Minnesota hemp growers hold back as state industry opens up
DRESBACH, MINN. – Pam Hartwell calls it her “little bonfire.”
Earlier this year, half of his inaugural crop of hemp growing near a goat pasture “got hot,” i.e. tested above the state’s legal THC limit. The Winona County farmer had to shave 20 plants.
“As soon as I saw it start to grow—flower very early—I knew I had questionable genetics,” said Hartwell, who farms a small patch of land in the wooded Mississippi Coulse she started on. grown up.
Three months after Minnesota legalized hemp-derived THC edibles, the biggest bottleneck for a vibrant local industry may be on Minnesota farms. Along with quixotic regulations and fluctuating markets, botany may be the real problem.
At some point in the field, hemp can turn into prohibited marijuana without the farmer knowing about it. State regulators visit each hemp farm within a month of harvest to cut samples. If the lab reports THC levels above 0.3%, this grow is illegal. Minnesota offers sanitation routes, but many growers destroy plants.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture reports that between 10-12% of hemp crops fail.
Consumer demand is one thing, but from the perspective of the Minnesota farmer, why grow a crop that you can’t sell? Why plant a crop you can’t even grow?
Just west of Austin, Minnesota, fourth-generation farmer Tom Cotter is renting grain silo space from a hemp grower who will also likely have to destroy his crop.
“He had a great crop,” Cotter said, “But, it’s been hot. And now he’s going to lose his [expletive].”
On July 1, Minnesota became the only state in the country to legalize hemp-derived edibles. But the half-dozen farmers who spoke with the Star Tribune for this story say the lack of middle markets prevents even small farmers looking to land their produce in a local beer or candy.
“It’s kind of almost impossible for farmers to make money,” said Cotter, who also co-owns Superior Cannabis Company, with storefronts in Austin, Duluth and Superior, Wis., and sells products developed in from Cotter’s hemp harvest. “This hemp program was meant to be for the Minnesota farmer.”
Other farmers, who have successfully grown legal crops, are still looking for reliable buyers.
Nathan Collins, a farmer from Murdock, Minnesota, told the Star Tribune in July that he still had 98% of a 2019 hemp crop sitting in a store, after being unable to find a buyer. Collins said he hopes to turn his hemp into a growing CBD market for pets.
“There’s nothing set,” Collins said of the path to commercial markets.
It’s a ubiquitous story throughout Minnesota’s farm country: farmers eager to grow the new crop, but stopping at the fine print. While Minnesota ranks third in the nation for hemp acres planted — 2,830 in 2021 — the number of producers and hectares dedicated to hemp have decreased since 2019.
Hemp advocates call it a miracle crop. The seeds produce oil used in homeopathic tinctures or mixed into brewery beer. The stem can be processed to power batteries or dampen noise in a car. In 2021, before Minnesota’s new law, industrial hemp revenues exceeded $824 million nationally.
In commercial farming, however, it is not much. By comparison, corn growers in Minnesota had sales of $6 billion that same year.
Regulator sees boom, then cooldown
Just a few years ago, sentiment towards hemp in Washington D.C. began to soften, leading to more experimentation by old-school commodity growers as well as small farmers who harvest by hand.
“When the 2018 Farm Bill was signed and went into effect — late 2019 — we saw an explosion of licensees,” said Katy Mutschler, hemp program manager at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
But since that breakout, some farmers have abandoned hemp after crops failed or buyers failed to materialize.
According to a 2020 MDA report, 45% of hemp growers listed “unknown” or “no buyers” for their product’s end uses.
Some farmers, Mutschler said, are turning to the flower market.
“Our acres are also decreasing because we have more people producing” CBD, Mutschler said.
Growers who want CBD over industrial hemp will use more greenhouses than fields and harvest by hand rather than using combines. Mutschler said it’s like “growing tomatoes, more than corn,” which means fewer acres.
Historically, Minnesota farmers grew hemptransforming its durable grain into paper or fuel or rope for the army in World War II. But the industry fell dormant mid-century as the hemp vilification became bogged down in the nation’s war on drugs.
In a 19th-century shed tucked away in the woods of Winona County, Hartwell hangs half her hemp crop she didn’t burn, reflecting on the lessons she learned from that first growing season.
His hemp grew on a small patch of grass above his duck pond. The goats nibbled the stumps.
“I have some [seeds] of a farmer I did not know”, said Hartwell, whose harvest tested at 0.4% THC, just above the state’s legal limit. “I could have increased the tests, but the tests are so expensive.”
Minnesota should be a leader when it comes to hemp, according to top state officials, including Governor Tim Walz, who visited Hemp Acres, a hemp processor in Waconia, this summer. But restarting this industry is easier said than done.
At 40 Acre Co-op, a hemp farm in rural Pine County, Angela Dawson said she took the sourcing into her own hands to ensure reliable genetics.
“I grew my own strain for the same problem people were having,” Dawson said. “Quality. It is above all a question of quality.”
Unlike a seed store with Pioneer or another certified hybrid corn, growers say the hemp seed market is still built on high trust.
At Verist Farms in Eden Prairie, Nicola Peterson says she and her husband, Aaron, are vertically integrated – selling their hemp directly to consumers.
“When we first got started, we naively thought there would be more infrastructure in our state that hemp would eventually be like corn, like soybeans, like wheat – that there would be a place to sell your biomass,” Peterson said. “Four years later, that’s still not the case.”
Today, only 348 growers are certified for hemp in the state, down from 461 a year ago. Boom and cooling are not unique. In Coloradoafter state regulators saw 85,000 acres requesting hemp in 2019, that number fell to less than 10,000 in 2021.
Minnesota state officials say the July 1 law should boost applicants for the state’s next certification window, which opens in November and ends in late April. Many will wait and see what kind of maneuvers the state legislature makes.
“I think we’ll see a massive crush of people at the very end of the application window,” Mutschler said. “People are going to be smart.”
Meanwhile, harvesting of this year’s crop has begun — or ended — for many hemp growers.
As a child, Hartwell recalls hiking the cliffs at her parents’ farmhouse when she came across their tenants’ “strange garden”, which turned out to be marijuana. Fearing for their responsibility, her parents alerted the county sheriff, who ordered the crop destroyed. At the suggestion of his parents, they set him on fire.
As Hartwell watched his crop ignite this summer, things came full circle.
“Now I feel bad,” she said. “But burn our own cathartic feeling.”
Unlike those tenants, she will have another chance to harvest from her farm next year.