While hemp production is quickly becoming more popular in Colorado and the United States - 78,176 acres of hemp were grown across the country last year, compared to 25,713 acres in 2017, according to hemp advocacy group Vote Hemp - the industry is still sometimes likened to the Wild Wild West.
Some farmers don't necessarily know what equipment is needed or what best practices exist for planting, growing and harvesting because the industry is still young and developing.
In other words, there's a certain lack of institutional or foundational knowledge.
La Junta resident Duane Stjernholm along with Phillip Chavez, began a series of experimental hemp grows, with two sites outside Rocky Ford, under the Colorado Hemp Processing Cooperative, co-founded by Stjernholm and his wife.
Stjernholm, through the cooperative, is on a quest to develop that missing foundational knowledge, he said.
The scope of the cooperative's project so far includes a seed plot in Moffat County that was planted on May 23, a seed-to-seed plot in Rocky Ford planted June 21, and a CBD plot with live plants, which was planted across several days between May 13 and 20. Stjernholm and Chavez worked together to coordinate the plots and plant the hemp.
The CBD live plant plot consists of 23 acres divided into four roughly equal sections. In each section, Stjernholm and Chavez are experimenting with one or several fertilizers or applications, said Stjernholm: rock dust fertilizer, biochar and phytonutrients.
Different amounts of the applications are to be applied in each section except for the fourth, which will serve as the cooperative's control plot. The goal is to see how hemp grows under varying combinations of biochar, phytonutrients and rock dust fertilizer.
The first section utilizes a rock dust fertilizer produced by U.S. Soil, a company based in Salida. Stjernholm said it has a perfect blend of minerals and elements to be used as a fertilizer.
"That's good because the microbiome utilizes those minerals to help feed the roots," said Stjernholm. "Roots: A lot of their photosynthetic process is dedicated to making this stuff they call liquid carbon."
Stjernholm described liquid carbon as a honey-like substance that's exuded from plant roots. It rewards the microbiome living in the soil around the roots with nutrients, Stjernholm said, and in return the microbiome, consistent of bacteria, helps promote the plant's growth.
The second section utilizes not just rock dust fertilizer but also biochar and phytonutrients.
Biochar is a carbon-rich charcoal composed of biomass decomposed at high temperatures.
"It’s like a microbiome condo," said Stjernholm. "Plus, it helps retain water."
"This particular plot is irrigated with a drip system," said Stjernholm of the first section. "It’s very water-conservative, so it’s probably one of the best types of systems. If you use an overhead pivot system, you lose a lot to evaporation."
The cooperative planted about 500,000 plants per acre at the live plant site just outside of Rocky Ford.
"That's the agricultural way to do it," said Stjernholm. "What that does is, it gets (the hemp) to sprout up and create a canopy over the ground so that the weeds can't get any sun."
Each plant was spaced about three feet apart to allow for bushy canopies to develop. The closer the hemp plants are planted to each other, the straighter they will grow upward. Providing a few feet of space between plants should encourage bushier growth to shield weeds sprouts from sunlight, said Stjernholm.
The cooperative is currently experimenting with hemp produced for its CBD potential. But long-term, the cooperative wants to focus on what Stjernholm called agricultural hemp - crops harvested for their strong fibers with potential applications in construction, clothing and a whole slew of other industries.
Stjernholm sees more utility in agricultural hemp, and he also thinks that as time goes on and CBD becomes more and more established, the agricultural side will become the more lucrative side of the blossoming industry.
"Now the CBD market’s still booming, the demand is still going up, but the supply is just going to go up exponentially," said Stjernholm. "Because last year in Colorado they grew about 24,000 acres of hemp. This year it’s going to be well over 100,000.
"You’ve got all these other states coming on board. The demand is still there but at some point those two curves are going to cross and the bottom’s going to kind of fall out of that market," said Stjernholm.
Stjernholm said he's trying out biochar, rock dust fertilizer and phytonutrients because he wants a healthy, herbicide-free way to assist plant growth and aid in providing nutrients to the soil.
Data from the project won't be available for another month to six weeks, Stjerhnholm said.
"The real results will be the height of the seed plants as well as the amount of seed we get with each protocol," said Stjernholm. "The CBD plants will be evaluated on the percentage of CBD in the flower."