It's harvest season for anyone growing cannabis outdoors in Michigan. The hair-like strands in the flowers are turning golden, and the trichomes are getting milky. Growers are eyeing the colas, or the large clumps of buds at the top ends of the branches — the biggest, most potent flowers on the plant.
Ann Arbor's Bob Darden is calculating crop yield as he plans to bring in his first cannabis crop any day now. But Darden won't be getting high off his flowers — he grows hemp plants for the CBD, or the non-psychoactive compounds found in marijuana. It's something he first found useful for his dogs, three Giant Schnauzers named Twister, Tsunami, and Fahren (short for Fahrenheit).
"I was giving CBD to my dogs because they're older and not running around easily," says Darden.
The CBD seemed to work for his dogs, and Darden was buying vials of the stuff. He was having conversations with a friend about industrial hemp and the medical value of CBD. Somewhere along the way it occurred to Darden, "I can grow this stuff."
But he didn't have any experience with "this stuff." He sells medical equipment. His home in Ann Arbor is just a few doors away from that of Mayor Christopher Taylor, so one wouldn't think of the environs as the first spot to start a hemp farm. Darden says he mentioned his intentions to Taylor in passing, and the mayor had no qualms about it.
The inexperienced Darden went online to try and figure things out. He started attending Detroit NORML meetings to help learn about the landscape and meet other people in the cannabis business.
Darden started without any grand plan, just taking it a step at a time to see where this thing goes. He got a hemp license from the state for $100 — one of the 600 hemp growing licenses in Michigan this year. The low cost made it easy to get started compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars it takes to get into the medical marijuana business.
He got 120 seedlings of dwarf industrial hemp plants from a friend in west Michigan who runs a plant nursery. These dwarf plants are grown for the flowers — the kind grown for the fiber is a taller plant.
He bought drip tape, topsoil, and a lot of mulch. The setup work was the hardest, building raised mounds in long rows as he prepared three plots. Darden put the plants in the ground in early July, and set up signs letting folks know that the plants are industrial hemp.
"I have to educate everybody that walks by," Darden says. "They all know what marijuana looks like. I explain that there are two kinds of cannabis. They sort of smile nicely and nod their heads. I have my license posted right at my door. I think people understand that hemp is legal."
Marijuana is legal too, although not to grow in large plots in plain sight the way Darden does.
Everything here is organic, without chemical fertilizers. Darden says he uses fish emulsion and compost from a local nursery. He wanted to use only off-the-shelf products in his garden. The biggest of his plants, those that get full sunlight, are five to six feet tall and about four feet wide.
Twister, Tsunami, and Fahren have the run of the place. When they come in from running around in the hemp field, "They smell real good," Darden says.
These are plants grown for the flowers and the CBD oil that they will yield. Darden estimates that he might get 70 pounds of dried flower from the crop — getting 3/4 pound off the biggest plants. But he really doesn't know. Nor does he know what percentage of CBD they'll have. It's all new to him. At one point he thought he'd get a pound per plant, but that was wishful thinking. One thing's for sure, with hemp flower going for $50 to $100 per plant: It's not about the money — certainly not the crazy money that some folks dream of with cannabis.
Darden can't even harvest the crop without getting a state processing and handling license. That involves sending the state a sample 15 days before the harvest and paying another $1,350 for the license.
That's the next step of the process, and it will happen this month. Then there's going to be drying all that stuff. Darden thinks he'll have to clean out his garage in order to hang it in there. He's not sure where and how to process the hemp — or if he's even going to do that. He's thought of just keeping it and giving it to friends.
"I just wanted to know if a small neighborhood grow is viable," says Darden. "If I want to go further and do an extraction, I've been working with a group ... you can stop there and have just the crude oil ... maybe process it for pet food."
Even so, finding other hemp pioneers in the area has sparked the possibility of dreaming a little bigger. And some of these folks are watching Darden to help figure out their own directions. All of them may just be getting educated and positioning themselves for things to come.
"When 2020 USDA regulations come out, that's when there is going to be a big surge in growing," he says. "There's a lot of options, the big companies are waiting on the sidelines to see what the USDA is going to do. They have thousands of acres ready to go."
At this point, Darden isn't thinking of thousands of acres. He wonders what you can do on one acre. His plots are governed by state research rules that require a year-end report to Michigan State University. Regarding the possibility of turning it into some kind of business, he's leaning more toward specialty services built up around local producers. Maybe he can help create a central processing facility for other small players. He looks at the craft beer industry as a model.
"With a smaller, more personalized grow, you're going to get a higher quality product," Darden says. "I think there's a craft niche for flowers."
This is the season when the cannabis flowers are flowering, as is the cannabis business in Michigan. CBD flowers are starting to crop up in the market. That's something new — not a big part of the cannabis game, but a place where somebody can find their comfortable space.
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