Illinois Dairy Farmers Diversify Into Growing Hemp

( Mark Baker )

In 1986, Mark Baker was fresh out of high school. Having grown up on a dairy farm he knew he wanted to farm someday. Unfortunately, his dad’s dairy farm succumbed to the high interest rates of the late 70s and he sold the farm. As Baker was looking around deciding what to do, a farm in his community came up for sale so he bought it. Since that time, he’s farmed with his wife and two sons. The Bakers milk 120 cows. The cows are their passion, but their specialty is farming. 

So, while milk prices were wallowing, Baker’s son Zach came to him with an idea: growing hemp. 

“The dairy business hadn’t been very good,” he says. “My sons and my wife we’re all in this together, and we saw this as an opportunity we shouldn’t let pass.”

Pursuing Profitability

Once it was legal in Wisconsin and Illinois, the two states where they farm, they launched Pursuit Hemp. The Bakers focus on hemp production for CBD oil. And of course, they’re leaning on their skill for growing crops to mechanize hemp production as much as possible. 

“One thing that my sons and I do well is we don't ever do anything the way it's supposed to be,” he says adding that hemp farmers in Colorado told them the way they were planting and harvesting would never work. 

This year, they’ve grown 55 acres of hemp. They planted the seed directly into the soil with a bio-film they bought from an Australian company creating a greenhouse effect. 

“We planted this in early April with 40 degree soil temperatures and they said it cannot be done,” he says pointing to hemp plants spaced 6 inches apart in his test plot at the dairy. “The other thing they said cannot be done is planting this close together.” 

Leaning on their planter knowledge and affiliation with Precision Planting as dealers, Baker and his other son Chad designed and built planter wheels for the first hemp Precision Planter in North America. Additionally, they’re leaning on their roots when it comes to harvest technique. Last year they hand harvested the hemp as is traditionally done, cutting the plants out of the field and hanging them to dry. 

“It took three weeks of hand labor,” Baker says. “I’ll never do that again.”

This year the Bakers will harvest their hemp with a traditional corn chopper using a non-directional corn head. With a chop length of 1 inch, the green chopped hemp will then go the dryer they built about a half hour from their farm. Once it’s dried, the CBD oil is extracted with a cold ethanol process at a nearby plant. 

Risk and Reward

Baker says the return on his hemp acres last year was around $55,000 per acre. Still, it’s an expensive crop to plant. 

“The seed alone costs $1.25 per seed,” he says. “I estimate total input expenses to range from $18,000 to $20,000 per acre.”

Additionally, it’s still not a crop that’s easily insured. In October, USDA announced it would release the rules and regulations necessary for hemp to qualify for the federal crop insurance program, but at that point harvest will be over for most farmers. 

Fuzzy Future

Baker estimates eventually farmers in the Midwest will grow the majority of the hemp in the U.S. for that to happen, though, mechanization will have to continue. 

“I think we in the Midwest, we're going to learn really fast how to make this a lot more mechanized and more similar to traditional farming,” Baker says. “We just are not wired to go out and hoe hemp by hand.”

Baker says market saturation is not a concern of his right now. “Prices are still holding up,” he says adding, “I tell everyone, don’t even run the numbers on planting hemp unless you have a market. There’s too much risk.”

Bakers sell their hemp oil to a company that specializes in CBD oils. They even sell the products straight from the farm. He says the limiting factor in the growth of hemp production in the Midwest will be the dryers and processors. 

“That will be the bottle neck,” he says adding, “and hard work. This is a tough business. Half of the issued licenses in Wisconsin last year didn’t harvest a crop. I predict it will be the same this year.”

Baker says plans for 2020 are unclear right now. He’s leaning toward ramping up the population on the same number of acres they grew this year. However, Zach doesn’t agree with that approach. He’d rather increase acres. Either way, they’ve got high hopes for 2020. Still, they don’t plan on selling the cows any time soon. 

“We’re keeping the cows,” he says. “Who knows how long this will last.”

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