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Prospective producers learned that there are still many unknowns about growing industrial hemp in Nebraska.

Those attending the York Hemp Forum held at the City Auditorium in York, Nebraska, Oct. 11, heard many encouraging speakers, but if they listened carefully they also heard as many questions as they did answers.

There is a vast amount of interest in cultivating industrial hemp in Nebraska, as demonstrated by the more than 250 people at the forum and by the fact that the Nebraska Department of Agriculture reports it received 176 applications for the 2019 growing season.

The state supports the efforts of producers in getting industrial hemp established as a cash crop. The Unicameral approved legislation reclassifying industrial hemp as an agricultural product.

But three key areas remain ambiguous, and these hitches are could be problematic to prospective producers. These areas encompass costs, fertility and pests.

Since hemp hasn’t been grown as a crop in Nebraska for about 50 years, growers and researchers have had to look outside the state to answer these enquiries. Pennsylvania, Indiana and Kentucky have been heavily involved in industrial hemp and were the primary resources tapped.

“If you have decided to grow hemp, the first step is to decide what type of hemp crop: grain, seed or CBD,” said Lynn Kime, senior extension associate for Pennsylvania State University. “When the type of crop you want is figured out, apply for a permit from your state department of agriculture and obtain a soil test kit from your county’s extension office.”

Each kind of crop entails different equipment, acreage requirements, timing for planting and harvesting, harvest approach, storage and processing, Kime said. That’s when the big questions come into play. We highlight a few of the key questions discussed at the forum:

What are startup costs?

In 2019, the state of Nebraska charged a $100 application fee to grow hemp. If the application is approved, growers then pay a $400 registration fee.

Some equipment for farming grains can be used to farm hemp for fiber and grain. There are hemp-specific solutions on the market, as well. In any case, producers will need tillage equipment, a planter or grain drill, cultivation equipment. A combine, grain storage and grain dryer are needed for hemp grow for its grain. A mower, rake and baler are needed for fiber crops.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced that hemp growers will be eligible for federal programs and loans in 2020. Some states, such as Pennsylvania, have been proactive in getting funding for the burgeoning new crop, providing $460,000 through specialty crop block grants under the state farm bill.

“We don’t want producers and growers to miss out on this opportunity,” said Shannon Powers, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

Once you’ve got the gear, now you need the ground.

What kind of soil is best for hemp?

“Hemp, like most plants, requires adequate amounts of macro and micronutrients for proper growth and development,” said Marguerite Bolt, hemp extension specialist for Purdue University. “We don't have fertility recommendations for hemp at this point.”

According to Bolt’s research, poorly drained or poorly structured soils are not ideal because it may be difficult to establish a stand. Sandy soils may require irrigation to maximize yield, she said.

Hemp can be grown on soils that are productive for corn. But, with no quantified fertility recommendations for hemp there is a lot of opinion and anecdotal evidence, said Kime.

“Nitrogen levels are unknown,” he said. “Some say ‘dump it on’ while others say that too much will increase your THC levels. There is even less data when it comes to phosphorous, potassium and sulfur.”

Adding to the complexity – other states such as Pennsylvania and Kentucky that have been growing hemp can’t be used to measure how things will go in Iowa or Nebraska.

“What they have experienced is not necessarily what we will experience,” said Dr. Robin D. Pruisner of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. “In row crop country we can do things exactly the same as we did the previous year, and not get the same results.”

According to the Soil Science Society of America, Pennsylvania has primarily inceptisol soil, lacking significant clay accumulation in the subsoil. Kentucky has chiefly ultisol soil, which formed in humid areas, has an appreciable amount of translocated clay, and is relatively acidic. Nebraska has mainly mollisol soil, prairie or grassland soil that has a dark-colored surface horizon. It is highly fertile and rich in chemical “bases” such as calcium and magnesium.

Once the seeds are planted now you need to keep them healthy until harvest.

What pests affect hemp?

Hemp plants can be vulnerable to various pathogens, including bacteria, fungi, nematodes and viruses.

“Similar to most crops, the more prevalent disease-causing organisms for hemp are fungi or fungus-like organisms as compared to bacteria and viruses,” said Dr. Alyssa A. Collins, director of the Southeast Agricultural Research and Extension Center. “Fungal diseases are far more common and important.”

Yet, this doesn’t exclude the possibility that there will be some damaging bacterial and viral diseases in hemp, or that they will become important. That’s because bacteria and viruses have relatively fewer control options, she said.

“On the whole, we expect fungal diseases to remain the largest threat to yield and quality for hemp crops,” Collins said. “Common diseases include botrytis (gray mold), leaf spots and white mold.”

The type of hemp being grown may dictate to a certain extent the level of damage rendered by any of these, she said. Different crop varieties have different susceptibilities.

“For instance, a grower farming a fiber crop may get botrytis, but since their main product is the stalk and not the grain or flower, it won’t be that impactful for them,” Collins said. “On the other hand, white mold which affects the stem, would be a damaging disease for growers of all types of hemp.”

There are no fungicides labeled for hemp yet, and this will likely be the case for at least another year while companies and the EPA work together to make sure all the testing and administrative needs are met to safely label existing chemistries, she said.

“Some of this will require additional studies for traditional fungicides,” Collins said. “For others that are generally regarded as safe across crops (softer chemistries), it will be a matter of approval through the proper channels.”

There are currently a handful of these soft chemistries that the EPA is taking public comment on for approval, she said. Most companies are starting to examine products that are successful for other crops and conducting studies to investigate their efficacy and plant safety on hemp.

“There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here, as it’s likely that many existing materials will also be entirely suitable for hemp production – depending on what the end use of the hemp crop will be,” Collins said. “For instance, the requirements for residues on biomass that will be used for CBD extraction will be much more stringent than, say, on a non-edible product like hemp fiber.”

As for creepy-crawlies, Pruisner, also an entomologist for the state of Iowa, said the ruling is still out on which pest is most economically important to hemp.

“It depends on the year’s environmental conditions,” he said. “It’s not limited. There are a variety, like with corn and soybeans.”

Cannabis has a reputation for being pest-free. Actually, it is pest-tolerant. Research has shown that many pests have been found around cannabis, but they rarely cause economic damage.

The most common pests are arthropods, Pruisner said. These would include pillbugs, garden centipedes spiders and mites.

With guidance from established hemp farmers, Nebraska producers will navigate the unknown shoals of re-establishing the crop in this state. While conditions are different from the 1940s, some things remain the same – that would be the capabilities of American farmers.

For more information on industrial hemp farming in Nebraska, go to nebraskahempassociation.org.

Jon Burleson can be reached at jon.burleson@lee.net.