Growing – and harvesting – organic hemp

Grower Marcus Isaac says producers thinking 
of growing hemp should be aware that it’s a labour-intensive crop. Photo: Courtesy Marcus Isaac.

Glacier FarmMedia | Grainews – When Marcus Isaac decided he wanted to get into organic production, he thought hemp would be a good fit for his 300-acre farm near Kleefeld, Man. He was already growing alfalfa and he knew hemp would be a good organic crop to rotate with it. He also knew hemp would provide some weed suppression and make use of the high nutrients on his fields, which are fertilized with manure from a local hog producer.

Isaac irrigates his hemp, and that means it often comes off a little tough, so combining can be a bit of a challenge. He’s modified his John Deere 9600 combine to help with that.

“We built a feeder house belt for the combine, but that only works when the hemp is quite dry and we can swath it,” says Isaac. “We put a round shaft on the back of the combine because the hex shaft that it came with was tangling too much. We also built something to feed it closer to the centre, so it’s not coming in on the edges as much.”

Growing organic hemp is a lot of paperwork, first because of the licensing and then the organic certification. – Marcus Isaac

This fall it was too wet to swath, so Isaac had to straight combine his hemp and wasn’t able to use the feeder house belt. “About twice a day we had to go clean off the back feeder
house shaft,” he says. “We are still trying to figure out how we can get that back shaft so it doesn’t tangle up.”

To deal with residue, Isaac bought and modified a pull-type forage harvester. “It throws everything straight out the back and that is how we chop up our straw behind the combine,” he says.

Isaac says producers need to be prepared if they want to grow hemp — particularly, to understand that they’re dealing with a labour-intensive crop. “It’s not a normal crop,” he says. “I have to get it seeded at the right time, I irrigate it, I have to modify my equipment to harvest it, and I have to have a dryer. Growing organic hemp is a lot of paperwork, first because of the licensing and then the organic certification.”

That said, he’s happy with the returns on the crop. His hemp yield this year was a little over 1,600 lbs./acre. Last year he managed 1,000 lbs./acre in a very dry year.

Angela Lovell is a contributor for Grainews magazine.