The success of your CBD or CBG crop will depend on when and how you harvest your industrial hemp. Small decisions during the hemp harvesting process can have a big impact on your return on investment. The best practices of harvesting hemp are not yet set in stone, so farmers are learning how to harvest hemp through trial and error, and their methods are refined with each harvest season.
So, how do you harvest hemp? In this article, we’ll give you current best practices based on our experience working with industrial hemp farmers for almost a decade. It’s important to note right out of the gate that the best advice on how to harvest industrial hemp will depend on your particular hemp crop. Harvesting methods will differ depending on whether you’re harvesting for seeds, fiber, or oil. In this article, we’ll look specifically at how to harvest a hemp crop for CBD or CBG.
The harvesting process can be broken up into three broad phases:
- Choosing the right harvest time
- Harvesting your hemp
- Drying and curing your hemp
Part 1: Choosing the Right Time to Harvest Your Hemp
As a rule of thumb, full-term hemp requires 100 to 120 days to mature. Early finishers can be ready for harvest in 90 to 100 days, and autoflowers can finish in roughly 75 days. Your results, however, may vary, so monitor your crop closely as it gets close to maturation.
Choosing the right time to harvest your hemp will impact your ROI. If you harvest too early, your plants may not reach their full resin potential. Harvest too late, and your flowers could lose their potency. (Yes, CBD and CBG potency drops quickly after hemp plants reach maturity.)
To hammer home how important good timing is, consider that harvesting 1,000 pounds of hemp biomass with 7% CBD instead of 8% CBD will mean a loss of approximately 10 pounds of CBD oil. With CBD oil selling at roughly $5 per gram, losing just 1% of CBD potency will result in a loss of $20,000 per 1,000 pounds of biomass.
As if finding this balance wasn’t difficult enough, farmers must also keep in mind that THC rates rise quickly as hemp plants reach maturation. According to the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp farmers must keep their hemp crop below a 0.3% THC threshold. If you wait too long to harvest and your crop’s THC potency rises above 0.3%, you’ll have to throw away your entire crop.
How to Decide When to Harvest
For most farmers planting full-term hemp on a traditional schedule, harvest time will land between mid-August and early October. Farmers with a small hemp crop used to be able to use visual cues to determine the ideal time to harvest their crop. Looking closely, farmers could spot a plant’s trichomes (small, mushroom-like glands on hemp flowers). When the trichomes turn from clear to a milky white color, the plants are ready for harvest. Nowadays, even small farmers need to test to stay in compliance with regulations so going on visual clues is not recommended for beginners.
Industrial hemp farmers are better off determining the right harvest time by regularly testing their plants for cannabinoid content, pests, mildew, and contaminants. These tests can be costly, but they will more than make up their price by helping farmers start the harvest when their plants are at peak CBD or CBG potency. Additionally, most states require lab tests before a hemp harvest, so you’ll want to check the laws in your state. Know your state regulations and stay in compliance to ensure your harvest is ready for the market.
Weather May Dictate Your Harvest
Farmers also need to keep an eye on the sky when choosing the right time to harvest their hemp crop. Farmers in the north of the country or at high altitudes must watch for an early cold snap. Hemp is a robust plant, but it can’t survive a hard frost. Additionally, harvest season also coincides with hurricane season, so farmers on the East coast and Gulf coast need to track hurricanes and tropical storms. Heavy rain and wind can damage plants, wash away terpenes, and saturate hemp, making it more difficult to dry and cure.
Part 2: Harvesting Your Hemp
When it comes to how to harvest hemp, the right method will depend on what you intend your end product to be. If you plan on harvesting biomass for CBD or CBG extraction, you can simply use a combine to cut down your hemp. However, if you want to have boutique smokable flowers, there’s only one good option: you’ll need to harvest by hand.
Harvesting hemp by hand keeps the flowers clean and ensures that the resin trichomes in the flower stay intact, which is essential for providing a quality smokable product that looks great on the shelf. CBG trichomes are even more sensitive than CBD trichomes and require as few touch points as possible.
