Hemp too Hot in the Arizona Desert
Hemp growers in Arizona are learning that inconsistent seeds make it challenging to produce hemp that meets federal regulations for THC content. Lee Allen digs into the details.
When you were a kid, coloring between the lines was the challenge. Now that you’re a hemp-growing adult, staying within THC levels becomes the major task, and many growers are finding that pretty challenging.
One example of when too much is more than enough — but not a good thing — involves Arizona’s current growing pains in its budding hemp industry where 41 per cent of plants tested came in hot, according to the Plant Services Division of the Arizona Department of Agriculture.
While the levels were exorbitant, the Hemp Industry Trade Association of Arizona (HITA) did note: “The failure rate is not unexpected based on anecdotal information from around the country regarding seed quality and genetic expression.”
And while other states reported similar problems, Arizona was still at the apex in topping the limit of 0.3 per cent THC, a dubious distinction desert growers would just as soon forego.
It was just last year that Arizona began issuing hemp-growing licenses and first harvests started coming later in 2019 with a bunch of product that had to be destroyed because of excessive THC content.
“That’s substantial, off the charts,” according to Sully Sullivan, executive director of the HITA. Seed quality and genetic expression in the planted varieties are the likely culprits and it’s a tricky balance knowing when to hold ‘em or when to fold ‘em.
Because CBD and THC levels rise together, it’s a risky business knowing when desired product levels have hit the max and are ready for harvest.
While final statistics were being calculated, one report showed about 50-60 per cent of the hemp planted in 2019 fell under the categories of crop failure or coming up non-compliant.
Sullivan says he hedged his bet by testing weekly and harvesting early. “We’d love to harvest plants at full maturity because that’s when CBD content is highest and brings in the most profit. When THC levels were at 0.18, we let it grow a while longer. It went to 0.22, then 0.26 — too close — so we harvested and didn’t test hot, so we didn’t have to destroy any crop. Our CBD content ranged between 6.5-7.5 per cent, not great, but not horrible. You want to push it as long as you can, but if you push it too far, you stand to lose the whole thing.
“Last year was a challenging one; a tough year for farmers in general, ranging from poor performances to outright crop failure. As a grower myself, I was hoping for a thousand pounds an acre and ended up getting only 375 — and even at that, we (Arizona Hemp Supply, 40 acres outside Yuma) were one of the top performers in the state.”
It hurts to do the math as roughly 670 acres out of 3,800 went hot with anecdotal input showing about half of the remaining planting suffered crop failure. “It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme,” Sullivan admits.
“From the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, we saw a green rush for about four years where growers were getting $40 a pound for their heads, assuming 10 per cent CBD. Today that same hemp is going for somewhere in the range of ten dollars. So any get-rich portion of the green rush is definitely over at this point, although on paper, while the margin is decreased, it’s still more profitable than cotton, corn, or soy. You just have to be tight on what you do and how you do it.”
Like most states, Arizona is a fledgling grower of hemp, using all varieties of genetics in seeds from different states, trying to find the right combination. “We grew twelve different varieties trying to hedge our bets, mitigate our risks, and create a diverse portfolio. Our range of success was pretty wide from modest success to seeds that had horrible germination rates, so we were all over the map and believe one of the reasons for our crop failures and hot crops was the variance in seed sources — poor quality seeds or unstable genetics.”
All was not as advertised by the seed suppliers.
“While we sought feminization and a 99 per cent germination rate, in some cases there were misrepresentations with seeds not feminized and germination rates ranging from 25-60 per cent. There are a lot of court cases popping up now from farmers suing seed companies for misrepresentation,” says Sullivan.
Once Arizona gets a few years of experience and develops desert-acclimated seeds, the state is projected to be among the countries top ten hemp producers. “We get lots of sunshine,” Sullivan says, adding the sunshine allows for three growing seasons — spring, summer, and winter. “2020 will be our first full year of growing, so we’ll see how we do with auto-flowering plants and seasonality.”
“Our climate is right. We have the right soil and environment… hot and dry. We need to produce our own acclimatized seed crop, and that should happen in the next year or so. Once we get legs here in Arizona — having the right seeds and growing at the right times — we could be among the top producers in the country,” Sullivan says.