The Advanced Guide to Hemp Production
17 Keys to Grow Hemp Profitably in 2019
Irrigation and Water Management
Infrastructure for Processing
Timing, Timing, Timing
Soil Test Immediately
(And what to do if you don’t have time for a soil test)
Suggested Fertility Budget for New Growers in 2019
How to Manage Fertility
In-Season Feeding Plan
In-Season Foliar Plan
CBD Flower vs. Biomass vs. Both
Plastic vs No Plastic
1. Starting Hemp Seeds
At $1/seed, it is far better to start seeds several weeks before planting. But multiple acres of transplants is no joke.
Remember, hemp plants can get root bound very quickly. Rootbound plants will take weeks to rebound, reducing yield before plants ever go in the ground.
Avoid very tiny cells. Cell size and plant timing is everything.
I believe the best way to start this many plants is using standard black plastic flats.
38 cell trays – start your seeds 4 weeks before planting
50 cell trays – start your seeds 3 weeks before planting
72 cell trays – start your seeds 2 weeks before planting
*These times assume relatively ideal growing conditions
2. Irrigation and Water Management for Hemp
I believe the go-to irrigation for hemp will be center pivot and linear irrigation. However, in the next several years, drip irrigation will prevail. Hands down the best drip irrigation set-up is likely T-Tape. I suggest 1-2 driplines per bed. If you have clay soil, 1 dripline is fine. With sandy soil, I’d suggest two.
However, the sizing and distribution of your system is key.
Soil moisture management is your most important task through the season.
I highly recommend using Tensiometers. The best set-up I’ve seen so far is a connected tensiometer system connected to your phone. This allows you to track moisture levels from your phone, and turn irrigation on and off remotely. There are two options that I know of: Hortau Sensors and the Jain Logic. With Hortau, there are three Tensiometers that sit at three different depths: I would suggest 6”, 12”, and 18”.
The goal: consistent soil moisture. Forget deep watering like you would do for perennials. Consistent moisture will keep your soil biological and mineral system turned on and cranking.
3. Infrastructure for Processing Hemp
Start thinking about this now. Don’t wait until mid-season. Infrastructure takes three times as long and costs twice as much as you plan for on the back of the envelope in the beginning of the season. Curing is half the ticket to success.
There are many creative solutions to drying hemp. If you don’t have a big warehouse or barn, there are relatively inexpensive options such as the “Gongyi Guoxin Continuous Drying Production Line” from China that can dry 100 acres of hemp in a couple weeks – but remember – it will take twice as long to set up as you’re anticipating!
4. Timing Is Everything
With hemp, you MUST be on your game to get elite yields and quality. Think of hemp growth rates as a linear progression, day by day. If you are late to start seeds, late to plant, miss a window of low fertility, let a mineral deficiency manifest for too long, miss a few days of dry soil without irrigating, etc, you will lose money.
Hemp production is a line of dominoes. Once you push the first one, you need to be ON IT.
Here’s a very simplified timeline for a CO or OR grower:
NOW: Soil test
April: Figure out curing plan, equipment rentals, and suppliers
May 1: Put down soil amendments
May 7: Pop seeds (date depends on flat size)
May 13: Shape beds, lie irrigation, plastic, etc.
June 1: Plant
June 2: Start monitoring soil moisture like a hawk
June 10: Get fertigator set up
June 15: Pull a plant sap test and apply appropriate minerals to young plants
July 1: Begin mid-season fertigation and fertility monitoring
5. Soil Test Immediately
Fertility is everything in hemp production.
Nail the nutrition and the rest will follow. Since all soils are different, there is no soil recipe or prescription that will work perfectly on all soils!
I’ve looked at hundreds and hundreds of soil tests this year. Here’s what I can tell you:
Do it right and get a full analysis from Soil Doctor. This is my bread and butter. $95 includes three separate soil tests from Logan Labs AND the most badass in-depth soil analysis and recommendations you’ve ever received for hemp.
If you already have a Standard test you absolutely need a “Soluble Paste Test” in addition to your standard test. Again, Logan Labs. Doing these every month to capture the combination of your Soil + Irrigation Water + Feed Solution is the absolute best way to dial in your fertility plan through the season.
If you haven’t tested your irrigation at least once, you must do this too. Irrigation water changes your in-season soil chemistry more than anything else on an ongoing basis. Though it does change throughout the season, don’t over-think it. One test is better than none, especially if it’s well water.
