First hemp harvest underway

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In this photo taken Thursday, June 20, 2019, packaged smokable hemp flower is seen on the counter at the Hemp Farmacy in Raleigh, N.C. A proposed ban on smokable hemp is making its way through North Carolina’s General Assembly after the product’s popularity surged in the six months since the passage of the federal Hemp Farming Act of 2018. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

MOUNT AUBURN, Ill. (WCIA) — For the first time in 200 years, the Nagel family farm grew a new crop. The classic Illinois staples of corn and soybeans still cover a majority of the farm, but across 10 plots in the back, Penny Nagel tried her hand at something new. She is one farmer in the state growing hemp.

The Illinois Department of Agriculture distributed the first hemp growing licenses last Spring, but after that, farmers had to fend for themselves. 

“We had some guidelines as to what we were supposed to do, like spacing out the rows, spacing out the plants, how to harvest, how to dry and how to cure,” Nagel said. “But a lot of this has just been learning as we go.”

Growing hemp is much more of a chore than other crops. All of the farm equipment farmers use, giant combines and powerful tractors, don’t work for hemp. The fibrous plant will clog the machines. Nagel said she’s heard of other farmers’ tractors catching fire. 

All of the harvesting has to be done by hand. Nagel has a few workers helping her. They cut, collect, dry and cure each plant by hand. While it is difficult and time-consuming, her workers are more than happy to do it.

“It was totally worth it. That is just how working on a farm is,” Alex Mann said. “You just have to deal with it.”

The process led Nagel to re-purpose some of her farm. A corn bin she said used to be state-of-the-art in the early stages of her family’s farm is now a drying area for her new crop.

She is hoping it will all be worth it in the end. Hemp can be used for either its fiber or for the bud. The fiber can be used for all sorts of different textiles and the bud can be used for its CBD oil content. 

Nagel will sell her hemp for the CBD oil. She is just hoping she has enough left to make a profit. Nagel’s farm was already plagued with all the same problems farmers across the Midwest face. A historically wet spring followed by several dry spells through the summer led to a sizable chunk of her crop not being ready for harvest. 

Nagel originally planted 10 acres of hemp. While she never expected to harvest all ten acres, she ended up with less than she expected. She has three and a half acres left.

“We are hoping to triple what our input costs were, and make a profit, but this has been hard,” Nagel said. 

The Illinois Department of Agriculture gave Nagel’s farm a multi-year license. Even if she doesn’t turn a profit this year, she said this will be a learning experience.

“This moment, it does not feel good, but on the other side, now that we are harvesting, I am feeling a lot more confident about the whole experience,” Nagel said. “And I know next year we will be able to do better.”

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