HURON – On the first day of the 106th annual South Dakota Farmers Union (SDFU) convention, attendees were called to order by SDFU Vice President Wayne Soren with opening remarks, but then the next hour and a half were spent talking about hemp.
Industrial hemp, mind you.
A panel moderated by South Dakota legislator Oren Lesmeister, a Representative from Eagle Butte, brought together an insurance agent, a seed salesman, a policy maker and lobbyist, and a Wessington farmer, to discuss the ups and downs of the first year of industrial hemp in South Dakota.
BJ McNeil of Rocking Z Acres of Wessington represented those in the audience who had attempted growing industrial hemp in 2021. He was joined by Derrick Dohmann of Horizon Hemp Seeds, Ken Meyer, the president of the South Dakota Hemp Association, and Dennie Stratton, a Crop Insurance Production Manager with Farmers Union Insurance.
McNeil was identified as the largest grower of industrial hemp this year in the state. He stated that he grew 1,300 acres of industrial hemp on Rocking Z Acres in 2021.
He emphasized that he utilized three different varieties of hemp. He stated that the reason he planted the amount that he did was because it was a very good fit in his organic farm. He also emphasized that he had that amount contracted.
“We might go up to 1,500 to 2,000 next year,” McNeil stated. “That all depends on whether I get it contracted and what the market is.”
Dohmann and Meyer both noted the importance of connecting with others who are also farming industrial hemp. Dohmann shared stories of multiple farmers that he worked with over the year in various soil types and conditions and stated that each one had a different experience.
Meyer also spoke as someone who is a part-owner in a hemp processing plant. He spoke about the need for plants in the state to handle industrial hemp, with the closest plant that can do all the work in processing hemp located in Montana.
Stratton and Dohmann discussed the challenges of insuring the crop for new growers as there is not an established rate for each producer. Stratton did say that it would require a producer being intentional with an insurer, but that there are products available for industrial hemp on the market.
A later question from an audience member indicated that there are multiple products not allowed to be sold in South Dakota for industrial hemp due to state regulations.
All the panelists were quick to emphasize that one industrial hemp plant is not another industrial hemp plant.
“Just like one type of corn grows better for oil or for a certain soil, different hemp seeds grow different types of hemp,” Dohmann explained. “Some products focus on the bud, like oil, but you can grow for fiber or grain and get varieties with little to no bud whatsoever.”
The bud is what leads to significant legislation right now. Growers currently must keep all harvested hemp under 0.3% THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) when tested. McNeil shared that he was intentionally growing grain and fiber hemp, and none of his harvest registered any level of THC.
Meyer spoke to current regulations and attempting to lobby to change the current industrial hemp rules in the state. He called South Dakota’s industrial hemp laws “the most stringent in the nation.”
Working with legislators to allow for realistic hemp laws that are not focused on the incorrect assumption that every industrial hemp plant could be smoked as marijuana is a difficult education topic, Meyer relayed.
With the THC rules, Dohmann did state that the non-propagation agreements that are typically signed with other crops become even more important.
“The further down the line these genetics get down the line, we don’t know how they might perform,” Dohmann stated. “You might end up getting 2, 3, or 4%. We just don’t know what could happen if you planted that seed that’s been sitting around.”
Lesmeister shared the potential of hemp by relaying a home that he visited in Idaho where everything but the windows were made of hemp-based products, from hemp-based insulation to hemp-crete to even ceiling fan blades. The challenge is to get hemp products certified by building codes within the state.
Lesmeister believes that once those codes are cleared at the state regulatory level, hemp could be a huge product for building sustainable housing that is in desperate need across the state.
Dohmann relayed that door paneling has been done in European vehicles and Ford looked into doing similar paneling in the Ford F-150 line of trucks, but the need for just those trucks would be double the total industrial hemp produced nationally in 2020.
McNeil related his harvest challenges, including where the plant would wrap in his combine. He relayed that he intentionally made the choice to disk under the post-harvest plant rather than bale it up. He said that he plans to talk with Lankota in Huron about potential add-on pieces to his combines that could help spread the straw next year.
The biggest challenge, McNeil relayed, is in keeping the harvested product at an ideal temperature and avoiding “hot spots” and getting the proper bins in order to keep the product dry and moving in order to do that.
McNeil spoke after the panel about what makes Beadle County ideal for hemp farming. He identified the significant variance in rain across the county allowing the plant to be successful regardless of where moisture happened to fall in that particular growing season.
He also noted the alkaline soil in the county and that he had some success in such soil this past year. When asked whether rotating off hemp and back onto something like corn or soybeans after a few years could make that soil more productive, McNeil was hopeful, but as with many things with industrial hemp right now, he was still waiting to see data.
“We’ve been told that it could help soil, sure,” McNeil stated. “But, that’s something we’ll have to see a few years down the road.”