Harvesting hemp by hand is labor-intensive. Workers typically use machetes, shears, or tobacco knives to cut the stalks and bring the hemp to a waiting wagon or trailer. Where to cut the hemp depends on how the farmer intends to dry it. If you plan on screen-drying your hemp, you’ll want to cut smaller sections, so it is easier to lay them on the screens. If you are going to hang dry, you can afford to cut larger sections of the hemp.
Understanding Your Labor Needs
One of the most common mistakes new farmers make is underestimating the labor requirements of the hemp harvesting process. Farmers who don’t bring on enough labor could face dire financial consequences if their harvest falls behind schedule and their mature hemp plants run hot.
Farmers need to hire enough workers to efficiently harvest their hemp. They also need to build the harvesting time into their overall hemp schedule to make sure their plants don’t over-mature while the laborers work. It’s a good idea for workers to start harvesting hemp with the largest and densest flowers. Workers may also want to start by cutting top flowers first, leaving lower flowers to mature a little more before a second pass. The ACS Laboratory suggests that 15 experienced workers can harvest five to six acres of hemp per day.
New Farmers Should Start Small
We strongly recommend that farmers plant only a few acres of hemp for their first season, or even just a single acre. Planting a small amount of acreage will help farmers understand how much labor they need per acre of hemp, so they can scale up appropriately when they plant more next year. Also, planting a single acre of hemp lets farmers experiment with growing techniques and helps them understand how hemp performs on their farm before making a large investment in the crop.
Part 3: Drying and Curing Your Hemp
Some farmers send their hemp biomass directly to a processor after harvesting, but many choose to dry and cure the hemp on their property before this step. Drying the hemp helps lock in the hemp’s quality and potency. If a hemp plant isn’t cured properly, it could grow mold or lower the quality (and overall market value) of the product.
Drying is another part of the hemp harvesting process where farmers use different methods and are actively experimenting to improve their outcomes. All farmers will agree that drying requires a drying facility. This should be a roofed structure with good ventilation. Many farmers use a barn, shed, or warehouse to serve as their drying facility.
While drying methods vary, some farmers have suggested that the ideal environment is a temperature between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity at 60%. Farmers will need a temperature-controlled facility and should strongly consider installing dehumidifiers to get just the right environment for their crops.
Ventilation Is Key
One of the most important factors in the curing process is good ventilation. Farmers should work to achieve a slow, even dry through the use of multiple fans installed in the facility.
How to Dry Hemp
When it comes to drying hemp, methods vary. Some farmers use racks or screens. A common method is to hang hemp plants upside down from wires. If you plan to use this method, we recommend that you break off the branches of your hemp plants and hang them individually, ensuring that all the flowers are dried evenly. One final option is to use a mechanical dryer.
When Is Your Hemp Dry?
How dry does hemp need to be before a farmer can send it off to the processor? Typically, farmers will want to get below 15% moisture (below 12% is even better.)
Hemp biomass can dry quickly, reaching the right level of dryness in 24 to 36 hours. Drying hemp flowers will require more time. Depending on where a farmer lives and the setup of the drying facility, drying flowers can take between three and 10 days.
Curing Your Hemp
Some processors will expect farmers to go beyond drying their hemp and cure the hemp as well, which means taking out even more moisture. This will require several more weeks in the drying facility. Curing adds a lot of time to the drying process, but it also locks in the smell and taste of the smokable flowers.
During the drying and curing process, farmers will also want to test hemp plants one more time. The final test will let farmers know the CBD or CBG content of their crop and ensure the crop is under the THC limit. The test can also show any contamination that could affect the quality of the crop.
The last step in the curing and drying process will depend on what the processor asks for. Some farmers can send their dried hemp directly to the processors. Others will shuck the hemp, removing the stalk. Still, others will trim the hemp, cutting away the leaves and sending only the flowers. Trimming can be performed by hand or, for larger operations, with the help of a mechanical trimmer.
Have More Questions on How to Harvest Hemp?
Here at High Grade Hemp Seed, we get the question “how do you harvest hemp?” all the time, and the answer really depends on your goals, your budget, your farm, and your personal preferences. It turns out that the question of how to harvest industrial hemp has many different answers and none are necessarily wrong. If you still want to know how to harvest your hemp crop using our high-CBD seeds or our high-CBG strain, contact our representatives today and we would be glad to lend you our expertise.