. They started their entire crop in a greenhouse and then transplanted the starts into the field.
“We were originally shooting for 17 acres, but 15 is what we ended up planting,” Chad said. At 2,000 plants an acre, starting all the plants out in a greenhouse was no small feat.
Once planted the crop proved to be fairly hardy, withstanding the fluctuating early spring temperature in Montana fairly well. The summer months found the Kuntz’s laboring over their crop. According to Chad, there is no herbicide on the market that can be used on hemp, so the entire field had to be hand tilled.
Fall rolled around and the hemp crop was ready to harvest, just in time for a massive early fall snow storm to tramp across the state. It was all hands on deck as the family and workers at Kuntz Farm worked quickly to harvest their entire crop. The majority of it was harvested by hand, but the Kuntz’s ran a portion of the crop through a corn processor to try and expedite the process.
“We didn’t really know what to expect. We kind of had an idea, but it was a lot more work than we expected. Part of it was we were so rushed because of the storm. We had to do three weeks’ worth of work in two days,” said Holly.
The hemp crop is now drying as Chad and Holly figure out what to do next. Like many producers, they are struggling to find a facility to process the CBD oil. In the mean-time, Chad marvels at the amount of product that was produced. There were about 165 rows of hemp planted and Chad explained on average, it took about a row and a half to fill a semi.
“We’ve got hemp in rafters, on fences, on the floors. It’s everywhere,” Chad added.
Despite the challenges and freak weather, Chad and Holly admit they learned a lot this past year and they plan on planting hemp again next year. From an operational standpoint, they want to plant next year’s crop under a pivot so they don’t have to deal with the ridges like they did this year as they flood irrigated the crop. Chad is also looking into building his own processing facility.
The Kuntz’s attitude is mimicked at the state level as well. Moore alluded that 2019 was a steep learning curve for producers and officials at the Montana Department of Agriculture, but everyone is ready to make 2020 even better for hemp production in Montana.