Minnesota couple endures big, expensive learning curve in budding hemp industry

Karen Tolkkinen
Forum News Service

PARKERS PRAIRIE, Minn. — Casey and Matt Ruckheim of Parkers Prairie aren’t strangers to experimenting with crops.

They’ve grown sunflowers. Buckwheat. Chemical-free oats.

But their decision to grow hemp in 2019 led them down the strangest, most difficult path they ever could have imagined. They had to rally friends and family to their cause. They had to hunt down empty barns for 20 miles around. At every turn, the process of growing hemp surprised them, challenged them and forced them to improvise, even after it was harvested, dried and turned into oil.

They are among hundreds of Minnesotans paving the way in the year and a half since the federal government legalized the growing of hemp. Among other uses, hemp can be turned into fiber, clothing, rope or CBD oil, which the Ruckheims decided to produce. Currently, 511 people have grower and/or processor licenses and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture says it has registered 8,605 hemp acres and 4.66 million indoor square feet of growing space for 2020.

Everything by hand

The first surprise was the seed.

At $1 a seed, it was costly, but that wasn’t the surprise.

The surprise was that when their $20,000 seed order arrived, it was enclosed in a plastic bag that fit in Matt’s hand.

“I got a little shaky,” he recalled. “I’m like, ‘Where’s the rest of it?’”

Matt immediately knew that he wasn’t going to be planting this seed with a tractor.

They ended up ordering greenhouse trays and buying soil to fill them.

Matt shook his head. A farmer buying dirt.

Casey and their kids — Audrey, 14; Isaac, 12; and Levi, 9 — planted 20,000 seeds by hand, one to a seed cell. Well, 20,400, actually, because the seed company threw in extra in case some didn’t germinate.

Their neighbor let them borrow their greenhouse, but that was a challenge, too. It was too hot, then too cold, and then they overwatered and then the plants got too dry.

Their time in the greenhouse stunted the plants, but they finally grew big enough to transplant into the field. The Ruckheims had to do that by hand, too, riding on a borrowed antique cabbage transplanter and dropping a plant into the ground every 4 feet, in rows 5 feet apart.

Twenty thousand times.

For 10 acres.

Because hemp will draw chemicals out of the ground, they planted it on pasture that hadn’t been sprayed.

It took about a week to transplant the hemp.

A game of chicken

For two weeks, the hemp just sat there. Then it took off, and so did the weeds. For weed control, the Ruckheims used a 24-inch walk-behind brush cutter. Let’s underline that. A 24-inch walk-behind brush cutter. For 10 acres.

“It wasn’t easy,” Matt said.

The hemp seedlings smelled like, well, weed. Just like pot, it comes from the cannabis plant, except unfertilized female plants have lower levels of THC, the ingredient that makes people high. The distinctive smell seeped into their clothing, their hair, their skin. They couldn’t shake it, even when they changed clothes to go to church.

The plants proved incredibly hardy. By August, they were almost as tall as their kids.

“What are you growing out there?” people would ask.

The kids started calling them Christmas trees.

The Ruckheims had ordered female seed for high CBD levels, but were warned that some male seeds could slip in, and also that some plants were hermaphrodites and could pollinate the female plants. If they did, the female plants would put their energy into producing seed and less into making CBD oil.

So they had to walk the rows as if they were in one of those Facebook games where you have to find the M in all the Ws. The plants all looked alike, but the male ones had small pollen sacs on their branches, and you could walk right by one without realizing it. When they found male plants, they covered them with plastic bags before removing them in order to prevent the pollen from escaping.

The stakes were high. When CBD levels rise, so does THC, the active ingredient that makes people high. If THC levels rise too much, a state inspector might order the entire crop destroyed. In 2019, 76 plantings out of 581 failed the THC test, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. When they fail, farmers have to incinerate the whole field or else plow it under or compost it.

A month before harvest, the state inspector arrived at the Ruckheims’ field with an ice cream bucket and scissors to snip off the top 2 inches of 30 plants. The THC content needs to be under 0.3%. Theirs came in at 0.294%, almost failing.

“You play this game of chicken,” Casey said. “You want your CBD content to be as high as possible but the THC also grows.”

