First Year Of Illinois Industrial Hemp Program A Learning Curve For Growers

Sep 24, 2019

Industrial hemp growers are still working through some kinks to comply with state rules and have a successful growing season.

The Illinois Department of Agriculture started issuing licenses under the final hemp rules about six months ago. One of the requirements is that the level of tetrahyrdrocannabinol (THC) in hemp plants be kept below .3 percent.

Ashli Turner owns Little River Farmstead in Hopedale, which produces a line of CBD wellness products. They’re one of more than 40 active growers in Peoria and Tazewell counties.

“All of us growers, our goal is to maintain that THC value. I do see that proving to be difficult for us,” she said. “It’s not unattainable, but I really think that it takes some monitoring and working with the right genetics to maintain that.”

Turner said farmers have little control over THC levels once hemp crops are in the ground. She said certain hemp seed is proving to be more THC potent than expected and soil conditions in the Midwest only amplify that.

Tom Howard, a Peoria attorney who represents about a dozen central Illinois hemp farmers, agreed many are seeing higher THC levels because of the kinds of seeds available on the market when the program launched.

He said some varietals are known to be more stable than others, but many producers gravitated toward experimental crops that offered more CBD oil when harvested. In addition, most of the seed came from Colorado and is designed for much different conditions than land in Illinois.

“The hot crop is particularly risky this year, in that there’s no crop insurance,” Howard said. “They do have protection against the negligent growing of marijuana.”

Howard said most “hot” hemp is only at about 1 or 2 percent THC — far lower than the 20-something percent found in marijuana sold at dispensaries.

But he said that still means the crop has to be reported and destroyed — and state rules are unclear about how.

“There’s never been more marijuana being grown in the state of Illinois than there is right now, considering that a lot of the crop is probably hot. Therefore, it’s magically cannabis or marijuana,” Howard said. “But even with the hemp coming in a little hot, it still wouldn’t get you high.”

On top of non-compliant THC levels, Howard said, hemp growers have been dealing with adverse weather conditions and limited processing capacity — meaning they could end up with more yield than they’re able to use, particularly for CBD oil.

Still, he said, growers are getting through the "wild west" of the first year of the hemp program.

At Little River Farmstead, owner Ashli Turner said their planting schedule got pushed back by major flooding of the Mackinaw River, which left them with 3 to 5 feet of water in their hemp fields.

By the end of June, they were able to get an acre’s worth of hemp plants in the ground by the end of June. They have yet to harvest, but Turner said the yield will eventually be sent to a processor in Kentucky, though they’d like to extract their own CBD oil soon.

"Ultimately, our goal is to take it from seed to product and it never leaves the farm,” she said.

For the next year, Turner said, there’s just going to be a learning curve.