Hemp can provide sustainable alternatives to medicine, textiles, building materials and fuel, with the global market expected to reach $13.03 billion by 2026. When the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp production in the US, it created a gold rush seldom seen in agriculture. Farmers eager to profit from the bonanza pivoted to cultivate the cash crop, but a lack of experience harvesting hemp created a deluge of low-quality product, with the price of CBD biomass dropping nearly 80% from 2019 to 2020.
The hemp industry is often segmented into fibre, seed and flower markets, with the latter divided between smokable flower and biomass for extraction. The fibre and seed markets are largely controlled by a few longstanding producers, which dominate cultivation and dictate price. The value of fibre, seed, flower and biomass differs based on location, but market research revealed hemp seed in North Dakota can fetch up to 60c/ lb, while biomass in North Carolina tops out at $120/ lb. In Tennessee, premium hemp flowers can command up to $1,000/ lb, which is more than double the price of silver.
According to the National Hemp Association, the flower market remains the most viable and lucrative for aspiring farmers. The CBD oil market is projected to be worth $2.9 billion by 2025, with the smokable flower category alone poised to increase fivefold to reach $300 million in the same period. Hemp flowers with the greatest density of cannabinoids, specifically CBD, command the highest price point. Once dried and trimmed they can be sold as a final smokable product or processed for extraction with minimal effort. Smokable flowers have a value almost twenty times that of biomass for extraction, which illustrates how the same crop’s value can differ greatly based on the grower’s expertise. For hemp to realize its true potential as a cash crop, farmers need a strategy that enhances harvesting to produce superior flowers.
In the Northern Hemisphere the vast majority of hemp farmers harvest in October, when flowers have matured for optimal cannabinoid content. This drives competition and provides an incentive to be first to market, as it enables farmers to benefit from early business opportunities before supply meets demand. However, being first is not enough, farmers must also produce hemp rich in CBD for the crop to achieve its highest value. A failure to do so could see harvests destined for biomass extraction at a significantly lower price. This creates a dilemma for farmers as they need to expedite and enhance crops simultaneously. To not only be first, but also finest to market, farmers must streamline the hemp harvesting process.
First to market
As soon as hemp is harvested its cannabinoids and terpenes are degraded by sunlight, oxygen and heat. When plants are cut and left to dry in the field, pathogens may develop that ruin the entire crop. If farmers avoid this disaster, CBD levels will still drop considerably with the weight of wet plants prone to crushing prized flowers. This could result in the harvest being unsellable as smokable flower, with a reduced value even for extraction. To mitigate this threat, hemp needs to be harvested and stored as quickly as possible.
Properly dried hemp enhances the unique characteristics of flower and prevents degradation in storage. This can help farmers ride market volatility and hold onto harvests to achieve the highest price. Bucking and trimming hemp prior to storage accelerates the drying process and reduces the opportunity for mould to form. It also removes sections with limited cannabinoids and value, which is beneficial when drying thousands of plants at once. Hemp needs to be kept in a well-ventilated space with plenty of room, between 60°F and 70°F, to retain CBD. To do this efficiently and decrease degradation relies on farmers avoiding bottlenecks, by securing their required harvesting capacity ahead of time.
The required harvesting capacity is dependent on projected yield and the timeframe in which the hemp needs to be market ready. Analyzing this timeline, in connection with expected yield, can help identify the processing speed needed to move hemp into storage. Hemp will typically produce 1 lb of flower per plant, which on an average farm would yield 10,000 lbs. To process 10,000 lbs in a 40-hour working week would require bucking and trimming machines with feed rates of 250 lbs/hr.
De-stemming 10,000 lbs of hemp manually would be a huge task, which could take weeks to complete. On average a person is capable bucking 15 lbs of wet hemp an hour, while specialist bucking machines have feed rates that exceed 1,000 lbs in the same timeframe. To achieve the same processing speed would require a 60 strong team, which even on an hourly rate of $15 would cost $900 every hour. The longer hemp is damp the longer it is susceptible to mildew, which heightens the need for speed once plants are harvested.
Despite its legality, hemp is still a highly controlled crop with regulatory testing for both cannabinoids and contaminants. Falling foul of either can require entire crops to be destroyed, at the farmer’s expense. To avoid this fate, many rely on bucking machines to carefully remove flowers from plants quickly. In addition to destemming plants swiftly, elite bucking solutions preserve stalks which can be processed separately for fibre to supplement income. Industry leading de-stemming machines also ensure prized larger flowers are kept intact, with the crop’s aesthetic vital to achieve a high price point. Whether to trim flowers wet or dry to enhance this aesthetic is open to debate, but it is universally agreed that trimming can set a farmer’s hemp flowers above the competition.
Finest to market
Precise trimming that perfects the appearance of hemp is not only prized in the smokable flower market, but it also highly valued by hemp processors. Well-trimmed hemp flowers demonstrate that the crop has the maximum cannabinoid to weight ratio, without surplus leaves and stalks. If hemp flowers are de-stemmed and trimmed, then the flowers are ready for cannabinoid extraction with minimal effort.
Elite trimming solutions are capable of processing up to 3,000lbs of wet hemp per hour, with results almost indistinguishable from hand-trimmed flower. This is vital for hemp farmers as hand trimming thousands of plants is impractical, especially with tight market deadlines to meet. A 10,000 lb harvest would typically take a 60 man crew over 150 days to complete, which would not only be unreasonable but uneconomical. Automated trimming machines on the other hand are capable of substantially higher processing rates, for significantly less cost than the workforce’s wages.
Top-of-the line trimmers benefit from non-stick coatings that preserve trichromes and a flower’s cannabinoid profile. The best can also process both wet or dry hemp in a single machine, which provides greater harvesting versatility and increases their value. A wet trim can be used to further accelerate the drying process, with a dry trim applied to perfect the final appearance of flower. Once dry hemp should be cured to maximize flower quality, with cannabinoids and terpenes developing for weeks in the right conditions. The higher the cannabinoid and terpene content of flowers, the higher the price point the crop will be able to achieve. While curing is perhaps the most critical stage impacting flower potency, it also extends the post-harvesting process and delays the crucial time to market. Therefore, to streamline the final stages of premium hemp production successfully, growers need to save time within the harvesting process itself.
Hemp harvesting solutions
The easiest and most economical way to do this is through hemp harvesting solutions, which enhance harvesting speeds and standards to elevate flower above the competition. Hemp is a profitable cash crop when sold as smokable flower or for high-potency extraction, but relies on farmers refining and perfecting the critical harvesting process. They need to analyze their operation to determine harvesting capacity, then implement a robust strategy that benefits from elite harvesting solutions. By using specialist machinery to enhance the appearance of flower and mitigates degradation risks, farmers are equipped to produce premium hemp flowers that fetch the highest possible price. This is crucial to be both first and finest to market, with the value of the crop determined not only by the farmer’s experience growing hemp flower, but also their expertise harvesting it.
As a supplier of harvesting automation solutions, CenturionPro is committed to continue servicing customers during the COVID-19 crisis. By doing so we hope to improve the automation of the world’s cannabis producers. Allowing them to meet the growing demand while still complying with government-imposed restrictions and recommendations. To speak with us about how to improve harvesting automation at your farm or facility, please contact us at email@example.com or by phone at 1-855-535-0558 or 1.604.457.1101.
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