Is Hemp Right for You? Q&A with Marguerite Bolt
Marguerite Bolt
photo by Brian Powell

Is Hemp Right for You? Q&A with Marguerite Bolt

Hemp Extension Specialist Marguerite Bolt shares her advice for prospective hemp farmers, including what resources to turn to for more informed decisions.

January 31, 2020

Many hemp growers are learning lessons the hard way, and in many cases, relearning lessons learned from previous generations. Today’s hemp growers are pioneers, reintroducing a plant to land for the first time in more than 80 years. Interest in hemp is attracting a wide variety of growers, from new cultivators to more traditional agricultural farmers.

Regardless of farming experience, hemp is a new crop that brings with it an entirely different set of possibilities, considerations and challenges. Marguerite Bolt, Hemp Extension Specialist in the Department of Agronomy at Purdue University, will be explaining the types of hemp production, risks associated with a new crop, and sharing reliable resources when she speaks about embarking on the hemp journey at Cannabis Conference 2020.

Bolt started in June 2019 as a statewide specialist for hemp and helps foster collaboration and communication with nonprofit organizations such as Midwest Hemp Council and Indiana Hemp Industry Association, processors, insurers, marketers, consultants, researchers and growers.

Hemp Grower: What kinds of conversations are you having with potential and current hemp farmers? What are they asking you, and what are you telling them?

Marguerite Bolt: One of the things I try to communicate with our growers is if you want to grow hemp, how are you going to do it in a way that fits into your current system? Are you willing to invest in new equipment? Is it even doable?

We’re trying to figure out if hemp is going to be feasible in a way that it can integrate into already existing farms. How can we treat it as a rotational crop? How can it fit into an Indiana system? That’s how I try to approach the industry for growers: Let’s look at this in a pragmatic way instead of you investing hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, in some cases, into a new industry. Let’s figure out a way you can invest an adequate amount with the understanding that there’s risks associated with production.

HG: So, you’re advising farmers to not plant hemp on the same land year after year?

MB: [Hemp] doesn’t fix nitrogen like bean crops or legumes, so that means you might have to fertilize more. People are looking at hemp as an environmentally sustainable crop, so adding lots of fertilizers back to the soil doesn’t follow that message. The bigger concern for me as a trained entomologist is pest buildup and our then pathologist is obviously concerned about building up any kind of inoculum in the soil.

We try to look at it as something that can fit into a rotation, whether that is a cover crop rotation—you plant hemp and then a cover crop and you plant another crop in the summer—or does it fit into some kind of vegetable crop rotation. How does it fit into that rotational model, [say] if you’re a cannabidiol (CBD) grower or in watermelon production? In general, I think that fitting it into rotations is better than continuous production year after year.

HG: Can you give some examples of the risks associated with adding a new crop?

MB: I have a whole section of my slide set that is just on issues associated with production. It’s a new industry, so some of these are expected to dissolve as we increase experience and the industry develops. Some of the risks associated are just the legality involved with hemp production. That it is in flux and has changed a lot over the last couple of months on what is required of growers state by state. The [U.S. Department of Agriculture] rules are going to shape what happens in the future for hemp, not just in Indiana but across the country.

Insurance is available now for some growers, so that does reduce some risks for weather-related incidents or crop failure not related to THC [tetrahydrobannabinol]. One of the struggles our growers had is just quality of clones or seedlings they’re receiving, but I think that will also go away as we have more established greenhouses get involved and hopefully produce some high-quality material for growers.

One thing from a pest and pathogen weed management standpoint is new insects and new pathogens that attack hemp. Growers are going to continually deal with weed pressure and not have herbicides available at this point. We don’t have the conventional or traditional pesticides available for hemp, which can definitely make production challenging. It’s not impossible, and we’re trying to rely on information from organic systems [about] how they’re doing that in other crops and trying to apply it to hemp.

HG: How do you advise farmers on how to proceed given all these risks or make them more manageable?

MB: In general, we tell growers don’t invest more than you can afford to lose, so don’t bet the farm. If your farm is already struggling, don’t spread yourself too thin and don’t assume you can get yourself out of bankruptcy on hemp alone. There are some amazing stories of people making a lot of money off this crop, but I think as we have more production across the United States, that’s just not going to be the case in 2020 or in coming years.

Try to approach it reasonably. Realize that even if you have some kind of purchase agreement, banks can change. We saw that last year where growers had agreements but contracts weren’t necessarily honored. So just realize that things are still developing, and they’re changing very quickly. We want growers to have as much information as possible before they make large investments or think that this is going to be the crop that they produce forever. Try to fit this into their system in a way that is maybe not seamless but fits a little bit better than some of these other production models.

The tobacco production model works well for states like Kentucky and the Carolinas but for most of Indiana, that model doesn’t work as well. Not all of our growers have large farms to dry, so look at what resources are available. Figure out how they fit in the state in your system instead of just relying on information from other states as the end all be all.

HG: What’s something about hemp that has surprised you?

MB: People took some risk and maybe things didn’t turn out the way they wanted, but they’re going to give it another try. That’s been exciting and a little surprising. I’m glad that people are not just giving up or throwing in the towel after the first year.

I definitely think growers are willing to share failures and their misfortunes pretty readily if they know this did not work, at least in our state. Some of these farming communities are pretty tight knit in this state, so I think they probably already talk pretty regularly on other crops. I could be wrong, but it seems like there’s a strong sense of community. I think that’s been helpful for all our growers to be able to lean on each other for information when it may not necessarily be available from a research standpoint, even. Sometimes, we learn things from growers that we hadn’t been able to look at previously.

HG: What are some of your trusted hemp resources and what other information do you advise farmers to seek out?

MB: I will happily share university bulletins from other states. North Carolina State University has a lot of really great information, Cornell University has a ton of information and University of Wisconsin has some cool self-reporting THC/CBD programs and a buyer-seller network. We have our own website, the Purdue hemp website, and The Office of Indiana State Chemist has a lot of resources on it. I try to focus on university resources because grower forums and Facebook pages aren’t necessarily reliable. Sometimes they are—growers can share super helpful information—but we’ll start with what’s available from a research standpoint. I will send growers to [Hemp Production Services and Hemp Genetics International] even though Canada has been very focused on grain production just so growers can start to get an idea of what has been done in a country that has a much longer recent production history than the United States.

HG: What’s something attendees can expect to walk away with from your talk?

MB: I hope that consultants or other educators get an idea of a framework that I have found helpful over the last seven months. For people who are actually growing, hopefully they can start to understand and obtain as much information as possible, not necessarily how to grow the crop because I feel that’s very personal for each farmer and they figure out ways that work in their system, but what are these general areas that you can focus on for successful production.

And then, of course, different resources that are available. We get a lot of calls not just in my office but offices on campus, extension office and county offices from people who have no agricultural background. Some of the resources we provide are maybe familiar for some growers, but for a lot of growers it’s brand new information, even things like how to scout for pests. That is new to a lot of people. They don’t know what tools they need to scout.