The arrival of autumn in North America brings with it the start of the harvest season. In this article, Hemp Benchmarks examines available licensing data and reports from sources across the country for an indication of the scope of 2021’s U.S. hemp harvest. Overall, evidence continues to indicate that this year’s crop will be smaller than those of prior years; likely quite a bit smaller.
“As compared to the previous three years, I would say the volumes are down significantly, the acreage is down significantly,” Wayne Richman, President of the California Hemp Association, told Hemp Benchmarks. “Partly that’s due to the market and partly due to the lack of regulations and clarity, both federally and statewide.” Richman pointed to data that backed up his claims, specifically the significant drop in hemp registrations in California. At their peak, during the 2019 season and just after national hemp legalization, Richman said there were about 1,200 hemp registrations in his state. That number dropped to around 800 in 2020 and is currently down to 318.
Looking at the country as a whole, a little over 40,000 acres have been documented to have been planted with hemp this year, based on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and state agriculture departments compiled by Hemp Benchmarks as of this writing. While direct reports from many states are still forthcoming and USDA data does not yet capture all the hemp farming taking place nationwide, this year’s planted acreage figure is almost certainly off significantly from the roughly 160,000 acres we estimate was planted in 2020. Additionally, in both 2019 and 2020, Hemp Benchmarks counted well over 19,000 hemp production licenses issued to farmers by state agriculture departments. This year, that number stands at just under 10,000.
Accounts from officials in Colorado and Oregon, two states that have consistently been amongst the top hemp producers in the country, indicate that the ongoing hemp-CBD market contraction is impacting even those areas where hemp looked as if it had found a secure foothold.
In Colorado, due in part to drought conditions and high temperatures, the hemp harvest began around the end of August and is expected to continue until the last week in September. Brian Koontz, Hemp Program Manager at the Colorado Department of Agriculture, told Hemp Benchmarks that the state was “able to get a jump” on hemp sampling and testing this season, with half that testing and sampling completed by mid-September. Koontz said this is the first season where Colorado officials are sampling all hemp varieties ahead of harvest.
“Our goal is to see how successful we are prior to next year,” he said, “when we will be required federally to sample all lots. So it’s been a learning experience this fall.” Koontz also noted that this season’s hemp numbers will be smaller in Colorado. “We shrunk another 50% from last year,” he said, “so we’re back to, like, 2017 numbers now, as far as the number of registrants and land registered.” In 2020, Koontz provided data to Hemp Benchmarks showing over 36,000 acres licensed for hemp production and almost 28,000 acres planted.
“[Hemp production in] 2018 and 2019 increased significantly,” Koontz continued. “One would hope that we’ve gotten over the huge spike that followed the 2018 Farm Bill, when the CBD market was flooded. It’s still our goal to get more fiber production going and create an infrastructure for that. We’re still working on ways to get decortication equipment into the state and to get hemp processors … engaged with the state.”
In Oregon, the downturn in the hemp market has apparently led some to illegally produce high-THC cannabis under the guise of their hemp registrations. A provision of House Bill 3000, which was passed and signed into law earlier this year, gave the Oregon Liquor & Cannabis Commission (OLCC) the authority to test the crops of registered hemp operations for THC to determine if they are in fact hemp.
On September 23, at a Commission meeting of the OLCC, Rich Evans, Senior Director of Licensing and Compliance, provided the results of that testing. According to Evans, OLCC had visited 316 registered hemp farms as of the time of the meeting and had test results from 212. 114 – or 58% – of those operations saw their crops test positive for elevated THC levels “presumptive of marijuana,” with Evans citing one sample coming in as high as almost 33% THC. He also noted that he had received reports of some fields being harvested in the middle of the night after the inspection and testing program was announced, and said that OLCC found bare fields at 59 of the registered hemp farms visited.
Overall, of the registered hemp operations in southern Oregon recently visited by OLCC, at least 55% were confirmed as not growing legal hemp (114 positive tests for high THC potency plus the 59 bare fields, or 173 out of 316 farms visited); this even before test results were able to be obtained for over 100 grow sites, or about a third of those visited. The fact that a significant portion of registered hemp farmers in one of Oregon’s most productive cannabis growing regions are not actually cultivating hemp indicates that another of the country’s leading hemp states will see production contract significantly in 2021.
Extreme drought conditions continue to hurt hemp and other agricultural production across much of the western U.S. A recent U.S. Drought Monitor report showed that all of California – a major agricultural state and a potentially a huge market for hemp cultivation and distribution – was classified as being in “extreme” to “exceptional” drought conditions.
According to Wayne Richman at the California Hemp Association, the drought has forced hemp farmers in the state to be “particularly judicious” with what they grow and how they grow their crops. He also noted that many hemp farmers in certain areas of the state “have pivoted back” to more traditional and stable crops, such as almonds, strawberries, and pistachios. Richman added that the drought is an even more pressing issue to California farmers than the wildfires that have plagued the West Coast in recent years. “Drought is permanent and daily,” he said. “Groundwater is at low levels; we have done things in this state that have not protected our water supplies and abilities.”
Brain Koontz in Colorado said drought and drought relief assistance was a big issue at a recent agriculture commission meeting of farmers and ranchers from around the state. “I know of some [hemp] growers who’ve had their irrigation water cut off, due to supply [issues],” he said. Irrigation disruptions and water rationing are also affecting hemp yields in the state. “Some fields that we’ve visited … the plants are small, they’re not reaching maturity,” he noted. “It’s like a bad corn year when the corn is only five feet tall and not eight feet tall; certainly nowhere near the [normal] waist high or chest high.” Koontz said the high rate of crop failure, and not just for hemp, is a major concern. “We’re finding that this year there appears to be an increased amount of crop loss hemp producers are reporting due to drought. Some are turning in insurance claims.”
Drought has also been a problem in some eastern regions. Anderson Blanton, who founded the Whippoorwill Herb Company in North Carolina last year, said Hurricane Ida bypassed his operation in late August and early September. “I was excited we were going to get some rain; it’s been unseasonably dry, but it rained for about ten minutes,” he told Hemp Benchmarks. However, he noted, “The lack of rain, if you can get your water and your irrigation right, is probably better. Because the problem here, with the heat and humidity here in the sultry South, is bound to precipitate all kinds of blight and other diseases. So I would actually rather have a more arid, drier season and control the watering, instead of having that humidity and developing blight, which we had a problem with … last year.”