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  • Ed Geis

Growing Organic Hemp in New England

By Ed Geis

Hemp vegetative phase
Hemp vegetative phase

The morning sun peeks over the hills above the bay; soft shafts of golden light filter through the woods that extend back from the stone wall. My canine companion Toby sniffs the air eagerly as we make our way toward the hemp field, the dew heavy at our feet. As the first rays of sunlight reach the slumbering plants, their five-fingered leaves rise to greet it, extending like an outstretched palm to the brilliant orb rising in the east. It’s easily the best time of the day, making the rounds at sunrise as the birds flit from branch to trellis and back, stalking bugs or worms. It’s not just the time of day - there’s something irresistibly alluring about the hemp plant.

Hemp was common on New England farms until a few generations ago when the Federal government outlawed it. Then Congress passed the 2018 Farm Bill, which included H.R.5485. This bill legalizes industrial hemp with a tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana) concentration of no more than 0.3% by removing it from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. Suddenly, hemp came roaring back, fueled largely by the new CBD market. For a couple of years, it seemed like everyone was getting into hemp until the realities of supply and demand - plus a confusing and cumbersome state-by-state patchwork of regulations - drove many of those eager prospectors out. Today the remaining commercial growers are trying to forge a viable business in a shifting and uncertain industry. If you’re considering a commercial hemp crop or just a few plants for personal use, perhaps hearing a little about my experience raising organic hemp in midcoast Maine will be interesting and helpful.

Pandemic Origins

Strangely enough, Hemp came into my life because of the pandemic. During the lockdown in the spring of 2020, I decided a new outdoor hobby would benefit my mental health. I’d heard about CBD from New England Patriots star Rob Gronkowski, who retired from the NFL at age 30 due to chronic pain. He credited CBD with healing his ravaged body and enabling him to resume his football career.  When I saw this tough 6’6”, 265-pound elite athlete break down in tears at a press conference talking about his pain and CBD, I figured it wasn’t just some fad.

So I mail-ordered seeds and ended up with a big, beautiful female Cherry Wine hemp plant. Whether it was beginner’s luck or the stellar weather that summer, I ended up with an abundant harvest of CBD-rich flowers. I started the seeds in organic potting soil and then transplanted them to my native Maine soil, slightly amended after a soil test with lime, composted cow manure, K-mag, and organic fertilizer. Having never seen hemp grow before, I was amazed that this little seedling exploded into a big, bushy 6-foot monster by September, heavy and fragrant with exotically spicy-smelling flowers. These I harvested in early October.

My first “trial” was with an infused olive oil I made with the flower. I had a serious migraine headache throbbing away and took some of the oil one evening. Within the hour, my headache was gone and I slept like a baby that night. Case closed, I thought - this stuff works.

Sharing the Medicine

The pandemic didn’t just prompt me to take up a new hobby, though - it also got me to contemplate life from a new perspective and think about what matters. I wondered if I could earn a living growing medicinal hemp flowers and crafting CBD products. What could be more gratifying than helping people be more comfortable, whether curing insomnia, easing debilitating anxiety, alleviating neurological afflictions, or preventing terrible epileptic seizures? I decided there was one way to find out. After seeing many people jump headlong into hemp in 2019 only to flame out quickly, I decided to play it safe and start small. I wanted to get acquainted with the plant, learn more about its medicinal properties, establish an e-commerce operation, and slowly ramp up.

There was never any question that I would grow organically - I’ve been personally committed to organic agriculture for decades, although I’ve never farmed. I also figured I could use organic methods and certification to differentiate my products from competitors. Taking things a step further, I decided to make sustainability a central principle of the business: incorporating a no-till regenerative agriculture approach, generating solar electricity on-site, avoiding plastic and disposable products as much as possible, recycling packaging, etc. I also knew from the start that I would grow outdoors under the sun rather than indoors under lights or in a greenhouse. This can be a challenge given New England’s tendency toward stretches of wet, cool weather in October, right when many hemp varieties are in late flower and susceptible to mold. Still, I felt strongly that growing outdoors was the right approach.

Lessons Learned

I’m now in the middle of my third season as a commercial grower. Overall the agricultural side of the business has been very successful. The real challenge is marketing! I’ve learned much from experience, reading, online courses, consulting research specialists, and talking with experienced growers. Let me share some of the more significant lessons.

  • I start from seed rather than clones because I want the deep taproot only a seed develops and the genetic diversity. Since I’m growing for the hemp flower and prefer the buds seedless, I always plant more than I need and eventually cull the males so they won’t pollinate the female plants. You can buy “feminized” seed that produces only female plants but I prefer regular seed. I like to plant in the days preceding the full moon in April, keeping the seedlings indoors until May, when they move to cold frames outside.

  • Be sure to use supplemental light in April to prevent your seedlings from flowering - you want 12 or fewer hours of darkness to keep them in vegetative mode. I plant in an organic “super soil” made here in Maine specifically for cannabis but you can use anything that drains well. The biggest lesson I learned with seedlings involved watering: it’s easy to overdo. Don’t be afraid to let the medium “dry out” a bit between waterings once the seedlings emerge - those tender roots need oxygen and water.

