Allison Justice Ph.D., CEO of The Hemp Mine & Cannabis Research Coalition, shares her top tips, insights, and lessons learned to help cultivators increase their chances of success when entering the hemp industry.
Starting a business can be a daunting experience. And while countless factors are involved in the process, some can be more important than others.
Here, Allison Justice, Ph.D., CEO of The Hemp Mine and Cannabis Research Coalition a vertically integrated hemp business in South Carolina, shares her top tips for success and advice she wishes she could tell her younger self when she first got into the business.
1. Start small.
Justice suggests starting out small, as many people may be unaware of how labor-intensive some of the cultivation processes can be. “Start smaller than your plans,” she says. “[Use] that first year to be able to get a handle on everything because there are a lot of things you’ll need to learn—hard learning lessons—and you’d rather learn how to [do things] at a smaller amount than a large amount.”
This may mean cutting down on your planned acreage to make processes simpler. The harvesting and drying process can be particularly labor-intensive, especially if growers don’t have the correct equipment to support these processes, she says.
“A lot of times the equipment that you can rent—let’s say a large oven dryer—the cost to rent that just doesn’t necessarily work out to be profitable in the end. Especially if you’re buying one, it could take a long time for you to get your money back,” she says.
Timing harvest can also be challenging for newer growers to navigate, as they usually miscalculate how long the process takes, she says.
“[With] harvest particularly, you’re kind of on a timer, not only by the state, but also by the plants themselves,” she says. “If it takes you 30 days to harvest, depending on your location, you might be running into the rainy season or [the plants] might be past their prime and start to get some sort of disease that ends up being a wasted crop or a partial crop. So, yeah, harvest has definitely tricked many people in the past, and [they] end up leaving plants in the field, or somehow they [get] ruined one way or another.”
2. Find a trusted buyer.
As a grower, you’ll want to successfully sell your crop, which is why Justice says it’s essential to find a trusted buyer or establish a plan before planting.
“One [situation] I’ve personally seen is [a buyer] saying, ‘Well if it’s not up to our standards, we won’t buy it.’ Well, it could be A-grade flower, [but] maybe they’ve already got too much flower for this season,” she says. “... So, then the farmer ends up paying way too much for those genetics from the get-go, and they’ve spent the season not looking for other buyers and making those connections because they think they have it accounted for. … Then, [they’re] left kind of at square one.”
Justice suggests seeking advice from other farmers and organizations in the industry to prevent this from happening. That way, they can provide recommendations and guidance on who they’ve worked with or what to look for when seeking partnerships.
3. Understand where you’re getting your plants from.
Just because a particular cultivar seems to grow well in California does not guarantee it will grow well in the Florida—Justice says this was her biggest lesson learned since she’s been in the business.
“Year one, … we wanted to grow 20 acres. So, in order to do that, we had to buy other genetics from other companies,” she says. “We purchased genetics from a group out of Colorado. And in 2018, we were paying $5 to $8 per plant. So, it was extremely expensive. In Colorado these plants did great. They had pictures, they had references—you name it. But when we brought it down to South Carolina, those plants flowered immediately after planting, and they were not very disease resistant.”
Looking back, she says it makes sense, as those plants were bred for a different region and climate. She suggests conducting extensive research to understand where you’re getting your plants from. Ask questions such as: Have these been grown in my region beforehand? How did they perform there? What did they look like? Does the company have references in my area specifically?
“There’s not just one plant that fits all,” Justice says.
4. Select cultivars based on what you’re growing for.
Are you growing for extracts? Are you growing for smokable flower? These are other essential questions to ask yourself when selecting cultivars, Justice says.
“Is it flower, which needs high terpenes? Is it a flower that has a higher percentage of a minor cannabinoid? Those are things I would say to think about and have a game plan for,” she says. “If you’re [growing for] smokable flower, maybe have a variety [of genetics]. So, instead of doing an acre of one cultivar, split it up so that way you have some flower of high CBG, high CBC, or maybe you have some that has a really high amount of terpenes, even though it might not have as many cannabinoids.”
Especially for smaller farmers, having a mixture of items to sell can be beneficial, as what’s in high demand in the industry and what’s not is constantly changing, she says.
“If you’re kind of spreading your cards over a couple of different bets of what [could] be in high demand after harvest, you could be in a better position overall,” she says.
5. Vet everyone.
Whether you’re buying plants or having products extracted, it’s important to vet everyone you could potentially work with, she says.
“If someone says, ‘Oh, I’ll extract your material [at a low price],’ well, maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe it’s a good reason, but ask that person, ‘Hey, do you have… [a] couple names of farmers you’ve extracted for in the past that I can call?’” she says.
Get feedback from actual farmers, not just the company you’re working with, to avoid being taken advantage of, she says.