Among the most critical decisions a hemp cultivator makes is where to source seeds. Without a reliable provider for hemp seed genetics, cultivators risk losing an entire crop to disease, or worse, harvesting plants that test over acceptable limits for THC.
In Kentucky, for example, a company called Elemental Processing is suing HP Farms (an Oregon-based hemp seed supplier) for selling seeds that were mostly male instead of feminized, which produce hemp plants that are high in CBD (female plants are those that are grown to full maturity for eventual harvesting, whereas male plants die off shortly after having complete pollination). Elemental Processing is claiming damages of approximately $44 million in lost profits from the mix-up.
The suit underscores the tremendous risk that cultivators take when purchasing uncertified, high-CBD hemp seed genetics, says Robert Hoban, managing partner at Hoban Law Group and chairman of International Hemp Solutions (IHS). Through its Bija Hemp subsidiary, IHS licenses certified hemp seed varieties from the Polish Institute of Natural Fibers and Medicinal Plants, the world's oldest industrial hemp institute.
According to Hoban, most hemp varieties that purportedly produce high yields of CBD come from sources which may or not deliver as promised, given that high-CBD hemp strains remain relatively new.
With little known about how such strains will perform under different circumstances, it is difficult to predict outcomes for germination rates, male-to-female ratios, or whether the plant will meet compliance-testing standards once it reaches maturity.
In contrast, yields from certified hemp varieties are more predictable because those strains have a long history of use. Hoban added that it is far cheaper to use certified hemp seed genetics than high-yield CBD strains.
High-yield CBD hemp seed genetics, on average, are worth around $0.60 to $5.00 per seed, and thus can cost farmers roughly $10,000 to $12,000 per acre to cultivate. Conversely, certified hemp seed genetics are usually priced around $20 per pound, and can cost about $600 per acre to cultivate. It is for those reasons that Hoban recommends that cultivators use certified hemp seeds, even if the yield on CBD is not quite as high.
"Farmers are misinformed that they have to go out and spend a lot of money on high-CBD genetics," Hoban said. "Those genetics are not stable, they're not certified, and they cost a lot more per acre to grow."
He added that companies which cultivate hemp only to extract CBD unintentionally exclude themselves from profiting through all the other uses for hemp (e.g., grain, fiber, or plastics).
"When you plant a feminized, uncertified hemp variety that's high in CBD, it has no other purpose than to service the CBD market," he explained. "There's not much else that you can really do with that plant."
While CBD is in high demand, as markets adjust to meet it, prices will inevitably decline. Growing hemp for multiple industries not only adds more revenue streams for farmers, but also serves to insulate cultivators from falling CBD prices.
"Certain people would have you to believe that CBD is the only reason we have a hemp market," Hoban noted. "That's not entirely accurate when there is a very stable and in-demand hemp grain and fiber market."
While there are advantages to using certified hemp seed genetics, the federal government has yet to embrace implementing a national seed certification program. In its interim hemp regulations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) held off on implementing a certification program because it was too difficult to predict how certain hemp varieties would fare under differing climates and growing conditions.
Nevertheless, at least five states have enacted laws which require the establishment of a hemp seed certification program, including Colorado, Missouri, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. Another four states — Kentucky, Montana, North Dakota, and Rhode Island — require that cultivators use certified seeds. including.
Though it may be difficult to predict how high-yield CBD strains will behave in various circumstances, Hoban forecasted that over the next few years organizations like the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies (AOSCA) will develop a program for high-CBD strains.
"Certification standards exist, but they don't make it easy for uncertified high-CBD genetics to enter the market," he said. "However, you're going to see AOSCA begin to develop a seed registration program that will allow breeders to bring new seed genetics into the marketplace, demonstrate and establish consistency, and put them on a path towards registration."