  • After the frost danger passes (around Memorial Day in my Zone), I transplant into prepared 3-foot diameter circles in native soil amended based on a soil test. While much of my soil is slightly too acidic for hemp, this can be corrected with lime and I’m fortunate to have lots of well-draining loamy soils that work well with hemp. Both factors are important: a soil pH below 6 or above 7 may cause issues. Hemp doesn’t like wet feet and will complain loudly if the rootzone stays saturated, so the soil needs to drain well.

  • When siting hemp, the more sun the better. The morning sun is beneficial during the late flower season to quickly dry heavy autumn dew from the buds. 12 or more hours of direct sun is ideal, but 8-9 will work - the harvest just won’t be as big. I like a lot of space around the plants for good airflow, a key defense against botrytis in autumn, which can quickly ruin a crop if given a chance. My plants are 8 feet apart, which is a bit extreme, but so far (knock on wood), I’ve had minimal problems with mold, even during cool, wet fall weather. (The first year I planted 6 feet apart, the canopies grew into each other, which is great for weed suppression but not so great for airflow.)

  • I’ve found that mulch is essential for conserving soil moisture, enhancing soil life, and suppressing weeds. Most hemp growers I know, including organic growers, use black plastic, but in keeping with my sustainability goals I prefer hay or straw (bedding from our duck house is ideal, but there’s not nearly enough!).

  • Regenerative agriculture isn’t something I knew much about when I first began growing hemp, but I’ve been learning and putting regenerative methods into practice. I don’t till, preferring a broad fork if the soil needs to be loosened, and have shifted my focus from “feeding the crop” to “feeding the soil” and letting the soil take care of the plants. I brew compost tea and apply it to inoculate the soil with microbiology and provide various nutrients, aiming for a rich, well-aerated soil teeming with beneficial organisms. This approach has succeeded, resulting in large, vibrant plants that have proven remarkably resilient against drought, pests, or disease. Although the first year I sprayed a little neem oil during vegetation and Bt in early flower, last year I sprayed nothing for pests and nothing yet this year either. My sense so far is that the best defense against pests and disease is vibrant, healthy plants, so I focus on that.

  • Following the advice of researchers who study hemp in New England soils and climate, I only grow hemp in a given field for one season, then plant a cover crop for the next 2 seasons before returning to hemp (typically alfalfa). This rotation keeps soil healthy and reduces disease and pest pressure.

  • Hemp requires a fair amount of nitrogen and other macro and micronutrients, which I provide mostly by topdressing with compost and alfalfa meal, plus root drenches with compost tea and fish hydrolysate. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is to try and stay ahead of the game by feeding the soil a couple of weeks in advance of when the plant’s going to need those nutrients, as it can take time for the microorganisms in the soil to break things down into forms the plant’s roots can uptake.

  • When it comes to watering, I’ve come to believe deeper and less frequent waterings make for a more resilient plant. So depending on the size of the plant and the weather, I aim for the equivalent of 1-2 inches of rain per week, possibly more if things get hot. If we haven't had enough rainfall at the end of the week, I supplement and occasionally add a small amount of potassium silicate to the water, which can strengthen the plant’s structure and shore up its defenses against pests or other stresses. Toward the end of the flowering period, typically late September or early October, I cut back a bit on the watering.

The biggest challenge to growing hemp in New England is the threat of botrytis on the flowers as harvest approaches in fall. The key factors in your control (unlike the weather) are choosing mold-resistant genetics, siting your hemp where it will get morning sun, and taking measures to enhance airflow around and through the plants. I experimented with spraying potassium bicarbonate as a preventative during the first year. Still, I realized it’s best to maximize airflow and remove any botrytis that pops up immediately to prevent spread. I’ve read that a botrytis infection can quickly wipe out an entire harvest if left unaddressed.

The Harvest

Deciding when to harvest is a topic of much debate. If growing commercially, you must have your flower tested to ensure it’s below the Federal THC limit of 0.3%. This is usually best done in early September, depending on your State’s testing rules. In Maine, we have 3 weeks after the test date to harvest. (If you’re growing hemp for personal use, check with your state for applicable laws.)

I watch the trichomes, the tiny “crystals” on the flower containing valuable cannabinoids and terpenes. When these turn from clear to cloudy, I harvest them as it means the CBD content is approaching its peak. It’s best to harvest right before dawn when the terpenes are strongest. The cut branches should be gently rinsed (if grown outdoors) and carefully dried in a dark place for about a week - I use a wooden shed for that purpose. Then the flower gets trimmed and placed in glass jars for curing at 60-65% relative humidity. After a month or two of curing, the flower is ready for making infused oil, tincture, or vaping/smoking.

If you’re like me and many other hemp growers, you may find yourself strangely drawn to this remarkable plant. It can do well in New England soil and climate if you know the pitfalls and take precautions to avoid trouble - although outdoor growers are always vulnerable to an ill-timed windstorm or early frost. I hope hemp can become a valuable crop for small family-owned farms, whether growing for medicinal CBD, seed, or fiber. Still, the dwindling number of commercial growers here in Maine has been sobering.

Last evening, I stood out among the hemp plants, still dripping from a rain shower that passed through and gazed at a rainbow arching over the field. It was a good reminder that growing crops on the earth is a miracle and connects you with something divine. Happy growing, everyone.

Ed Geis grows organic hemp in Maine and crafts Bald Mountain Botanicals CBD products.

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