Illinois Valley Hemp, Part 2: Breaking Ground and Setting Roots

This article originally appeared in Garden Culture Magazine US29

Our first installment of Illinois Valley Hemp (US Issue 28) left you with somewhat of a cliffhanger! After more than a few hiccups setting up our hemp farm, torrential rains throughout May and June made it impossible to get the plants into the ground. But it can’t rain all the time, and eventually, the sun shines again. 

Here Comes The Sun

July brought us warm rays of hope. The rains subsided, and we were blessed with an entire month of perfect growing conditions, allowing us to finally get the small plants transplanted into the fertile Illinois soil. Since we have a 2,500-gallon water tank on-site, we can irrigate and fertigate as needed. 

After working the two fields and installing the irrigation system, only one of them was ready for planting. In the second field, cultivation was impossible due to the roots still in the ground from various trees and shrubs. All of the land we are using this first year has never been used for crop production, and so they had to be properly cleared before we began. One field had mostly grasses in it, which were easy to remove. The other field was a different story. Trees and shrubs primarily grew there, and they were a hassle to clear away. Luckily, we had some adjacent land with fewer trees that was easily cultivated; we were back on track!  

Transplant Time

Since the new field is positioned differently and further away from the first field, we had to move the water tank to a more centralized location. With the help of our trusty backhoe, we buried the tank just about halfway to keep the water cooler for a longer time.

The transplanting took several days to complete in the second week of July. Utilizing a 3.5-inch auger, we drilled directly through the plastic sheets and into the ground every five feet to line up with the emitters in the drip tape irrigation line. With the help of some generous volunteers, we were able to get all 3,000 plus plants in the ground in a matter of four or five days. We certainly do get by with a little help from our friends.

Food For Thought

Immediately after transplanting, the crop was given fertilizer and a beneficial substance mixture to combat any possible stress.

The first feeding is a simple one, but it’s essential for getting the young plants off to a strong start. We applied a mixture of Age Old Bloom (high phosphate), Age Old Kelp, and Age Old Soluble Mycorrhizae to help with initial root establishment, nutrient uptake, and growth. Very few plants were lost after transplant; we had a 95% success rate! 

After analyzing our soil tests, we determined that the ground is rich in nutrients and that bi-weekly feeding will be sufficient. We used the higher nitrogen Age Old Grow for the first couple of feedings to help facilitate robust vegetative growth. The plants were put into the ground late, so the goal was to boost growth before flowering began in mid to late August. 

After supplying the ever-important nitrogen applications, it was time to focus on the roots and soil biology. Age Old Fish and Seaweed help condition the soil to be more hospitable to the microorganism populations, which improves nutrient acquisition. 

Next, we will move onto the first application of the higher phosphate-containing Age Old Bloom. This works to increase flower sight development and allow the plants to bloom to their full genetic potential. With each feeding, we also apply low doses of Age-Old CalMag2, Age Old Kelp, and Age-Old Humic to help maintain healthy and robust plant growth.

Pest Management

When it comes to pest management, you are bound to hear many different approaches and advice from various growers. Some recommend using companion plants to keep pests and predators away from the cannabis. Others suggest using beneficial insects to combat attacks or highly integrated pest management programs. After working with many outdoor growers over the years, I believe a blend of all three methods is perhaps the best approach. We utilize a mix of a few different EPA exempt natural and organic pesticides on a rotation so the pests don’t build up a tolerance. EPA exempt, minimum-risk pesticides are the only types that can be used on hemp cannabis destined for CBD extraction and human consumption. These products are contact killers that won’t leave a harmful residue behind, especially when used at appropriate times. 

An essential part of our pest management program is keeping the farm as clean and tidy as possible. Harmful pests have fewer places to breed and reside; a clean environment is also very inviting to beneficial insects. So far this year, we’ve seen several beneficial insects, including praying mantis, ladybugs, and spiders. A good number of snakes around the perimeters keep large rodents at bay. So far, this approach has helped us avoid any significant infestations.

Research Is Crucial

To learn more about my crop, I’ve joined several CBD hemp groups on social media, and I also follow some CBD hemp forums. I have noticed a massive disconnect between traditional farmers (corn, soybeans, etc.) and the veteran cannabis growers that have helped progress the industry to where it is today. 

A handful of traditional farmers are approaching cannabis hemp the same way they approach a corn crop. They view it as a simple turn-key type operation which, from my experience, is not the best approach for thriving cannabis plants. There has been a lot of discussion in some of the groups and forums about using products like Round-Up to clear fields before planting, using restricted pesticides during the growing season, and using harsh chemical fertilizers. These are all things that should never even be considered when growing cannabis hemp for CBD, which is used by many as a form of medicine. The methods traditional farmers are bringing with them to this endeavor have no place whatsoever in the production of cannabis hemp. Many of these farms will likely fail due to low yields or because they won’t be able to pass the post-harvest testing of the crop. 

A friend of mine once said that hemp is not for farmers. He has a valid point; Cannabis is a sacred crop. A grower must be a slave to the plant and provide for it the way we would our children. From what I have seen, the tobacco growers out in the eastern US seem to have an excellent grasp on how to grow this beautiful plant.  

What Does The Future Hold?

As I write this article in mid-August, the plants are visibly transitioning into their flowering cycle. It’s incredible how much progress can be made in a month and a half, especially when the conditions finally begin to work in your favor. Still, we cannot afford to sit back and rest on our laurels. We are now approaching the most crucial point of the season: flowering and harvest when the plants need the most attention and uncertainty looms. I hope our late summer rains don’t come too soon and that we will be able to harvest some nice flowers without too many issues. To find out how this crucial next chapter plays out, tune in to the next installment of our series, Illinois Valley Hemp.

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Kyle L. Ladenburger is a freelance garden writer who has worked in the gardening/hydroponics industry for over a decade. As an avid indoor and outdoor gardener, he is well versed in nearly all types of growing methods with an overall focus on sustainability and maintaining healthy soils. He holds a strong conviction that growing one’s own food is a powerful way to change our lives and our world for the better.