Quality Farming Makes for Quality Hemp
At Redeem, we want to be a company known for transparency. So we decided to interview our hemp supplier,Appalachian Growers, to provide you some insight into the agricultural side of hemp. Before Redeem does any oil extraction or formulation, our hemp is planted, grown, and harvested on this small farm in Franklin, NC. To get the inside scoop on their cannabis farming, I interviewed the one and only Joshua Brandes— Farm Manager at Appalachian Growers.
He and his team were incredibly knowledgeable and gracious to take time out of one of their busiest seasons to answer our questions. But if you have any additional questions about hemp farming, please ask in the comments section! We’ll be sure to address them. But without further ado, it’s time for a little Q & A!
Hemp Farming 101: How to Best Grow Organic Hemp
Q: Let’s begin with where your hemp begins— the seeds. Where do you get your seeds from? Or do you clone your plants?
A: We do use seeds. Because we end up growing the plants out in the fields, they need to have a taproot. Clones don’t have a taproot, so we cannot use them. We get our seeds from Oregon Hemp. We’ve had a wonderful experience with their seeds, as our germination rate is just barely below 100%.
Q: What exactly do you mean by “germination rate?”
A: It’s how we measure the viability of our seeds. For example, let’s say that we planted 12,000 seeds in our greenhouse. We would end up with 11,900 sprouts and some change. Such a high germination rate is a testament to the quality of the seed. We’ve found that, with seeds, you end up getting what you pay for.
Q: What does “organic” mean to Appalachian Growers? What goes into organic hemp farming?
A: The way that we keep things organic out here is through “IPM”— or Integrated Pest Management. There are several aspects to this type of farming, but first and foremost, you need to learn your field. Learn what pests it might foster, what type of issues the climate may bring on. For instance, with a heavy year of rainfall, you are prone to having fungal issues develop. By knowing what to expect, you can be proactive with natural solutions.
Q: So how do you tackle these potential fungal issues organically?
A: One of the keys is to keep the vegetation down around the hemp as much as possible. Our farm uses only OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) certified products to do this sort of thing. On an “as needed” basis, we’ll use potassuium bicarbonate (KHCO3), a naturally-occurring fungicide, to treat fungal issues such as blight. In the past, we’ve also used bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium naturally found in soils and on plant leaves, to ward off army worms and caterpillars. A lot of the OMRI-certified sprays that we use are chosen due to their effectiveness on “soft-bodied” pests. Soft-bodied pests are the nemesis.
The Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Methods Used on the Farm
Q: Since you bring up the “pests,” what are the most common ones that you deal with?
A: Some of our most common pests are caterpillars, mites, and aphids. We monitor and pay close attention to weather patterns because excessive heat and low humidity can encourage the reproduction of Russet and Spider Mites. Excessive moisture, on the other hand, encourages Fungus Gnats and a variety of fungal-related issues like fusarium, pythium, and botrytis. We stay on top of these by keeping a close eye on the micro-climate and anticipating issues that are likely to ensue.
Q: I’ve been told that you use birds to keep the pest population down. Could you describe how you do this?
A: We do! Our farm has a colony of Purple Martins (a North American swallow) to help keep the flying insect population at bay. After doing some research on these birds, we were interested in getting some of our own. The process ended up being as easy as installing a few bird houses at the right time in the Purple Martin migration pattern to encourage them to nest on the farm. They love eating all of the flying insects that our hemp attracts— they eat bugs by the ton.
Something special about Purple Martins is that they always migrate back to the same location. So we can expect this same colony back next year. We’ll add another 10 or so houses next year to grow our colony a bit.
Q: If they always go back to the same location, how did you manage to get the Purple Martins that you have?
A: Based on their migration dates, we set up the birdhouses three to four weeks after the birds made it to our general area. At that point, you are trying to attract the juveniles who are looking to find their own colony— to branch out from mom and dad. And it worked! Within two days we had Purple Martins.
Growing Hemp in Raised Beds: The Organic Route to Weed-Free Farming
Q: So you’ve explained how you handle pests, but how do you keep weeds out?
A: We use a raised bed system with plastic mulch. This is the setup that most strawberry growers use, too. Basically you lay out a strip of plastic for each row and the hemp plants will grow up through it. The only weeds that we have to worry about are those that grow in between each row. But we have a staff dedicated to keeping those under control by mowing and weed-eating on a regular basis.
Q: So how do you go about making these raised beds?
A: There is a machine that will build up the soil for the raised bed and roll the plastic out simultaneously. As we are laying the plastic out, we also install a low pressure irrigation system underneath. A sort of “drip tape.” These are nice because if the plants need any extra nutrients or even just more water, we can easily get it to them through this simple irrigation system.
Importance of Ensuring Essential Soil Nutrients
Q: As I was preparing for this interview, I read that many farmers have to add nutrients to their soil— especially phosphorus, nitrogen, calcium, and magnesium. Do you add these?
A: Hemp plants absolutely do need those nutrients throughout their life, but luckily the two fields that we farm are pretty much “virgin soil” in that they haven’t been farmed for over 60 years. This was just our second year of growing in these two fields. Our soil tests indicated that the fields currently had all of the nutrients that the plants would need.
Q: When do you anticipate that your fields will need a little extra nutrient help?
