NEW LONDON—Despite being one of the oldest cultivated crops in history, the hemp industry—at least in the U.S.—is only just beginning to re-establish its roots, dogged for decades by legal issues and social stigma.
However, in the wake of the 2018 Farm Bill, which federally recognizes hemp as an agricultural crop, and with research confirming the medical efficacy of cannabinoids, enterprising farmers throughout the country are hoping to cash in on the myriad of products derived from the plant.
But given the notoriously unstable nature of the plant’s genetic makeup paired with new market uncertainty, the business of hemp is high-risk, high-reward—dubbed by one member of the county’s renewable energy committee as “the wild, wild west of agriculture.”
Among the 444 licensed growers in the state: Kevin Ortenblad and his daughter Kara Elliott. Following two years of experimentation, research and development, the New Londoners have recently begun selling their first batches of genetically-modified hemp.
These seeds will be sold to farmers throughout the country and portions of Europe. Plans also are underway to sell hemp-based gummies, tinctures and topical oils from the farm site, itself.
This strain is among one of several produced “Hemponix,” a 5,000-square foot climate-controlled aeroponics facility off of County Road 40. Initially opened in 2018 [as a] lettuce farm “Lettuce Abound LLC,” Ortenblad transitioned to hemp in February of 2019 after being approached by a company in Oregon to grow seed for the industrial hemp industry. Fortunately, his custom-made aeroponics system lent itself well to hemp.
Although Ortenblad continues to experiment with several growing methods, most of the company’s hemp is grown using a system similar to what was used to produce lettuce. Each seed is collected from a mother plant, and placed in a tiny cube of soil set beneath a bay of lights—18 hours on, six off.
After “vegging out” for several weeks, the plants are slotted into one of a number of hollow shelving units spanning the length of the facility. Once transplanted these shelves, a computer-regulated arm sprays the exposed roots with nutrient-rich water on 40-50 minute intervals. All water is recycled back into the system, reducing waste, and the precise mixture can be adjusted as needed at any point in the growth stage.
When the plants reach their desired height, flowering is induced by switching the light cycle from 18 hours on, six off, to 12 on, 12 off. Finally, they are dried and placed in a thresher, separating the seeds from the biomass.
“Our goal is to get about 150 seeds per plan,” Ortenblad said; “and we’ve got about 1,300 plants per row.” (Currently, less than half of the shelves are in use, and expansion is dependent on the level of demand.)
In total, the timeline from seed to harvest takes about three months. This is slightly faster than the natural rate, but far more efficient; vertical farming saves about 98% more water than traditional methods, and packs the equivalent of 150 acres of field into an area smaller than a football field. Closed environments also extend the growing season to a year-round cycle and eliminate the need for pesticides and herbicides.
Unlike lettuce production, which required staff to wear sterilized gowns when entering the facility, “suiting up” is the no longer required with hemp, as the product is not marketed directly for human consumption. However, that’s not to say quality control is any easier with this crop, the genetics of which Ortenblad described as “enormously unstable.”
“[Typically], If you plant two different hemp seeds, you could get two different hemp plants. Unlike seed corn, where if you plant two seeds of one variety, you’re almost guaranteed to get the same plant. What we’ve been stressing, is if you plant one New London Gold here in Minnesota, and you plant another one in Ohio, you are literally going to have the same plant show up. There might be some small differences such as aroma and things like that, but the basic genetic makeup is going to be identical.”
And that’s good news for farmers.
The risk of a hemp crop “going hot,” or mutating via cross-pollination with other strains and exceeding the federal THC limit of 0.3% has been a deterrent for potential farmers, who would be required to destroy their crop if this allowance threshold for the psychoactive compound is surpassed. In portions of Europe, this threshold is even tighter, at 0.2%.
“Our main market is to sell a safe seed that will stay in compliance [with these limits],” Ortenblad said. “So what we’ve been trying to do is stabilize varieties so that if farmers plant it outside, they don’t have that fear of ‘going hot’ and having to burn their field.”
While Ortenblad’s seeds fall well below the THC limit, testing consistently below .01% and as low as .0375% 10 days prior to harvest, it would take two years of tinkering before their first batch would be sold—a milestone reached in July of this year.
“We started with literally thousands of plants that we tested to narrow down to seven,” explained Elliott, daily operations manager. Those few making the final cut would go on to serve as “mother plants,” from which portions would be cut and transplanted to produce the seed-producing clones used in today’s operation.
Using a polymerase chain reaction test, or simply PCR test, said Ortenblad: “We tested every plant and threw out the ones that didn’t meet the results we were after. We take a tissue sample from the plant and put it in special solutions and those are heated. The solution separates the DNA. Then that material is put through another round of enzymes and heated, and that results give us a more detailed picture of the plant’s characteristics. The plants that give us the right combination of traits are the plants we keep. The other plants get tossed out. Once mothers were chosen, those plants were the ones that we took the clones from. We still made some checks to make sure that they were still what we wanted, but by cloning them we were assured that the DNA traits would follow the plants.”
After identifying the desired strain, pollen is collected from the mother and used to induce male flowers on a female plant. “If we had a regular male in here, it would be devastating to our crop, because that would produce male offspring in the seed,” Elliott said. “The male flower is the only thing that carries pollen, so in our facility, we have one variety that we create pollen with, because once you get more than one variety, you’re cross-pollinating and have no control.”
CBG shows promise
Although CDB oil has gained popularity in recent years due to its multitude of health benefits, for now, much of the company’s efforts are focused on producing the CBG cannabinoid through production of “New London Gold.”
Cannabigerol, often shortened to CBG, is one of the “big six” cannabinoid present in the Cannabis Sativa plant. Hemp plants contain 114 cannabinoid in all, but science has only begun to understand what just a few of these compounds do when they react to the human body, Ortenblad said.
“While CBD and CBG share many of the same therapeutic and beneficial properties, CBG is gaining popularity, and some growers and producers are beginning to make the shift toward its production. The biggest advantage to a CBG plan is the lack of THC that the plant produces, which makes it a great choice for compliance in all states that have a 0.3% limit (like Minnesota).”
Research into the benefits of CBG is still relatively new, but results are encouraging, and indicate the compound can be effective in ways CBD is not. Among the benefits suggested by ongoing research: inhibiting the growth of certain cancer cells, protection from nerve cell degeneration, treating inflammatory bowel disease and stimulating appetite in those suffering from cachexia, the condition of muscle-wasting and extreme weight loss associated with late-stage cancer.
However, CBG shows particular promise in treating brain injuries and neurological disconnections, according to Ortenblad. Having sustained a series of sports-related concussions of his own, Ortenblad began taking CBG supplements two years ago—a treatment he likens to “walking out of a foggy room.”
“I’ve got five areas in my brain that are totally dead—never coming back. . .When I started taking [CBG], sort of out of the blue, it cleared my mind right up.”
Still, while CBG may prove to be a boon to the agriculture industry in coming years, Ortenblad doesn’t anticipate his aeroponics system taking off as the new norm.
“It’s a very complicated system to run. Even though it works very well for us. . .everyone else wants to grow a great big plant with great big buds on it. And so for seed production, this is probably a good efficient way to grow in Minnesota. But in Colorado, for instance, greenhouses may be just as efficient.”
And as for that original group of seven plants, now reaching the end of their life? After producing thousands of clones and “starting it all,” “We’re going to have a little funeral for them,” he jokes. “These are some tired mothers, and we’re going to put them to rest.”
Lakes Area Review by Brett Blocker, Editor