The Blaine County Journal News-Opinion - We've Got The County Covered

2018 Industrial hemp production in Blaine County: Part 2

 

October 3, 2018

This photo shows Robby Klingaman and Dylan Surber in their one acre plot of industrial hemp. The photos shows the size of the mature plants, about six feet tall at maturity, that will be harvested in early October. CBD oil (an extract used for many common ailments) will be extracted from the leaves and small stems of the plants. The oil will be used in salves and lotions the two growers plan to make and market.

Reporter's note: A story about the recent first harvest of industrial hemp in Blaine County appeared in the September 26, 2018 issue of the "Journal." That story described the 200 acres of industrial hemp harvested in early September by Dick Nicholson, one of only 49 licensed producers in Montana this year. 2018 was the second year for the Montana program and as far as I knew Nicholson was the first to grow industrial hemp under the new provisions in Blaine County.

While gathering information for that story I learned of a second license issued in 2018 to grow hemp in Blaine County. That license is held by Robby Klingaman. His business partner is Dylan Surber. I thought it unusual there are less than 50 licensed producers statewide with two in Blaine County (In the surrounding area there are three licensed growers in both Hill and Chouteau Counties). I wanted to learn about the experiences of these two growers and see how their program differed from that of Dick Nicholson. Here's some of what I learned while interviewing Robby Klingaman, a co-owner of Top Crop Farms, LLC.

Top Crop Farms is licensed to produce "less than one acre" of industrial hemp

Robby Klingaman was still a student at MSU-Bozeman when he first became interested in the prospects of commercially raising industrial hemp. He explained, "I was in a research methods class and was over in the Ag School talking to some students about a research project. When I shared that I was planning to attend medical school in a couple of years but needed to earn some money before starting, a student told me about their grandparents who were raising industrial hemp." The grandparents were part of the first 10 growers to be licensed when Montana's program kicked off in 2017.

Klingaman, who has a background in science, began to educate himself about industrial hemp. He said he attended several seminars and read widely on the topic. He recruited Dylan Surber to be a part of a start-up business. "Down the road," Klingaman explained, "Dylan will do the farm operation part of the business and I'll do the lab/science part of it. Right now we both are involved in all aspects of the business." He added there are constantly changes in the law and regulatory process, the marketing and potential uses of industrial hemp and the science surrounding this recently rediscovered crop.

For Top Crop Farms the licensing process went rather smoothly. Klingaman said they received their license about two weeks after the required paperwork was submitted. Both he and Dick Nicholson mentioned the required fingerprinting, the $200 fee to import the seed from Canada (to pay for testing required by both state and federal governments) and the $450 fee to Montana to participate in the pilot program to grow hemp. Top Crop Farms, per Klingaman, was also required to submit aerial photos of the area where they planned to grow the hemp.

The goal of Top Crop Farm is to produce CBD oil for use in topical products the growers will market

Top Crop growers are raising industrial hemp for the plants' leaves, flowers, and small stems. Nicholson's 200 acres were combined for seed to be pressed in to oil, the oil then sold for use in various products. The stalks and leaves were not used in Nicholson's large-scale operation, only the seeds.

Klingaman said he and Dylan would be harvesting their plants in early October. They will strip the leaves and smaller branches from the main stalk, which will be set aside for sale separately. The foliage and stems will be chopped and put in to an 'extractor,' a device used to recover essential oils from the plant pieces.

Per Klingaman, "We'll run alcohol through the plant pieces to create a 'tea.' We then evaporate and recover the alcohol from the tea, leaving the full spectrum CBD oil." As to yield, Klingaman wrote in an email, "We hope to extract around 1 kilogram (2.2 lbs) of CBD oil from our 80 plants."

The cannabiodiol (CBD) oil, which Top Crop Farms hopes to make into topical products, like soaps, salves and lotions, has a whole array of demonstrated and potential health benefits from relieving pain to easing arthritic symptoms. Klingaman said, "We will be creating our own products and markets to sell what we produce." Before the oil can be used for products it has to be tested for THC levels, to assure that it is not capable of producing a marijuana-high.