6. (And if you don’t have time for a soil test)
If you want a cookie-cutter fertility plan, I offer them for $150. Reach out to me directly and tell me every single thing you know about your soil (pH, texture, zip code, inches of precipitation you get each year, and if you have a fertility budget).
7. Suggested Fertility Budget for Hemp Growers in 2019
Hemp prices are high right now. But know they are going to fall. Even with a drop, there is a fantastic window to push yields and make very good money in 2019.
If you are on new or depleted soil, and if you are positioning for top-shelf smokable flower on 30+ acres, I would suggest a high fertility budget up to $2,000/acre for fertility in 2019, with a reduction to $750/acre in 2020.
If this seems high, other high-value crops in agriculture such as organic blueberries can have fertility budgets of $1,000/acre.
This type of investment will build and balance mineral levels to the point where you can enable a much lower budget in the future – somewhere around $300 moving into the next decade.
For smaller acreage or really high-intensity growing, plan on higher still.
With biomass, go lower.
If you have good soil that has been built over time, you’ll have a sense for the right fertility budget for your operation! It might even be down to a few hundred dollars.
8. How to Manage Hemp Fertility
Again, GET A SOIL TEST FIRST. This will determine your fertility plan entirely.
After you get the test, here is how I suggest managing hemp fertility
Incorporate organic minerals.
Apply amendments as soon as you’ve gotten a soil test. Don’t guess. If you absolutely missed the window for a soil test, read below what to do.
Feed through the season.
Part of your budget should include fertigation and/or foliar sprays (more on that below).
Turn on the biology.
This ensures superior flavor—as I believe the best-flavored hemp and cannabis is just as much from microbial metabolites as it is from genetics.
9. In-Season Feeding Plan for Hemp
If you want to yield over 1 pound per plant, feeding is usually a must.
How I approach fertility is to put down inexpensive organic amendments that will balance soil minerals and provide enough nutrition to get the plant through the first month of growth without any feeding, no problem.
Starting in month two, there are two fertility plans I think are most effective for hemp.
Eden Nutrition: If you have a fertile, well-amended soil, I supply an organic feed solution that is a combination of 80 herbs, 15 minerals, 20 clays, and 23 ocean extracts. It’s hyper-concentrated and a little goes a long way. The quantity completely depends on your soil nutrient levels and plant growth stage, but this is just about the best organic nutrient line I’ve ever encountered. It’s incredibly effective and biological. I only give qualified growers access to these products. Get in touch if you’re interested.
Amino Acids, Liquid Fish/Shrimp/Crab, and Kelp: If your soil is depleted, I tend to gravitate toward a program of high quality amino acids coupled with crab, shrimp, and fish hydrolysate with liquid kelp extract. The rates vary, but know that inexpensive liquid fish will not get you to where you need to go. Only buy the best oceanic hydrolysate or don’t buy it at all. This is the ideal plan for Southern Oregon growers.
But feeding is expensive!
Here is a trick, pay close attention…
If you are growing on more than 5 acres, a small monthly investment in monitoring will save you thousands in feed (and lost yield!). Here is how it works:
Every two weeks, one week after a feed, get a Soluble Paste Test w/ your irrigation water
The results will tell you EXACTLY what your soil solution looks like, and therefore how much you should feed
I can enter the results into my Soil Solution Model and help you toggle your feed solution up or down.
10. In-Season Foliar Plan
If you want truly elite production of high-quality flower, applying foliars is critical. Here is how I suggest applying foliars:
Get a laboratory Plant Sap Analysis to understand the exact mineral deficiencies of your plant. A shotgun approach to foliars is a guessing game, and isn’t usually very effective.
Customize the exact foliar spray your plants need—manganese, molybdenum, sulfur?
After analyzing dozens of sap analyses for hemp, I’ve found that plants typically need more Ca, Si, Mn, Fe, and P in Veg, while K and trace minerals are often lacking in flower. This is a major over-simplification, but gives you a sense of the precision of laboratory sap analysis.
11. CBD Flower vs. Biomass vs. Both
It matters. Figure out which market you’re going for. It changes the entire approach in terms of how much money you should invest this year.
If you’re growing for biomass, consider a quick pre- harvest of your top kolas, separate them, and cure them for the flower market with a little extra TLC.
Your approach to curing will also change: low and slow for flower. High-volume throughput for biomass.
12. Hemp Genetics
$1/seed is the going rate in spring of 2019 in Oregon. Luckily genetics are getting better each year. I don’t know a damn thing about genetics so I’m going to say this: find someone who does and set yourself up for success.