A: At the end of each season we look into the need for building the biological population in the soil. The more organisms that you have in the ground and the more that they eat and secrete, the more healthy your soil is going to be. But we will just continue to monitor for now. In the off season, when harvest is complete, we will need to let the field rest. The first thing that we are going to do to prep the field for rest is to introduce cover crops like legumes and/or red clover, as both add nitrogen back into the soil and attract beneficial insects.
Another aspect to taking care of the fields is simply understanding your soil mediums. One of our fields is more clay-based whereas the other is more of a sandy loam. A clay-base can be great for retaining the nutrients because there is not as much leeching, but it can also be a problem because hemp doesn’t do well with “wet feet.” Clay retains water extremely well, which can cause the root system to get too wet. But, in understanding this, we can address issues like these before it's too late.
Prepping the fields is crucial because 30 days after the seed begins germination we’ll plant it in the field. The medium in which we are planting the hemp needs to be the medium with which it will thrive.
Nurturing Hemp: From Seedling to Flowering Plant
Q: That leads me into my next question. You said “30 days until your plants are in the field.” Does that mean that they are in greenhouses until then?
A: Yes. Seeds are planted in the greenhouse around April 15th, sprouts shoot out about 4 days later, and they are kept there for 30 days or so. This is based off of the “hardiness zone” for our particular region, which gives you an idea when the climate will be warm enough for the hemp to survive. Mother’s Day is our general rule of thumb for getting plants placed into the field.
Q: Do you deal with any greenhouse-specific issues like mold or mildew?
A: Our greenhouses are a simple design. They are a manageable 20ft x 100ft in size and have naturally effective air circulation. I do use an app that allows me to track the temperature and humidity of the greenhouse from my phone. We are subject to getting quite low temperatures at night during springtime, so I’ll occasionally go and kick on a heater on an “as needed” basis.
Hemp plants tend to do better in a relatively humid environment. Thankfully, our region tends to be naturally humid. A primitive way that we can control humidity is by closing up the sides of the greenhouse. During the day they are left open to recirculate air, but shutting the doors at night helps to trap in moisture. The floors of the greenhouse are made of gravel, but underneath the stone we laid a layer of plastic to help contain the humidity even better.
Q: Do you ever have a problem with too much rain?
A: Sometimes. As I had mentioned, clay-based fields retain moisture really well. And hemp does not do well when its root system is flooded with water. We will do a variety of things to keep this from happening— from lollipopping or skirting to lifting. As the plant grows, we’ll actually lift the bottom of the plant up anywhere from 12-20”. This allows for moisture to escape above the plastic. Sometimes we just have to poke holes in the plastic to allow some of the moisture to evaporate.
Q: At Redeem, we get our oils third-party tested at several different stages throughout production. Do you test your plant before sending it to us, too?
A: Absolutely. The state testing that we do is mainly just testing for Δ-9 THC levels to ensure that our hemp is below the legal limit of 0.3%. Once our plant goes through the harvesting process though, we send some dry flower out for additional testing as well. This testing is to verify no heavy metals or pesticides, and will also provide us with a cannabinoid and terpine profile for the hemp.
Harvesting Hemp for Hemp Oil
Q: I understand that your harvest is only a few weeks away. Could you explain a bit of what a harvest would look like?
A: We harvest for both biomass and for the flower (or bud). The process for each is different. So much of what we do depends on which we are going for. Harvesting the flower is much more labor-intensive due to clipping by hand. Biomass harvesting is essentially just taking the whole plant. The biomass is what goes on to make hemp oil. Our ratio and the industry standard tends to be about 70/30, biomass to flower harvest respectively.
Q: So once you have the hemp plants cut, what happens next?
A: We’ll hang the hemp by its stalk from deer netting (a plastic fence) in a drying building with 25’ ceilings for 5-7 days while maintaining a conducive temperature and humidity. After that period, we’ll bring the hemp down and place it in bins where it is labeled and weighted. Every day the bins get opened and tumbled to allow residual moisture to escape— to let the plant “breathe.” This allows for a more rich profile and for some natural aging to occur. This process will be repeated for up to 90 days.
Day-to-Day Life on a Hemp Farm in 2019
Q: What makes Appalachian Growers special?
A: From a grower’s perspective, I only surround myself with people who have a passion for the plant. So I hire people who care. Our employees are somewhat eclectic and geographically diverse, but what we have in common is that we take growing seriously.
Including the maintenance crew that does the mowing and various odd jobs, we keep about seven laborers at a given time. For larger projects like lollipopping raised beds, we’ll bring on extra hands. During the harvest we’ll bring on upwards of 30 people for a month— it’s an all-hands-on-deck venture. These are the people that make Appalachian Growers unique.
Q: Being a cannabis farm, do you ever have any issues with law enforcement? Does the DEA ever stop by?
A: We have been super fortunate. Our owners, Steve Yuzzi and Lori Lacy, have made it a point to be very transparent with the operation. They were proactive in reaching out to local entities— the police, the city council. We are not being shady; we are upfront with everything and, as a result of that, we haven’t experienced those headaches that you might imagine a cannabis farm would. We even did a Hemp Q & A with the community that ended up being pretty educational.
Thanks again to Appalachian Growers and Joshua Brandes in particular. The farming aspect behind hemp oils is fascinating and we appreciate your hard work. Once again, if you have a hemp farming question of your own, ask it in the comments section below and we'll make sure it gets answered.