This article originally appeared in Garden Culture Magazine US30.
The previous installment of the Illinois Valley Hemp series left you in mid-August when our plants were developing flowers. As the days passed by, the skies became darker earlier.
Cannabis, including hemp varieties, is traditionally a short day (long night) plant, meaning it requires long periods of darkness to initiate the flowering cycle.
There is a variety called Ruderalis that is day-neutral and flowers after it hits a certain point of development. Plants containing genetics from the Ruderalis strain are often referred to as “auto-flowering” cannabis.
This variety is not large and is rarely grown commercially outdoors due to its relatively low yield at harvest time.
The indica and sativa cultivars (hemp is of the sativa variety) are short-day plants and don’t start flowering until after the summer solstice when the nights are longer. Aggressive vegetative growth happens before they begin to flower. As a result, it isn’t uncommon to see outdoor plants grow five-feet tall and higher.
Throughout the rest of August and into mid-September, we were blessed with perfect weather. Daytime temperatures remained steady in the mid-’80s with the occasional rainfall occurring every 10-14 days. There was a calm feeling at the farm with overtones of increasing anticipation as we watched the flowers develop. Though we were all feeling more relaxed compared to the hectic months at the beginning of our experience, there was still plenty of work to be done, and we couldn’t be lazy before harvest.
In early September, we were reminded of the impending arrival of autumn as the cicadas graced us with their presence. The work done during this time was accompanied by the constant clicking of the cicada’s song, which was oddly soothing. The plants continued to receive a bi-weekly feeding of Age Old Nutrients, but the higher nitrogen Age Old Grow was replaced with Age Old Bloom, which has a higher concentration of phosphorus. When a plant is in the vegetative growth cycle, it requires higher levels of nitrogen to maintain the development of stems, branches, and leaves. A plant’s vegetative growth directly correlates to the number of flowers it can produce. So the more, the merrier!
Once the crop flowers, the plants require less nitrogen and more phosphorus. Switching to a higher phosphorus fertilizer blend in this stage encourages more flowering spots and better flower development. Too much nitrogen in the flowering stage can also force a cannabis plant to create male flowers, thus turning it into a hermaphrodite. The plant would then, in turn, pollinate itself and start creating seeds, which is undesirable for our crop since it is destined for CBD flowers and extracts.
As the flowers developed, we continued to regularly walk the fields to closely monitor the plants, making sure that none of them had turned male on us and that the bugs and other pests weren’t harming them. Our hard work had paid off, and the growing environment was pleasant, so we didn’t find a single plant that had developed male flowers. Sometimes, high-stress levels can force female cannabis plants to start growing male reproductive parts during the flowering cycle. When this happens, there is no choice but to extract the entire plant from the field before it can pollinate others.
I was surprised at how lucky we were when it came to bug and other pests infestations because they were few and far between. There was nothing that wasn’t easy to handle with natural and organic methods. Despite our good fortune, I hesitate to use the word ‘luck’. We implemented a rather comprehensive integrated pest management (IPM) strategy throughout the season, and it helped us avoid significant pest problems. We applied liquid organic pesticides weekly and rotated between four products to keep the bugs from building up a tolerance to any single one. In the flowering stage, we added a BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) spray in a two-week rotation to combat caterpillars, which are troublesome to cannabis flower production. The moths lay their eggs on the flower buds, then the emerging caterpillar consumes the flower and its excrement causes bud rot. A bacteria strain that coats the leaves, when a caterpillar eats BT, its digestive system is affected, causing it to stop eating and eventually die. The product is effective, reasonably priced and approved for organic crop production.
The autumnal equinox graced us with its presence on September 23rd, and along with it came our regular fall rainy season. Late season rain can often result in significant problems for outdoor cannabis. Various fungal infections such as powdery mildew, black mold, and late-season blight thrive in the cool, wet conditions of early fall. The parts of the plant closest to the ground are most at risk, and these infections can cause significant loss to a portion of the crop. Once again, we were fortunate and didn’t have any major fungal issues. One factor that was on our side is the fact that in Northern Illinois, fall brings along more wind than we usually get in the summer. The winds help dry the plants off faster after rain, limiting the ability of a fungal infestation to take hold.
As the flowers continued to mature, we started doing regular testing of both THC and CBD cannabinoids. By law, any hemp plants testing over 0.3% THC are considered illicit and must be destroyed. However, we wanted the CBD percentage to reach its maximum potential, so regular testing from a third-party lab was crucial. The CBD/THC levels do not rise at a predetermined gradual rate. Instead, they increase slowly at the beginning, and then, when the bud is reaching full maturity, the levels spike quickly, and the threshold of 0.3% can easily be surpassed if one is not careful. We were pleased to have our last lab results come back between 15-18% CBD and around 0.2% THC. At this point, we felt it was a safe time to harvest, so we began doing so on October 9th. As I write this article, we are about two-thirds of the way through clearing the fields.
From a potential profit standpoint, it made sense for us to dry the crop ourselves instead of paying someone else to do it for us. We ended up renting a large pole barn shed that we modified for better climate control. When drying cannabis, it is essential to have accurate control of temperature, humidity, and airflow. As the plants dry, we continue to explore possible avenues of distribution and to determine whether or not the crop will be trimmed into smokable CBD flowers, or processed through oil extraction. At this point, it’s looking like it will be a mixture of both.
Before wrapping this series up, I want to share some of the things I’ve learned over the season. First of all, farming is arduous work and the more acres involved, the harder it becomes. Especially when everyone involved already has a full-time job. All forms of agriculture require a considerable amount of hard work. Still, farming hemp cannabis on a large scale is even more labor-intensive since, for the most part, farming implements and machinery have not been designed or modified for this particular crop. Another takeaway is that farming is stressful and filled with many ups and downs. From the sheer magnitude of the tasks to be done to the fact that the weather is entirely out of your control, raising a large crop is not for the faint of heart or for those who think the workday ends after eight hours. You work until the job is done or until it’s too dark to see anymore. Finally, I discovered that outdoor cannabis grows exceptionally well in North Central Illinois, even if the crop goes into the ground later than desired. Great soil, combined with consistent weather patterns makes this region perfect for cannabis production. I expect to see many more fields growing next year.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the Illinois Valley Hemp series as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. I will never forget this experience, and I look forward to doing it even better the next time around. If anyone needs me next season, I’ll be in the fields.
For more in the Illinois Valley Hemp series: