Two farms more than 200 miles apart in Kansas are providing a window into how the nation’s hemp fiber sector is evolving and maturing.
Mark Fincham is a partner at Heartland Family Farms in Pratt, Kansas, located in the south-central portion of the state. A fifth-generation family farm that grows corn, wheat, soybeans, and other row crops, Heartland just harvested its first hemp fiber crop several weeks ago. They grew 72 acres of hemp fiber to see if the cost was justified.
Fincham told Hemp Benchmarks that he got mixed results this season due to an extremely dry year. “We’re probably not going to make a profit on it, basically due to the drought,” he said, “but growing the hemp was a good experience. We had hemp that was probably seven-and-a-half feet tall, that should have been closer to 12 feet tall if we’d had the normal rainfall. So we’re getting about half the tons we would have been predicting. We would have been profitable with a more normal rainfall.”
The facility was also able to use its available equipment for the hemp fiber harvest, with the exception of a baler they hired from a neighbor. According to Fincham, the crop yielded some pleasant surprises regarding a lack of weeds, due in part to the very thick canopy created by the fiber plants. “There’s no labeled chemical products to put on [hemp], no weed control or any other chemistry is labeled for that,” he said. “So what surprised me about that, and I was pleased by, was after [harvesting the hemp] we cleaned the field off before we planted [the next crop] … those fields are very, very clean. No weed pressure. [The hemp] helped eliminate any weed pressure we had in that field. It eliminates all light, blocks out all light.”
Despite the smaller yield, Fincham said his operation is “gonna give it another go” in 2023. “I’m … excited to see what it looks like when we can grow the full plant, the full height, the full tonnage,” he said. “We have a pretty good feel of how to do it now.” Fincham was the first in his county to grow hemp fiber, he noted, and his farming neighbors have expressed interest in trying it out on their own. “I think there will be some more interest in it as a rotation crop,” he said. “It won’t replace wheat in our area, but I could see it getting a little better hold.”
In Washington, Kansas, in the northwestern part of the state near the Nebraska border, Larry Lovgren is the manager at Lovgren Farms. His operation grows mainstream row crops, raises cattle, and also has a commercial feedlot. 2022 was his first year growing hemp fiber. He planted 35 acres after finding out about South Bend Industrial Hemp, Kansas’ first hemp fiber processing facility, located in Great Bend.
This season “was eye-opening,” Lovgren told Hemp Benchmarks. “The ground [where we planted hemp fiber] was already fertilized for corn. We do our fertilizing in the fall and when we [planted hemp], it was an afterthought. As soon as the ground turned 47 degrees we were drilling, and we wanted to beat the ragweed and other [weeds].”
Compared to other parts of Kansas, Lovgren said his operation was “blessed with timely rains; 12 to 15 inches of rain. Everything hit just right.” As a result, his hemp crop exceeded expectations. “At times I thought we created a monster,” he laughed. “Some of it was 14 feet tall. Holy moly, it looked great.”
Lovgren had to adapt to the complexities of harvesting hemp fiber. “We’ve never been introduced to it before, and the main goal is to utilize the equipment you already have,” he said. He got a nine-foot sickle mower for the harvest, but soon found it was nearly impossible to rake the 14-foot-long hemp stalks. Baling, meanwhile, was another challenge, at least initially. “This stuff is like iron,” he said. “To get a bale started, we were crossing into the next windrow and we were constantly twisting and overlapping belts. But when we got that mastered, it was child’s play. It’s just the learning process.”
Lovgren estimated that with hemp-related state licenses, permits, and background checks, along with rebuilding their mower, they had about $6,000 in overhead costs. That being said, “we yielded just shy of 400 bales off of 35 acres. The profit was $225 a ton at the time when we delivered. We did ten loads, yielded about $3,000 per load. You’ve got to consider fuel; I had to borrow a neighbor’s trailer and I haven’t gotten the bill on that, but it was minimal.”
The market for hemp fiber is growing; Lovgren has noted an increased interest in hempcrete and other hemp-based construction products. “I think a lot more people need to get involved,” he said. “Do it as a crop rotation, do 10,12 acres. It’s a good diversity to get into, and once that [hemp] was all off [the field] there, we put wheat in behind it a couple of weeks ago. You want to talk about loamy ground? [Hemp fiber] has a heck of a root system.”