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A budding crop: Growing cannabis is labor-intensive, expensive to start, but doable

Farmers and drug-enforcement agents spent decades trying to rid Illinois fields of cannabis, considered both a noxious weed and an illegal plant.

But the star-shaped cannabis sativa is making the transition to commercial crop, now that the state has legalized hemp production and both medical and recreational marijuana use.

How easy is it to grow?

Cannabis can proliferate like a weed, but producing the THC-rich flowers favored by marijuana users can be “very challenging,” according to Dan Linn, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “There is a little bit of a learning curve to it.”

Likewise, growing industrial hemp is “not rocket science, but it takes a lot of effort and time and commitment,” said Andy Houston, a northwestern Illinois hemp producer and CEO of American Hemp Research. “It’s a lot more labor-intensive than most conventional farming is around here.”

A bit of science, history

Cannabis sativa includes both marijuana, which has psychoactive properties, and hemp, which does not. They’re very similar plants, sort of the cannabis equivalent of field corn and sweet corn, bred for different reasons, said University of Illinois Extension educator and agronomist Phillip Alberti.

Hemp and marijuana look and smell the same, and are hard to differentiate, Alberti said.

The primary difference is the level of THC in the plant – tetrahydrocannabinol, a naturally occurring compound that provides the “high” users get by smoking or eating products with marijuana. If it’s more than 0.3 percent, it’s classified by the Illinois Department of Agriculture as marijuana.

Hemp plants have cannabidiol, or CBD, which is sold in gels, gummies, oils and supplements.

Both compounds can help alleviate pain and other conditions, but CBD doesn’t produce a “high.”

Hemp is also used as a fiber for cloth, paper, biodegradable plastics and other products.

During World War II, farmers were encouraged to grow hemp for fiber.

“We had fields and fields of hemp fiber out here,” Alberti said.

The government later prohibited growing cannabis in any form, but Illinois still has lots of hemp plants in fields and ditches that adapted to grow in sandy or rocky soil.

However, they aren’t the same plants that farmers will grow for marijuana or CBD hemp, he said.

“The genetics are different,” Alberti said.

Those wild leftovers from World War II were later classified as noxious weeds because they grow quickly and can be tough for farmers to eradicate, he said.

The 2018 farm bill again legalized hemp production, and this spring Illinois finalized rules for growers. Interest was high: the state issued 500 licenses to Illinois farmers to start producing the first crop this year.

“For a new crop with this much investment, it’s pretty interesting,” Alberti said.

Illinois also allowed the use of medical marijuana starting in 2014 and licensed about 20 medical marijuana cultivation facilities.

In June, it became the 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana use by adults, effective Jan. 1, 2020.

Craft growers will eventually be able to apply for licenses to grow up to 5,000 square feet, though rules are still being developed.

Manpower a must

Both crops usually get their start in greenhouses, which provide a much better environment for the seedlings. About 70 to 80 percent of hemp seedlings will germinate in a greenhouse, compared to 40 to 50 percent in a field, Alberti said.

“They’re small. They don’t really have an ability to pop up through the soil,” especially in heavy rains, he said.

Seedlings cost $1 to $2 each and transplants $7 to $14 apiece, and growers may plant 1,000 to 3,000 plants per acre, so it makes sense to protect that investment, he said.

Lighting is also critical. Like soybeans, cannabis plants begin to flower after the summer solstice, as the days start to grow shorter. Indoor growers have to simulate a natural environment, Alberti said.

Hemp production, he said, is more akin to growing vegetables such as corn or potatoes rather than corn or soybeans, as it’s a “specialty crop.”

“What you will need is manpower,” Alberti said. “If you don’t have the equipment to do this, you’re doing this all by hand. You can be profitable on a small acreage. If you’re going to do it, take time to investigate it.”

Illinois law requires all medical marijuana patients to grow their plants in a locked indoor facility, he said.

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