The good, the bad, the ugly: Industrial hemp grower shares all

Lura Roti
South Dakota Farmers Union
BJ McNeil planted organic industrial hemp for food consumption into six fields on his Wessington farm.

When asked about growing industrial hemp the first year it was legal in South Dakota, Wessington farmer BJ McNeil doesn’t sugar-coat his experience.

“You could not have asked for a worse experience than what we had this year. But we learned a lot," he said.

McNeil will share what he learned with farmers and ranchers during the South Dakota Farmers Union State Convention at 1:30 p.m. CST Dec. 16 at the Crossroads Convention Center in Huron.

McNeil says because the economics of growing industrial hemp remain strong, he will raise it again in 2022. McNeil contracted his hemp with an organic food processor for $1.10 a pound. In some fields, he averaged 1,200 pounds per acre.

“It is by no means a losing deal," he said. "We knew this first year we didn’t know what we were doing. Now that the learning curve is over, I hope to increase efficiencies by 50 percent.”

So, what did McNeil learn?

Growing industrial hemp is the easy part.

Having recently converted his large farm over to organic management practices, McNeil was eager to add industrial hemp to the farm’s diverse crop rotation because of its ability to crowd out weeds.

“It is very competitive. This was the biggest reason I wanted to try it. And it worked where there was moisture for it to come up on time. It did not work where it had to wait five weeks for rain to come up.”

McNeil planted organic industrial hemp for food consumption into six fields. Other than waiting for seed emergence due to drought, after planting it into a clean seed bed, McNeil says growing industrial hemp was simple.

“Put it in the ground and walk away. We fertilized it like we do corn. It likes fertility and moisture.”

Although industrial hemp likes moisture, McNeil says compared to corn, it seemed to handle drought conditions better.

“It didn’t show stress like the corn. It never got droopy like corn.”

What industrial hemp did in response to lack of moisture was a larger percentage of male plants expressed themselves with pollen sacks, reducing overall seed production.

Don’t combine more than the first 2 to 3 feet.

Harvest was when the reality of just how little McNeil and his team knew about processing industrial hemp set in.

“We had a mess the first day we combined," he said.

When it was time to harvest, due to the fact that plant maturity varied greatly throughout each field, some plants were 6 feet tall, and others were 12 feet tall. Because the hemp seed/grain is found in the first 4 to 5 feet of the plant, the first day of harvest, they set the combine to harvest the first 6 feet of plant material.

“We had 6 feet of hemp rope wrapped everywhere you can imagine. The rotor was wrapped. The beater was wrapped. The feed accelerator was wrapped,” McNeil said.

BJ McNeil’s sons, Caden and Colton, stand in a field of industrial hemp that the family raised this year on their Wessington farm.

Day one ended with McNeil and his team of nine employees spending four hours cutting hemp vines off the combines.

“We didn’t know what we were doing. You can read, watch YouTube videos and research all you want, but until you do it yourself, you don’t know what you are getting into.”

Day two, the combine heads were set to cut only the first 2 to 3 feet of plant material. And the team began conducting an 8-point inspection of their combines each time they emptied the hopper.

“This only took five minutes. Once we got the system down, harvest went smoother," McNeil said.

Dry-down is the real issue.

Unlike corn, soybeans or other crops, industrial hemp does not mature evenly. Seed on one plant can be at several stages of maturity. Because of this, drying the harvested seed is necessary. It also needs to be done quickly and with low heat, McNeil explained.

“Your hemp cannot get above 130 degrees, or you will damage the oil in the hemp seed,” he said.

To aid in dry-down, prior to harvest 2021 McNeil had installed cone bins with rocket dryers

They did not work.

“We ended up pulling the hemp out of all the cone bins, taking the grain to another farm with the old stirator drying systems, and putting it on low heat.”

Harvesting such a high moisture grain also meant three to four hours were spent each evening cleaning the hemp. If it sits overnight, the heat generated from the wet crop could spoil the oil.

To make matters worse, McNeil thought cleaning the hemp before it was binned would aid in the drying process. This was also a disaster.

“I will never clean wet hemp again. If we clean it in the future, we will clean it after it is dry.”

Another of the many changes McNeil is making in preparation for 2022 industrial hemp harvest, is setting up another low heat stirator drying system.

Now that he has a clear understanding of what he will and will not do in 2022, McNeil is willing to share what he learned, and hopefully save other farmers and ranchers some time and reduce their learning curve.

“Remember, I have nine guys helping me do all this. It was not just me experiencing the pain," he said. :They were gracious enough and good enough to go through the pain with me and make it happen. They never want to go through this again, and I would not ask them to do it again.”

To register to attend the Farmers Union State Convention panel discussion McNeil will participate in, visit https://sdfu.org.