WESSINGTON – When asked about growing industrial hemp the first year it was legal in South Dakota, Wessington farmer, BJ McNeil doesn’t sugar-coat his experience.
“You could not have asked for a worse experience than what we had this year. But we learned a lot.”
McNeil will share what he learned with farmers and ranchers during the South Dakota Farmers Union State Convention, held at the Crossroads Convention Center in Huron Dec. 16 at 1:30 p.m.
McNeil says because the economics of growing industrial hemp remain strong, he will raise it again in 2022. McNeil contracted his hemp with an organic food processor for $1.10 a pound. In some fields, he averaged 1,200-pounds-per-acre.
“It is by no means a losing deal. We knew this first year we didn’t know what we were doing. Now that the learning curve is over, I hope to increase efficiencies by 50 percent.”
So, what did McNeil learn?
Growing industrial hemp is the easy part.
Having recently converted his large farm over to organic management practices, McNeil was eager to add industrial hemp to the farm’s diverse crop rotation because of its ability to crowd out weeds.
“It is very competitive. This was the biggest reason I wanted to try it. And it worked where there was moisture for it to come up on time. It did not work where it had to wait five weeks for rain to come up.”
McNeil planted organic industrial hemp for food consumption into six fields. Other than waiting for seed emergence due to drought, after planting it into a clean seed bed, McNeil says growing industrial hemp was simple.
“Put it in the ground and walk away. We fertilized it like we do corn. It likes fertility and moisture.”
Although industrial hemp likes moisture, McNeil says compared to corn, it seemed to handle drought conditions better.
“It didn’t show stress like the corn. It never got droopy like corn.”
What industrial hemp did in response to lack of moisture was a larger percentage of male plants expressed themselves with pollen sacks, reducing overall seed production.
Don’t combine more than the first 2 to 3 feet.
Harvest was when the reality of just how little McNeil and his team knew about processing industrial hemp set in.
“We had a mess the first day we combined.”
When it was time to harvest, due to the fact that plant maturity varied greatly throughout each field, some plants were 6-feet tall and others were 12-feet tall. Because the hemp seed/grain is found in the first 4-to-5-feet of the plant, the first day of harvest, they set the combine to harvest the first 6-feet of plant material.
“We had 6-feet of hemp rope wrapped everywhere you can imagine. The rotor was wrapped. The beater was wrapped. The feed accelerator was wrapped,” McNeil said.
Day-one ended with McNeil and his team of nine employees spending four hours cutting hemp vines off the combines. “We didn’t know what we were doing. You can read, watch YouTube videos and research all you want, but until you do it yourself, you don’t know what you are getting into.”
Day-two the combine heads were set to cut only the first 2-to-3 feet of plant material. And the team began conducting an eight-point inspection of their combines each …….