SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) – Despite over 20 years of farming experience, 2021 has been a year of firsts for BJ McNeil.
The owner of Rocking Z Acres, a 100% organic farm near Wessington in central South Dakota, planted six fields of industrial hemp this spring.
” Why not try ? McNeil told KELOLAND News as he drove a combine on Wednesday afternoon. “The feedback seemed better than a lot of the better things we were trying to develop in our rotation.”
McNeil returned to his family farm in 1998 and has been farming ever since. He said a North Dakota company – Healthy Oil Seeds – contacted him about growing industrial hemp because he was an organic farmer. McNeil said he was interested in industrial hemp because it outperforms weeds, which is important for an organic farm that doesn’t use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.
“It has the potential to become a staple crop here in South Dakota because our environment and everything there is perfect,” McNeil said. “We just have to get the markets and everything for that.”
Hemp is high in fiber and low in active tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, which also comes from the cannabis plant but is genetically distinct from hemp.
Hemp became legal for the first time in South Dakota in 2020 after lawmakers passed a compromise bill with Governor Kristi Noem, who vetoed a previous hemp bill in 2019. The federal government legalized hemp production with no more than three tenths of 1% THC three years ago in the 2018 Farm Bill.
As a farmer, McNeil said he grew hemp to get the most yield possible. He noted that Healthy Oil Seeds, who bought their hemp seeds, would crush them into an oil that McNeil said rivaled olive oil and fish oil for “healthy salad oil.”
McNeil said the hemp plantation is similar to wheat, but is managed the same way as corn.
“It’s a shorter day crop than corn,” McNeil said. “From the moment you put it in the ground, it takes about 100 days exactly when it’s ready to harvest. ”
The 100-day schedule ended up being delayed because McNeil planted his hemp in early June and the state ended up having its driest June on record in state history. Despite the delayed start to growth due to the drought, McNeil hemp produced higher profits than other spring crops like peas and oats.
“Even the fields where he arrived late, they still surpassed anything we would have done in the rotation instead,” McNeil said, adding that his first field only produced 400 pounds of hemp seed but that he had been paid $ 1.10. per pound.
“Corn is about the only other crop I could have planted that would have done better,” he said.
Overcome the horrors of the hemp harvest
McNeil’s greatest fear regarding hemp cultivation was the harvest. He had heard horror stories of how harvesting could damage combines and his first day of harvesting hemp was described as a “nightmare”.
“Harvesting is what scares everyone because you put rope in your combine,” McNeil said. “There are several moving parts that spin and spin, and then you put a rope in them. ”
McNeil said his team spent four hours after the first full day combining hemp to cut long hemp vines from combines. On the second day, McNeil’s team combine to cut the first 2-3 feet of plant material, which sacrificed some yields but made the harvesting process much faster. He said after each hopper full of hemp seeds, the team would do an 8-point inspection of the combine and clean up the spots the plant liked to wrap around, which only took about five minutes.
“The combination was easy once we figured out how to do our inspections,” McNeil said. “Everything has become easy, except the management of seeds on the farm. ”
In order to harvest the hemp seeds, McNeil said the plant must be extremely wet because if it is dry, the head of the plant will break the seeds on the ground. When harvested, McNeil had a pile of wet hemp seeds, which did not ripen evenly like corn and soybeans.
“You cut it so wet that you can’t let it sit in your truck overnight,” McNeil said. “Wet grain is always heating up and that temperature will get hot on you. If it exceeds 130 degrees, it will ruin the oil in the seed.
McNeil said trucks full of hemp seeds were constantly going to storage sites and he then tried to clean up the hemp while it was still wet. Next year McNeil won’t try to clean the hemp seeds before drying the hemp.
He found a drying solution by putting the hemp seeds in a corn drying bin over low heat.
“A lot of frustration and a lot of learning,” McNeil said. “We are no longer afraid to combine it.”
With hemp’s first year of growth in the books, McNeil said he believes the crop will continue to thrive in the state. He pointed out that the use of crops, from fiber to grain, can be used for many items.
“I think in the long run it will be a market that will take off,” he said. “I guess there are farmers out there who are fed up with hanging on to corn and beans every year. We all know where corn and bean prices are going. We need other markets.