While producing CBD oil is the growers' main goal, the remaining fiber from the extraction process and the main stalks also are marketable. Klingaman said a buyer in Missoula will use the stalks as an ingredient in plastic. The depleted leaves still have value as fiber. He described, as an example, a product called 'hempcrete' that is used in many countries as a building product-to build non-load bearing walls with very high resistance to fire and remarkable insulating capacity.

The growing process used at Top Crop Farms

Top Crop Farms obtained seed from Canada since it's illegal to sell seed in the U.S. Klingaman said, "The seed has to be certified by both Montana and the federal government that it has .3% or less THC (THC is the substance in marijuana that causes a high in users). Seeds that test above that would be classified as marijuana and illegal to possess." He added, "We needed about 20 pounds of seed for our one acre plot, the seed cost about $.50 per pound."

The seeds are started in a climate-controlled facility. After six to eight weeks the seedlings are 'sexed' and the male plants are discarded. For its operation Top Crop will use only female plants and the male plants are destroyed so there will be no pollination and no seeds on the remaining female plants. Once the plants are big enough to transplant they go to an outside plot to reach maturity.

Klingaman said the entire growth cycle from planting to harvest was about 15-18 weeks. Because of the smaller plot Top Crop is able to irrigate so a dry summer had no effect on the plants. At maturity some of the plants will reach six feet in height. Operations requiring only hemp seeds as a final product, like Dick Nicholson's, want varieties that result in short plants since the growers have no interest in the fiber of the plant.

Like Nicholson with the 200 acre plot, Top Crop has found the plants are fairly hardy. Klingaman explained one problem they've discovered. "Because our plants are tall and leafy," he said, "they are prone to wind damage. The first plant we set outside was blown over. We left it for dead but a few days later, though still bent, it began to add new leaves." With a frost predicted in a few days after we talked, Klingaman added, "It's said the plants can take at least two hard frosts and survive. Even if they do die from frost, that supposedly does not affect the CBD level that is our main interest."

Challenges, surprises and the future of industrial hemp

I asked Klingaman, "How do people react when you tell them you're growing hemp?" He chuckled when he said, "They tend to be shocked and usually ask, "Can't you get in to trouble for that?"" The reaction partly results from the confusion between industrial hemp and marijuana, both of which are cannabis plants. As Dick Nicholson noted, "You could smoke all 200 acres of my crop and at worst get a really bad headache, but no high." Top Crop Farms' hemp has to have .3% THC or less to be usable.

Klingaman said the process of getting licensed and started has been "like a post-graduate education. We've had to educate ourselves about industrial hemp, learn how to grow it and figure out a way to legally make and market our products." He feels major obstacles they've faced are "a lack of clear cut rules we must follow and the fact there's no one we can talk to about what we are doing." He attributes both problems to the novelty of industrial hemp and believes, over time, the rules will be more clearly defined and there will be resources to help both growers and marketers.

As to the future of hemp, even in Montana Klingaman sees it as a growth business and a cash crop that could give farmers more flexibility in what they raise to stay diversified. He said that Ian Foley, the Montana ag department official who oversees licensing for hemp growers, has stated he expects 200 growers' licenses to be issued for 2019. "And," Klingaman said, "if the changes to the Farm Bill come through as we've been told, industrial hemp would no longer be treated as an illegal drug."

Like Dick Nicholson, Robby Klingaman likes to promote the praises of industrial hemp. "It's such an efficient and durable fiber," Klingaman said, "we could stop deforestation by using hemp for making paper. One season of hemp could produce the fiber for paper that would take trees 114 years to produce." One of Robby's pet ideas is "hemp twine that could just be cut off hay bales and left for the cows to eat with no harmful effects." Who knows, he may be on to something with the edible string idea.

Want to know more about growing hemp and its possibilities?

There's a lot of info about hemp on the internet but it's often difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff (sorry about the mixed metaphor--wheat and hemp). Klingaman recommends the following website for "information about the benefits of hemp based on real science." The site is: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov (that's the National Center for Biotechnology Information).

For licensing information in Montana, call or email Ian Foley, with the Montana Department of Agriculture (phone 444-9454, or IFoley@mt.gov). Or, see Montana's webpage about licensing requirements: agr.mt.gov/Industrial-Hemp.

Finally, Robby Klingaman said he would be glad to answer readers' questions about industrial hemp. Use the company email at: topcropfarmsllc@gmail.com to post questions.

 
 

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