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It’s no news that hemp is big and getting bigger.
All the headlines, tweets and media hoopla focus almost exclusively on CBD. It’s fair to assume that the hemp-derived CBD market will consolidate quickly, not so much based on who has the best products, but who has access to the retail supply chain. Established national brands have the inside track to drugstores, grocery stores, the big boxes and every mall in the land. CBD is today what probiotics was yesterday

Some of us don’t shop at malls or mainstream grocery stores, and don’t buy multinational brands. I’m a food co-op, credit union, farmers market, microbrewery kinda guy. So is there a place in the hemp economy for small local farmers and producers, local brands and family businesses? Will there be an artisan hemp economy moving forward? Yes and yes!

Why was Montana the third largest industrial hemp producer in 2018? Because people own large tracks of land. Not because the climate or soil was ideal, or there was a strong Cannabis culture full of experienced growers. It was about land, not culture.

Those who’ve grown Cannabis have an advantage growing hemp compared to those who haven’t grown pot before. Sorry, but just because your grandparents grew tobacco or even hemp doesn’t mean you can grow and harvest a high quality product.

As states issue hemp licenses, pay attention to places with a preexisting Cannabis culture, either recreational, medical or black market. Who better knows Cannabis’ soil and nutrient requirements, how to prune, the transition from veg to flower, and most importantly how to harvest, dry and store a crop?

I’d rather be a small farmer with a high quality harvest year after year, than a new farmer on a tractor struggling to grow 50 or more acres. I’d like to be a small farmer with hemp as part of my crop rotation. There will be hemp only farmers and farmers who grow hemp too. The former lends itself to monoculture, the latter leans towards sustainability.

Soybean, wheat and corn farmers have a learning curve with hemp.

4H didn’t prepare them and their county agent is of little help. Large amounts of mediocre hemp won’t bring strong prices.

With hemp legal across the country, each and every farmer is competing with every other farmer. Those that grow high quality hemp, CBD or otherwise, can get a higher price for their crop.

The hemp supply chain favors organic plant matter without pesticides or heavy metals. This is counter to what conventional farmers have been doing. Small organic farmers with a high quality product can compete against larger players on this fact alone.

One of the challenges facing all hemp farmers is finding the cultivars (strains) that work best for them. Hemp genetics are new and lack extensive field trials. The genotype/terroir matchup is a crap shoot.

Small farmers can experiment and adjust what they grow faster than large corporations. Neighboring farms can cooperate and share cultivation tips. Just like wine grapes, regions will focus on specific types of hemp. Imagine hemp and Cannabis appellations. Regional tastes will determine what sells, and what’s grown locally will mold regional tastes.

Think about apples. Golden Delicious, Granny Smith and McIntosh are of no use if you’re making cider. Everyone is rushing into industrial hemp grown for CBD extraction. There’s an underserved market for smokable hemp, both pre-rolls and trimmed flower.

This is just the kind of product that can be grown, processed and packaged by small companies and then sold locally and online. Bulk hemp flower can be sold at farmers markets and by CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture).

Some farmers will specialize – nurseries with clones, those that grow seed crops, hemp grown for on site use (animal bedding), etc. If family farms grow sheep to make wool, why not grow hemp for handmade paper? I met a farmer in Wisconsin who grew sunflowers, pressed the oil and heated her home. She wanted to try hemp for the oil to see if it was a more efficient fuel. The pressed meal she used as animal feed. Farmers are resourceful if nothing else. If they grow hemp, they’ll figure out how to sell it or use it on site.

As more and more people throw themselves into industrial hemp, many aren’t thinking ahead. Yes, CBD today, but what’s next? Bulk biomass is the pot of gold everyone’s chasing now, but my guess is that 2020 will see a thinning of the herd. I don’t worry about the well-financed big players, it’s the mom and pop operations I worry about.

Many have heard me say that it all begins with the plant. Lose sight of this and risk success. Big Ag has no interest in maintaining a large and diverse genetic portfolio. Scale, volume, and consistency are the way to risk-free profits.

Outlier strains may be the key to the next market opportunity. Small farms can maintain diverse genetic collections, preserving valuable hemp genetics.

My advice? Grow your brand, grow your business. Sell direct, bond with your customers. Dr. So, my acupuncture teacher, says, “Don’t chase the dollar and the dollar will chase you.”

Do what you love, follow your passion, and stay close to the plant.

Image courtesy of Kimzy Nanney