Looking for barns

Then it was mid-October, almost harvest time, and the plants had buds of all sizes, which is where the CBD oil comes from.

And it snowed.

“Before we could pull a single plant, we had snow on it,” Matt said.

Once the snow melted, the Ruckheims recruited family members, neighbors and friends to harvest the plants. They went at the plants with loppers and pruning shears. Casey’s dad used a Sawzall. Three or four people cut, and the kids put the plants on the flatbed trailer.

The hemp plants were wet. Much wetter than they needed to be for processing. They were coming off the field at 70% to 80% moisture, and the processor needed them at 10% or less.

The Ruckheims had some serious drying in store for them. But you can’t dry hemp like you’d dry corn or soybeans, in bins with warm air circulating. You need to hang it.

They planned on using nearby barns, but they realized quickly that the five barns they had in mind weren’t enough. So they had to work the phones, calling friends and neighbors, anyone they knew who had an unused barn. Since a lot of dairy farmers had gone out of business, quite a few barns were available, and nearly everyone they contacted said yes, and almost nobody charged them to use the space.

“We would have really been in trouble if people hadn’t been OK with it because we would have lost the crop,” Casey said.

But they had to be the right kind of barn. No holes in the roof. No pigeons. No strong odors, as that might ultimately interfere with the quality of the CBD oil they hoped to produce. They drove around, inspecting barns while the hemp waited for harvesting. They eventually lined up 14 barns from west of Leaf Valley in Douglas County to north of Parkers Prairie.

They hung baler twine in the hay lofts, and it had to be the right kind of baler twine. Round bale twine proved too stretchy, but square bale twine turned out just right. They strung two levels of twine, feeling a bit like outlaws, as they would show up after dark to hang cannabis.

It took two weeks, every day, all day to harvest the crop and hang it in the barns. They couldn’t just harvest it all at once and store it in piles because it would start to heat up and spoil.

It hung for two months, and then they began processing it, removing the buds by hand.

It took so much time that Casey calculated how long it would take her to finish the 20,000 plants. The answer?

“4.32 years working 40 hours a week,” she said.

They attempted different ways to speed up the work. Matt drove 90 miles with 200 plants after he heard that someone had created a chicken-plucking kind of machine to knock the buds off. It didn’t work.

Finally they were able to borrow equipment that stripped the buds more efficiently, but it still involved doing much of it by hand.

A much smaller crop in 2020

Finally they got all the hemp buds to the extractor, Leigh Berry of Red Horse Ranch in Fergus Falls. A grower, Berry had also installed an extractor on his property. Most growers, he said, were not prepared for the intensity of the harvest. Some used shredders to separate the buds, and “It just destroyed the product,” he said. “They grew more than what they probably could handle.”

The Ruckheims are now finally seeing some rewards of their hard work. An Eden Prairie company created CBD oil for them and they are now selling the bottles for $75 to $140, depending on the strength. The bottles come in three flavors: natural, mint chocolate and orange cream, and they plan to add a roll-on gel soon. They’re selling them on their website, rbottledgoldcbd.com, as well as at several local retail locations.

But even selling online proved problematic, as all the mainstream online payment options wouldn’t participate because they were all leery of stepping into the illegal drug trade. Finally one company agreed to facilitate transactions, but they had to produce a certificate of analysis, a personal bank statement and their hemp growing license.

Berry said he was impressed with the Ruckheims for hanging in there, adding, “Most would have thrown the towel in.”

Said Matt: “It was a pretty big learning curve.”

Said Casey: “It was so taxing. The amount of work was overwhelming.”

Matt was willing to try it again in 2020, but Casey said she was out. So he went much, much smaller, and is now growing only 215 plants on their property.

“This is to experiment with,” he said.

The Ruckheim family — Levi, left, Isaac, mom Casey, Audrey and dad Matt — sit next to some hemp plants they are growing near their home in rural Parkers Prairie, Minn. They are selling CBD oil from their 2019 crop.
The Ruckheims began referring to their hemp crop as Christmas trees.
Matt Ruckheim holds the bag that contained 20,400 seeds, worth $20,000.