As Hemp Growing Expands, Producers Careful to Produce Legal Crop

Sept. 29, 2021, 6 a.m. ·

Hemp harvested by the Winnebago Tribe in 2019
A worker pulls a hemp plant from the ground on a test plot planted by Ho-Chunk Farms. (Courtesy Photo)

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It was a problem few thought through during the push to legalize hemp in Nebraska. The law used THC levels to define the difference between legal hemp and illegal cannabis. In line with USDA regulations, the state set allowable THC at a very, very low level to deter recreational use. As a result, it can be a challenge to produce a crop that meets stringent regulations.

Hemp Plant
A hemp plant grown as part of a 2019 pilot project on the Winnebago Reservation. (Photo courtesy Ho-Chunk Farms)

Originally, farmers promoted industrial hemp as a source of fiber in everything from rope to paper. The market for those goods hasn't materialized. However, there's been an explosion of interest in CBD products produced from hemp. The state's hemp producers believe the expanding market makes surmounting the tricky process worth the effort.

Late in October 2019, a small work crew from the Winnebago tribe worked their way down the rows of stubby plants, pulling them from the ground and using a machete to remove the roots.

Someone looking on could have mistaken the harvest for stunted marijuana plants. The project fell comfortably within Nebraska and federal law. The tribe hopes this experimental hemp crop from Ho-Chunk Farms, on an acreage in northeast Nebraska, will become an important economic development opportunity.

At the time, Aaron LaPointe, manager of the farms, called it "a huge opportunity for the Winnebago Tribe," adding, "if we can approach this the right way and be successful with it, we could help other tribes, too."

Hemp and marijuana are in the Cannabaceae family, commonly called cannabis. By law, in most states, hemp contains less than .3% THC, the psychoactive substance that gives recreational and medical marijuana users a buzz or sense of euphoria.

Complying with that dictate becomes crucial as producers start to expand the state's fledgling hemp production business.

Andrea Holmes, an organic chemist leading the Doane University Cannabis Studies program, said it's a razor-thin difference in the chemistry of the two plants in the same family.

"It's challenging to grow it in such a way that it forms very, very healthy flowers and that, most importantly, stays compliant" with the law.

"Hemp is kind of like a little baby," Holmes said. "It doesn't always do much you want it to do, so sometimes, depending on temperature and climate conditions, controlling the cannabinoid levels can be difficult."

An employee at Sweetwater Hemp involved in processing the plants and extracting the CBD content. (Photo: Nebraska Public Media)

Sweetwater Hemp in Pleasanton, Nebraska, has been creating and marketing a line of CBD products, including skin care products and edibles, since 2019.  

Owner Rory Cruise wants to use hemp that pushes the THC content right to the legal limit. He said it's a tiny amount compared to recreational cannabis available in states where it's legal, "especially when you're talking about the marijuana plant, and you're talking 17 to 31% THC. We're down here trying to deal with 0.3% THC. So, there's a huge difference between the two plants."

In Nebraska, where marijuana remains illegal, the narrow threshold for THC in hemp can mean well-intended growers could produce a felony-level crop and, in the process, lose thousands of dollars.

"That window is super, super small, and then all of a sudden you're over it," Cruise said. "Now, all you get to do is destroy (the crop) all and try to start over."

That's what happened during Cruise's first experimental grow in the greenhouses at Sweetwater. The crop came in hot, the jargon for THC levels that exceed the legal limits.

Hemp producers strive to reach THC levels in the sweet spot between beneficial to the end product without breaking the law.

Sweetwater currently purchases the plants from contracted growers who use genetics to engineer plants that repress their THC content.

"They keep being able to find that genetic (target) to create that cannabinoid and have that type of plant that creates that specific cannabinoid," emphasizing the CBD over the THC.

Where hemp is planted and cultivated may cause drastic swings in the THC level.

"The conditions in that greenhouse, (where) you're always hot, you're always warm, those plants have the best of both worlds," he said. The plants "are not dealing with high extremes outside of wind and conditions and those kinds of things, and they just really push and thrive really fast."

THC from hemp promoted by a Lincoln retailer
A Lincoln CBD product retailer advertises the availability of legal THC. (Photo: Bill Kelly, Nebraska Public Media)

The state's department of agriculture demands independent testing to make sure the THC stays within legal limits.

A new lab-based in Lincoln, Kennebec Analytical Services, is one of the first laboratories in the state to get the needed certifications. Its CEO, bio-chemist Concetta DiRusso, said the work is necessary and challenging. She said the company "keeps at the forefront the recognition of "how important and serious this measurement is (because) it means the difference between harvesting and marketing a field of hemp or a greenhouse of hemp or destroying your crops."

Once approved, the hemp gets turned into a product. Even if the plants stay within the legal THC mark, the processors must keep track of the same rules for the hemp flower.

Brett Mayo, the supervisor of the processing Sweetwater's hemp, said the company "tests throughout the whole entire process." Hence, if the THC levels get close "or even remotely close" to exceeding legal standards, "we have ways that we can dial it back, whether by dilution or just adding less concentration into the cook."

Sweetwater uses a unique ice-water process to pull the CBDs out of the hemp. In its sales materials, the company boasts it takes "less than 12 hours to go from freshly harvested plant to active oil."

Raw hemp flowers get hand stripped of the bud, washed, and filtered three times into something resembling wet brown sugar. It's called Bubble Hash, and it's rich in cannabinoids, both the CBDs and the fraction of a percentage of THC.

Mayo says, "the hard part about that is you want to be as close to that 0.3 as possible because THC has a bad reputation, but THC is going to help that product to be better."

Proponents of CBD products promote what's known as "the entourage effect," purporting that even the small amounts of THC enhance the benefits of the cannabinoids.

There are still conflicting interpretations of the science, but the market for those products has seen massive growth.

A & A Apothecary in Lincoln, Nebraska
Andrea Holmes (right) and Amanda McKinney, owners of A & A Apothecary, in the Lincoln story. (Photo: Nebraska Public Media)

Amanda McKinney operates A & A Apothecary, a CBD retail outlet in Lincoln. She and others in the industry support another method to keep hemp growers out of trouble with THC: the law could change at the state or federal level.

"We have to find some way to prevent entire crops from being destroyed if they're just above the illegal limit, that 0.3% ," said McKinney.

Some states have already increased the defining THC level in hemp from 0.3% to a full 5%. She believes "raising the threshold on that would help, especially Nebraska farmers, with growing industrial hemp so that they don't have to be so diligent about catching that plant before it's gone over that limit."

The Winnebago Tribe will soon use what it learned after the pilot hemp project in 2019. Most of the necessary permits and certifications are in place to allow Ho-Chunk Farms to grow its own hemp.

As with Sweetwater, the Ho-Chunk crop will be planted indoors with the controlled lighting, temperature and irrigation of a greenhouse in an effort to keep the THC levels right where they need them.

The tribe has been producing pre-rolled smokable hemp made from plants imported from Oregon. The new grow operation will allow the tribe to promote and sell an entirely home-grown product.