Local farmer Dawn Gordon acknowledged, “Hemp growing is not for the faint of heart.” She is at the end of processing her first hemp crop. Gordon grew her crop in 2019, the first growing season following the passage of House Bill 698. According to the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA), “(In the) Agricultural Act of 2014 (Farm Bill), the federal government opened the door to limited legal growth of industrial hemp as part of agricultural research pilot programs. During the 2018 legislative session, the (Maryland) General Assembly passed House Bill 698, which established an Industrial Hemp Pilot Program administered by (MDA).”
The history of hemp farming in America has fluctuated from legal and mandatory during colonial times, to illegal, to necessity during the government-sanctioned “Hemp for Victory” campaign when hemp supply from the Philippines was cut off by the Japanese during WWII, and then back to being enforced as legally inseparable from marijuana, i.e. illegal.
“(Bill 698),” explains MDA, “authorizes and facilitates the research of industrial hemp and any aspect of growing, cultivating, harvesting, processing, manufacturing, transporting, marketing, or selling industrial hemp for agricultural, industrial, or commercial purposes.”
The Maryland Farm Bureau advises, “Even though regular production of industrial hemp is still illegal in Federal law, the 2014 Federal Farm Bill created a program that would legally allow the production of industrial hemp as a college/university research project. Therefore, this new pilot program makes it legal to grow industrial hemp in coordination with a college/university research project.”
Gordon partnered with Morgan State University. She had long been experiencing the health benefits of cannabidiol (CBD), particularly for Lyme disease. She was also an avid gardener, so when hemp farming became legal in Maryland, Gordon quickly developed a passion for growing it. “I took care of each and every plant as if it was an orchid,” she said.
In a 2013 article, Forbes noted, “Hemp is not a panacea for our social, economic, and environmental woes—no single crop can do that. However … with focused and sustained research and development, hemp could spur dramatic positive ecological and economic benefits. For instance, renewable, fast-growing hemp is a substitute for many unsustainable products like non-organic cotton … and many plastic products.”
The three primary commodities are hemp seed, which MDA says could serve as a protein source for livestock and for soybean oil; fiber, which “can be refined to be used for textiles and clothing, as well as used in building materials such as insulation, car paneling, and the fibrous material in concrete block and walls;” and the cannabidiol (CBD) used to produce medicinal products.
A customer does not need a medical marijuana card to purchase CBD. According to “Hemp and Marijuana: Myths & Realities,” written by David P. West, Ph.D., “The THC levels in industrial hemp are so low that no one could get high from smoking it. Moreover, hemp contains a relatively high percentage of another cannabinoid, CBD, that actually blocks the marijuana high. Hemp, it turns out, is not only not marijuana; it could be called ‘antimarijuana.’”
Gordon has partnered with THriv Nutraceuticals, a local manufacturer and distributor of hemp-based CBD health and wellness products and sister of Kannavis dispensary. “They sell my flower,” she said, and “their knowledge in CBD is far above mine. My background and desire was to grow the plant.”
According to MDA, “(If) industrial hemp tests higher than the 0.3% permitted for THC content, (then) by definition, the plants are no longer industrial hemp (and the) crop must be destroyed.” Gordon said her plants went through a lot of testing to make sure that they remained in compliance.
In September 2019, Forbes reported that hemp farming had quadrupled in the US over one year. However, one month later they reported, “American Hemp Dreams Are Being Crushed by These 5 Challenges … Poor first year yields make it difficult for farmers to be profitable, growing hemp is more labor-intensive than traditional crops, some of the hemp seed being sold for CBD-rich plants is a rip off, thieves are stealing hemp plants thinking it is marijuana, and too much hemp is being produced with no new markets for farmers to unload it.”
Gordon agrees: “It’s a labor-intensive, full-time job. If (someone) thinks they can just grow hemp and sell it, they’ll get a rude awakening. (It is) not for the faint of heart physically, or with the amount of business knowledge you need.”
When Gordon began hemp farming for the 2019 season, she purchased about 5,000 seeds at about $1-2 per seed. Then, she said, “I had to install an irrigation system and two 5,000-gallon water storage tanks, and have them filled every 10 days because we were under drought conditions.”
She noted, “I had a lot of hiccups along the way.” The tornado that hit the area in late May tore through her farm. “That slowed production. Then a flash flood came through, wiping out nearly all the seedlings.” It was not until the last weekend of July that Gordon had all of her seeds planted, one month behind schedule.
Gordon planted all of her seeds by hand. “You sit on the back of the tractor,” she explained. “It has a water wheel. I’d bend down, plant the seed by hand, and cover it with dirt.” Seeds were planted four feet apart. “Then I hand-watered and hand-fertilized all 5,000 plants. It would take a week. At the end of the week, I’d get to the last row, and then it was back to the first row.” After harvest, it took Gordon two months to buck the flowers (remove the buds) off of the stems by hand.
Because hemp farming has been illegal, most manufacturers have been importing hemp seed, oil, and fiber from Canada, Europe and China; the majority of hemp products are still coming from outside of the US. MDA says that the market for hemp in Maryland remains unknown.
“You have to have a business plan of what you’re going to do from seed to sale,” Gordon said. She has been selling her hemp wholesale for about a month, and she is now beginning to sell her Fingerboard Farm Market products e-commerce at www.fingerboardfarm.market.