Growing 50 Acres of Hemp in North Carolina: Field Notes from the One Acre Exchange

One Acre Exchange supports the development of an agricultural economy centering the sustainability of farmers, workers, and the planet. In North Carolina and beyond, we support farmers and artisans in the growth and development of industrial hemp because of its tremendous potential to revitalize local economies and regenerate the environment. Read past dispatches to learn about the evolution of this effort: click here for all One Acre Exchange articles. In this article, Tyler shares a look at the 2020 season so far.

Written by Tyler Jenkins, with photographs by Anna Carson Dewitt and Tyler Jenkins

It feels strange to pen a blog at this particular moment, with all of the pre-existing issues slowing the growth of the hemp industry taking a back seat to pandemic maneuverings and social change. Spring came with coronavirus and with them a new season and new time to plant seeds in the ground. In the midst of uncertainty, we pressed carefully and cautiously forward with a lot of courage and a lot of love.

This year’s planting was nearly 50 acres, spread out over 3 sites in the North Carolina Piedmont. Textile grade seed is a first-generation Piedmont seed that came originally from a Jinma strain in China. Fiber-grade Bialobrzeski seed was brought in from Ukraine for a comparison and expansion of genetic capacity. We are not certain about the marketability of this much crop, yet we grew at least 20 acres of each variety primarily because that was the lower limit to get federal crop insurance tied to industrial hemp. This ended up being a quite important decision we made this season.  

Hilltops, rolling slopes of various grades, and creek bottoms are primary features of the southern North Carolina Piedmont, where our seed will be sown. They serve as planting strips for many varieties of grain, corn, cotton, and timber. Some places can get more rain than other places, and there are lots of microclimates, so we planted in many different spots. 

Preparing a holistic system for maximum soil benefit is a bedrock of all our hemp planting efforts. This began with a winter cover crop of cow peas, rapeseed, and vetch. In the Spring, this cover crop was burned with an organic solution (vinegar) before the application of chicken. Seeds were then drilled and seeded in 7” rows directly into the burned cover crop. Each field was anchored by a buckwheat pollinator strip for each field. 

Markets for this year’s crop will focus specifically on what can be achieved through a small farm processing system. For the past few years, the One Acre Exchange project has been working with farmers in North Carolina to explore the supply chain readiness of hemp and hemp fibers for farmers and artisans. This year, we are focused on producing a final report for an on-farm processing system for an end-to-end long-staple fiber that is free of seed and hurd.

For our team, coming together to make this grow happen as the pandemic unfolded around us was an exercise in moving forward with a great deal of faith. Farming is a tough game in a good year, and the last half-decade of working with industrial hemp has meant working without a map. 

Moving into 2020, we are working seemingly without a map or a compass, yet we hope to offer some reflection on this effort. We aim to share insight on integrating this crop back into American textiles, drawing conclusions from our work in the field in preparation for what is immediately ahead and what is beyond. 

A check-in on this year’s North Carolina hemp crop gives us another lesson in the global climate crisis. Forecasting in the Spring, many experts modeling the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane season outlook stated the coming season would be particularly strong, a prediction that held up throughout May. The Atlantic saw the formation of two tropical storms (Arthur and Bertha) before the official start of the season on June 1, and North Carolina was hit by both of them.

The result for our hemp crop was nearly 17 inches of rain in 48 hours. There are many problems associated with this unfortunate event, and the most immediately apparent is the nutrient loss. In many places, much of the cover crop was washed off the land entirely. The chicken litter suffered much the same fate. Significant areas of seedbeds lost some or all of their seed. Options still remain, but the truth is the excessive water proved to be a devastating hit. All in all, there are about 10 acres that will be worth salvaging for this year’s purposes.

First, some notes about yield planning and crop quality. One of the things about planting industrial hemp for fiber is making sure you establish a stand in the field. Similar to crops such as alfalfa or corn, a stand can be measured by the number of plants that are established in a square foot. Early season wash out like we experienced will greatly affect areas of a field prone to flooding leading to a total loss of crop. In other areas, the washing of some seeds out of the seedbed means a less dense stand, leading to shorter, bushier plants. Ideally, we want hemp to reach as high as it can for that sunlight throughout the growing cycle. 

Most of this crop will be cut for seed to be saved for a continuing project of creating a seed stock that is acclimated to our growing area. Acclimating a new seed stock is a 5-10 year project, and the crop loss makes it all the more imperative to save as much as can be salvaged for continuing to build this bank for the future.

Any farm project considering the integration of industrial hemp as a market crop should be prepared for this incubation period in determination of crop yield and profitability. On the fiber side, a few acres of the crop will be processed into hurd-free, long-staple fiber following best practices learned and iterated over the previous four years. The crop will be cut with a sickle-bar mower, allowed to ret in the field, then hand bundled end-to-end and stood up in piles for easy removal. Once we have the hemp back into the shed, we’ll start to decorticate and line up a few experiments for what the small farm can expect to reasonably work on with hemp, and seek to posit best methods for stabilizing long-staple hemp fiber production for the small grower.

One last note, and an important one. Before hemp can be harvested and processed, it must be inspected under the direction of the North Carolina Industrial Hemp Commission for THC quantity. While our seed is a certified fiber variety that has consistently tested below the 0.3% threshold, industrial hemp plants will increase their production of cannabinoids as a response to stress. There’s no way around it: this crop has been stressed since soon after it was planted. Assuming good fortune for this inspection, harvesting will begin in mid-August, when the real fun begins.