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The word on hemp in Minot

NDSU North Central Research Extension Center growing, studying hemp for CBD

North Dakota State University North Central Research Extension Center’s Eric Eriksmoen, research agronomist, examines a hemp plant in a plot at the research center south of Minot in late September. Ashton Gerard/MDN

Researching hemp in North Dakota has been something on North Dakota State University North Central Research Extension Center research agronomist Eric Eriksmoen’s radar for nearly 25 years — though hemp was only recently removed from the controlled substance list in the 2018 farm bill and is now an ordinary agricultural commodity.

Hemp is defined as cannabis containing less than 0.3% of THC. The North Central Research Center was contacted by a company to develop feminized seeds of hemp for CBD production.

History of hemp in North Dakota

“There were three of us at NDSU — one in Fargo, myself in Hettinger and the one in Carrignton — that went through the process, it was a very rigorous background check with the FBI,” Eriksmoen explained. “That was the first steps in starting this hemp research program that we now have.”

Because hemp was a Schedule I controlled substance at the time, there were many conditions in place with the background checks in order to research the plant. The plot had to be surrounded by a 10-foot-high fence and in a well lit area and have alarm systems that went to the police station.

There also had to be buildings that were separate and locked with certain specifications to keep the hemp material.

“It was a very, very expensive process to do this and when we were talking about several acres of production, a 10-foot fence was just cost prohibiting,” Eriksmoen explained.

Five years ago, the North Dakota Legislature deregulated hemp and put the plant into an experimental phase to see if it would be a viable crop for the state. At that point, the Langdon Research Center was the designated hemp producer for NDSU. Langdon had been the only place in the state that hemp research was being done for the university.

“In this last farm bill, they deregulated hemp production all-together throughout the United States but it still is up to each individual state to determine what the regulations and rules (would be) and whether or not they even want to legalize it,” Eriksmoen explained.

Because North Dakota had deregulated the plant five years ago, the university is already five years ahead in knowledge of issues and how farmers will deal with hemp production. Some states, like South Dakota, still have yet to legalize hemp.

Hemp purposes

“After 25 years I said ‘No, I probably won’t be doing hemp research,'” Eriksmoen said. “I was going to leave it to Langdon, but hemp is such a versatile crop; it’s used in so many different things.”

Hemp produces an edible oil and the seeds can be ground up and used for cooking. Hemp hearts. Can be purchased at the local grocery stores as a nutty flavored seed. Hemp fiber is used in a lot of different products and initially was used for rope during World War II. The fiber can also be used for paper and building material — making new industries for the crop.

“Then we get into the more medicinal things and those are areas that we’re just starting to really understand some of the benefits of hemp,” Eriksmoen explained. “Up to this point in time, there’s not been a lot of scientific studies done for the medicinal side of hemp.”

Due to the lack of research, claims cannot be made for medicinal hemp, or CBD, that it will prevent or cure different ailments.

CBD is produced from the plant itself, not the seed. The leaves are cut and processed for CBD oil extraction.

Having a plant in North Dakota is different for the region because the crops in North Dakota are grown for one specific use.

“This is a crop that has many, many uses,” Eriksmoen said. “Part of the problem right now is that we can produce the crop, we just don’t have any industries that are set up to (process the hemp).”

NDSU and CBD oil production

According to Eriksmoen, NDSU has been involved in seed production of hemp for a number of years. Their goal has been to find varieties that produce the most seed.

“A farmer will go out and plant a field of hemp and harvest the seed, which will then be typically ground for oil extraction,” Eriksmoen explained. “What we’re doing here at the North Central Research Center is looking at the CBD types and we’re working with a company that would like to have foundation seed or a seed industry in North Dakota.”

Part of the mission of the research centers throughout North Dakota is to produce high quality foundation seed. These are seeds farmers can buy to guarantee purity and quality. Currently, the North Central Research Center is working to develop CBD type hemp for North Dakota.

CBD hemp production in a horticultural crop, not a commodity like wheat, so farmers will not plant 100 acres of hemp and collect CBD. Hemp for CBD is a small-scale, 5 acres or less, operation and herbicides are not used for the crop.

“The people that refine and buy the (CBD) products typically want organic, they don’t want pesticide use, they don’t want fertilizers applied to it, because that’s where that market is,” Eriksmoen. “In North Dakota, at this point in time, we don’t have any herbicides or pesticides that are registered for this crop so weed control is an issue.”

For the CBD hemp, methods of weed control are constrained to mowing, hand-weeding the crop, or using a plastic weed barrier — which can be expensive, time consuming and labor intensive.

For the NCRC’s weed control, Eriksmoen hired some high school kids and other individuals to mow the weeds, which he said has worked.

“For a farmer that wants to do this, they need to know that its a horticultural crop, small acreage, and I think there is a viable industry for the CBD types,” Eriksmoen said. “What I envision is for a farm family…to have a 5-acre plot of CBD that they tend and basically harvest. That 5-acres would generate maybe $5,000 in profit, something to supplement the family farm.”

Eriksmoen stressed that hemp for CBD is not going to be a “silver bullet” to North Dakota’s farm economy.

The seeds alone for CBD hemp varieties are expensive to obtain. Only female hemp plants produce CBD, therefore all the seeds for CBD varieties need to be feminized.

“Those seeds are typically one or two dollars a piece,” Eriksmoen said. “You’re looking at maybe 15 or 20 thousand dollars in seed for a 5-acre plot.”

The risk is also extremely high because there is no crop insurance for CBD varieties of hemp. On the other hand, there is money to be made.

“To be able to produce your own seed is a different process and that’s the process that we go through,” Eriksmoen said. “The objective of my program here at the North Central is to produce feminized seed to sell to farmers.”

The female plants can be forced to produce pollen according to Eriksmoen that will cause the other female plants in the plot to produce feminized seeds.

“We’ve had some issues in the past with people buying seeds at $2 a piece and half of them are males. Well that’s a lot of money that is wasted,” Eriksmoen said.

The North Central Research Center is currently using a chemical hormone process to force some female plants to produce pollen and it has worked thus far. The hemp at the North Central Research Center will be harvested by the end of October.