In many ways, this year has been a favorable one for hemp harvests in Holtwood, Penn., says Steve Groff, owner of Cedar Meadow Farm.
He hasn’t run into any issues with weather, which can not only delay harvest, but also damage crops and breed disease. But inevitably, harvesting hemp for three different end uses comes with its challenges.
Groff is a third-generation farmer who has grown a variety of crops, from tomatoes to row crops. He uses regenerative techniques on his farm, including cover crops and no-till practices (which led to him writing a book, “The Future-Proof Farm”). This year, Groff planted less than an acre of hemp for CBD, 5 acres for fiber and, for his first time growing the hemp trio, 2 acres for grain.
With decades of experience farming, Groff has learned how to get creative with his processes while using equipment that’s easily available to him. When it comes to harvesting hemp, “I don’t have any special formula–I just do what works for me,” Groff says.
Since he began growing hemp for CBD in 2019, Groff has pivoted his focus from growing many plants–at one point, 20 acres’ worth–to scaling down and creating and honing his Cedar Meadow Farm CBD brand instead, which includes CBD topicals, tinctures (for both humans and pets) and more.
In that time, he’s also developed a relatively unique harvesting process for his biomass, which he mainly uses for extraction.
Groff has created a mobile assembly line of sorts. He has a 30-foot conveyor belt that connects to his tractor, which he drives out to the field. There, workers cut off the top colas of the plants and drop them on the conveyor belt, which feeds up to a trailer, where other workers store it in stackable trays–or, this year, hundreds of bread baskets Groff’s wife found on Facebook marketplace.
“This takes a little more time in the field, but then we don’t have to buck it,” Groff says.
From there, Groff stores the cannabis in a tractor-trailer equipped with a refrigerator unit and rental dehumidifiers, where he then monitors the flower and stirs it a few times a day. “In a week’s time, I can take the moisture down to 10%,” Groff says. “It’s a homemade operation, but it works.”
The process gives him a product he can run through an extractor without extra unwanted stems or leaves.
“It’s not for everybody,” Groff says. “I use what I have.”
Steve Groff has developed a unique process for harvesting cannabinoid hemp.
This is the second year Groff is growing hemp for fiber, partly due to partnerships he’s made with companies that have received grants from USDA to grow the crop for various studies, including one on soil health.
Groff secured BioPhil Fibers as a buyer for the crop, which made timing his harvest simple: BioPhil wanted stalks 12 feet tall, so he harvested the stalks when they reached that height in late August.
He used a double sickle bar mower to chop down the 5 acres, which worked well enough to get the job done.
“It cut them like a hot knife through butter,” Groff says.
The problem lied in the height of the lanky stems, which Groff says were “ropey” and difficult to handle. Groff says the job would have been made easier with equipment that chopped the stalks into more orderly pieces with one pass.
“Other than that, we can use existing hay equipment, so that’s the nice thing about it,” Groff says.
Groff let the fiber ret in the field, and after about two weeks of drying, he was able to bale it with a hay baler and “no issues.”
Grain, on the other hand, did present some issues for Cedar Meadow Farm.
Timing it was the easy part. Groff has connections with growers from Canada who helped him determine when to harvest. A little bird also helped guide him on when to harvest–literally. Groff says he realized the grain was ready when mourning doves and pigeons started flying in the field and eating the seeds.
The harvest process itself was another story. After learning his John Deere combine was too old to convert to harvest hemp grain, he tried to use it as-is. He knew wrapping could be an issue, and sure enough, as he cut through the stalks, he saw smoke start to rise from the combine.
“We had to shut down the combine and find out where it wrapped. We had to get the saw out and untangle it,” Groff says.
The harvest itself wasn’t the only, or even the worst, problem.
“The hardest part is drying it immediately after harvest,” Groff says, adding that the grain can begin to spoil in a matter of hours if not stored properly.
Groff didn’t have the room for a drying system but quickly learned it was essential to prevent constant stirring and monitoring of the grain. After giving grain a go, Groff says this is likely his last year growing the crop due to the numerous challenges.
Finding What Works
For Groff, though, experimentation is just a part of farming–trying new things and finding what works without making large investments.
“It all depends on your scale and what you have access to,” Groff says.
He’s been tweaking his process since he began growing hemp in 2019. For example, the first year he grew hemp for cannabinoids, he discovered his neighbor had a greenhouse set up to cure tobacco that he wasn’t using, so Groff was able to use that to hang and dry his crop.
“That’s no longer available to me, so it forced me to change what I do,” Groff says.
Another important factor to consider when developing your harvest process, Groff says, is figuring out what you would need to do if you wanted to scale up.
“I would know how to scale up if I had to. It would be complicated, but I know how to do that,” Groff says. “Everyone needs to figure that out.”