13. Planting Beds
Hemp does better in raised beds. Beds allow better drainage, deeper aeration, and reduced compaction. I believe the real key is deep soil amendment and aeration. Hemp is an annual and it simply thrives in a deep rich seed bed.
14. Spacing Hemp Plants
In a sense, this depends on your seed budget.
It also depends on how you’re managing weeds.
But as a general rule of thumb—if you’re growing for flower—I suggest 5’ wide beds, with plant spacing 5’ apart. If you want 6-10’ tall plants, you can go even further apart. If you follow the steps outlined above when it comes to fertility, you can space 7’x7’ and let your plants get HUGE.
With hemp and cannabis plants, besides timing, their size is mostly a function of their spacing. Want huge plants? Give them space.
15. Best Implement in Hemp Cultivation
Obviously this depends on your farm, scale, and goals. But here is one gold metal implements for 2019 hemp production: Rainflow 2600—with all the bells and whistles, you can make this an all-in-one bed shaper, fertilizer dropper, plastic mulch layer, and drip single or double line drip irrigation layer. It can do 1-3 beds, and the price with all the options is around $7,000.
Pro Tip 1: find four hemp growers in your area and split the price.
Pro Tip 2: Biologic Crop Solutions in Southern Oregon rents this, along with other great tools and implements to rent.
16. Plastic vs No Plastic in Hemp Cultivation
Weeds – plastic earns a gold metal when it comes to weed mitigation.
Warm soil – hemp plants simply love the warmth that plastic provides.
Moisture retention – acting as a mulch, it helps tremendously with water retention and allows a much more consistently moist top 3” of soil. While this can be a benefit if you have poor water quality in an arid environment, drip irrigation is actually not the best option in this case.
Anaerobic fermentation engine – while I haven’t seen this directly, I have heard reports that plastic on top of a highly biological fertilizer such as chicken manure laid in furrow can produce a monstrous biological response through an anaerobic fermentation (much like a KNF technique of some kind)
Disposing of acres of plastic might be the most depressing thing in the world
Plastic is exorbitantly expensive and is not by any means a re-usable long-term investment
Only compatible with drip irrigation systems
If you live in a place that gets good summer precipitation, mulch will prevent your plants from ever seeing it—bummer.
If you are aiming to be a sustainability or regenerative-focused farmer, it’s hard to justify the use of plastic.
Limits your ability to side-dress or broadcast fertilizers mid-season, and forces you to use more expensive liquid feeds
17. Plastic Alternatives in Hemp Cultivation
Tractor Cultivation—In my opinion, the best method for weed management is simply cultivation. A good friend and farmer I work with quite a bit is avoiding plastic by planting every other row. Therefore, he'll be able to get his tractor into the field for most of the season, allowing his tractor's cultivation sweeps to get the weeds. Obviously you lose a lot of your yield since the spacing is 50%, but he never has to get off his tractor, weeds are never an issue, and he avoids a HUGE expense.
Animals—My fellow consultant friend and I have discussed the use of animals in hemp fields. We believe geese or chickens could be used as a fantastic way to control weeds and put down fertilizer through the season. From our understanding, they won’t affect t-tape and definitely touch the thick woody plant stems. This would require a perimeter fence or electric netting/solar charger. We believe high-density rotations at 400-500 birds/acre would do the job fantastically.
Straw/Alfalfa Mulch—If you can find spoiled hay or another grass mulch at a competitive price, this would be the #1 best option. It’s possible to use a blower to blow the mulch under the plants once they’re established. Just don’t do this too early or you’ll cover your plant leaves, reducing photosynthesis.
Biodegradable Plastic Mulch—If you want to reduce your impact and reduce your labor costs of cleanup, consider biodegradable mulch.
Cover Crops—I am working with several growers on using a cover crop instead of plastic mulch. There isn’t a single answer to this, because it depends on timing and location. However, if I had to give you one great solution for weed control, I’d say RED CLOVER. It won’t add to much undo competition, it fixes nitrogen, and it competes with weeds very well. I’ve used this in my gardens over the years and it’s great. I would keep it away from the base of the plant and seed it thickly (while the suggested rate is 12 lbs/acre, I would personally double or triple that to ensure a thick stand). It can always be mowed down, and will persist in the shade of the canopy later in the season.
Efficient Hand Cultivation—While this has a labor cost, it’s very doable. Here are my favorite tools for the job depending on your situation:
Flame Weeder—who doesn’t want to farm with a flame thrower?
Wheel Weeder—I’d aim for 7” wide on each side of the plant.
Flex Tine Weeder—these are best when weeds are very small early in the season.