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Hemp hits Winnebago

By Staff | Jun 23, 2019

Three local farmers are diversifying their operations by adding industrial hemp as a crop they will produce. Pictured left to right, Brian Schonborn, Mike Richison and Scott Robertson hold flats containing seedlings which will be transplanted into their fields. The trio is learning on the go as they produce their first hemp crop.

Diversity in farming is nothing new. Farmers have been growing different crops and raising a variety of livestock for decades in an effort to not have all of their eggs in one basket. The thought has been if one commodity is not making money, perhaps a different one will be profitable.

Unfortunately the last few years have left many in agriculture searching for something to raise which is a money-maker. Prices for traditional crops and livestock have been below break-even costs for many farmers for an extended period of time.

So farmers have searched for other ways to improve their bottom line. Organic farming has worked for some, niche marketing has worked for others. Now, there are some local farmers who are growing industrial hemp in an effort to put some profitability back into their operations.

Scott Robertson and his son Jake, Mike Richison and his son Nick, all of Winnebago, along with Brian Schonborn of Frost, have teamed up to take on this new challenge together.

“We started exploring the possibility of growing industrial hemp last December,” Scott Robertson says. “We had to learn what the input costs were and what the crop would be worth.”

It was in 2015 the Minnesota Industrial Hemp Development Act (IHDA) became law, which cleared the way for growing industrial hemp. In 2016 there were six pilot participants in Minnesota who grew industrial hemp. According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, it was a historic year as it marked the first time hemp had been harvested in the state since the 1950s.

So the group began the process of learning what was required to be able to grow industrial hemp. They learned one of the first things they each had to do was obtain a license to grow hemp. “We had to submit an application, get fingerprinted and then the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) conducts a federal/state criminal background check on you,” Robertson explains. “It took about six weeks to get this done.”

There are many different varieties of hemp so farmers need to choose if they are growing for fiber, grain, or cannabidiol (CBD) oil production as this will determine which seed they will plant. This local group of men chose to raise hemp for CBD oil, Robertson explained.

“The other thing to understand is the hemp grown to produce CBD oil does not get you high,” Schonborn adds.

Information available from different websites explains CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) have the exact same molecular structure but there is a slight difference in how the atoms are arranged which accounts for the differing effects on the human body. Both CBD and THC are chemically similar to a body’s own endocannabinoids which allows them to interact with a person’s own cannabinoid receptors.

Despite their similar chemical structures, CBD and THC do not have the same psychoactive effect. In fact, CBD is a nonpsychoactive compound meaning it does not produce the “high” associated with THC.

Educating lenders was one of the next steps in the process of starting the new business.

“At first, the bankers did not want to touch this project,” Robertson comments. “Once they became familiar with the process and we could show them our licenses and that we were following proper procedures, they got on board.”

Like a farmer growing a conventional crop, the group had to select a variety which could grow in this region and which had a high CBD, low THC content.

“The seed has to be feminized,” Schonborn says. “If you have male plants they will pollinate the female plants. The female plants will then put their energy into producing seed instead of producing oil.”

The seeds are started in a greenhouse and then transplanted to the field.

“We plant the seedlings in raised beds,” Robertson explains. “The raised beds are covered with plastic to minimize the need for weeding. There is also an irrigation drip line under the plastic which allows us to water and deliver liquid fertilizer to the plant.”

The group has a special implement to make the raised beds, cover them with plastic and lay the irrigation hose. They have another piece of equipment which pokes a hole in the plastic where the seedling will be planted. It does require someone to ride on the back of the implement and manually place the plant in the hole created by the machine.

“We are all organic,” Robertson says. “So we do not use any chemicals.”

Growing this alternative crop is not for everyone.

“Raising industrial hemp is a very labor intensive process,” Mike Richison states. “Starting the seeds in the greenhouse and then transplanting them to the field is only part of the story. The fields must be walked and any male plants have to be eliminated.”

The harvest also requires a lot of manual labor.

“There is not a combine to harvest the hemp for CBD oil so the plants are harvested by hand,” Robertson explains. “Then the hemp is moved to a drying facility where the plants may start with a moisture content of 80 percent. The goal is to get the plant down to 10 percent moisture. It is important to move a lot of air to help lower the moisture content. If you add a little bit of heat you can speed the drying process up.”

The group will utilize Cool Clean Technologies out of Eagan to extract the CBD oil from the plants.

“Each plant can produce about two pounds of dry matter,” Robertson says.

So what are the possible uses of CBD oil?

In 2018, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory panel unanimously recommended approval of the CBD medication Epidiolex to treat two rare forms of childhood epilepsy.

There are many people who claim to have benefitted from using CBD, including two of the men now in the business of producing the product.

Both Schonborn and Mike Richison have seen dramatic drops in their blood pressure since they started taking CBD.

“Personally, it has helped lower my blood pressure,” Richison says, “But, you cannot produce or market CBD oil as a medicine or make any medical claims on the label or in marketing.”

The Mayo Clinic website states CBD is being studied as a treatment for a wide range of conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and anxiety. However, the research supporting the drug’s benefits is still limited.

Caution is also given that CBD can interact with medications, such as blood thinners.

Finally, if you plan to use products containing CBD, the Mayo Clinic recommends talking to your doctor first.

Several other family farmers in the area have also obtained licenses to grow industrial hemp in addition to the ones mentioned in this article.

If you would like more information about growing industrial hemp, you can visit the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s website: www.mda.state.mn. us/industrial-hemp-program.