The clocks that adorn a wall in Roger Gussiaas’ office tick away with the current times of countries around the world. Barcelona, Spain. Cape Town, South Africa. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Seoul, South Korea. And, of course, Carrington, North Dakota.
Below that, sunlight reflects off a horizontal canvas celebrating the North Dakota State University football team. Doing business in 22 countries and 49 states hasn’t changed the man who built Healthy Oilseeds.
And it hasn’t affected him in the creation of his newest hemp business, Green Medicus, which he co-owns. Gussiaas grows hemp, and Green Medicus lightly processes and markets it for cannabidiol (CBD) oil.
While continuing to farm, Gussiaas started Healthy Oilseeds in 2002, buying, cleaning and exporting flax and borage. He mostly quit farming in 2016, choosing to lessen his workload after losing 28-year-old son, best friend and business partner Brock to viral pneumonia in 2014.
“Brock lived for farming, and he liked (Healthy Oilseeds), too, but he loved farming more much,” Roger said. “It was tough to lose a son — it bothered me a lot. … (With both businesses), I would start at 3:30 a.m. and didn’t get done until 10 o’clock at night. I said, I can’t continue this. It’s not good for my health. I want to enjoy life a little bit.”
Roger had intended on getting completely out of production agriculture, but was lured into growing hemp by his own curiosity after reading about hemp years earlier.
Hemp farmers choose seed varieties in accordance with how the hemp will be used. Seed for grain and fiber often have a lower THC maximum and have less regulatory issues than hemp for CBD oil, but the latter is considered more profitable, though it’s also more labor-intensive.
Starting small with 2.5 acres, Gussiaas puts extra care into the product. The female plants — male plants can pop up in a field and lower the level of CBD — are started in a greenhouse before being transplanted by hand on 2.5 acres starting the third week of May and running until the first week of June.
“Two and a half acres doesn’t seem like a lot to bigger farmers, but when you transplant it by hand, it’s a lot of work,” Gussiaas said, comparing it to the care cigar farmers take with their product, as opposed to planting and harvesting mechanically. “We want a product that’s high in CBD and low in THC.”
Regular pesticides aren’t used in hemp production. In December, the Environmental Protection Agency announced 10 pesticides deemed safe for hemp. Gussiaas said he doesn’t typically use any pesticides in his production, noting that plastic weed barrier can work well for hemp for CBD oil.
“On the CBD side, you’re gonna have some weed problems – it’s a little trickier,” he said. “On the grain side, there isn’t much of a problem because the plant grows so fast. It grows faster than anything I’ve ever grown. It’ll outgrow and shade the weeds.”
In the latest farm bill, Congress removed industrial hemp from the legal definition of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act. It also amended the Agricultural Marketing Act (AMA) of 1946 to include industrial hemp. The AMA authorizes the secretary of agriculture to use programs to assist the production, transportation and marketing of crops.
Congress also authorized eligible hemp growers to qualify for crop insurance, FSA loans, conservation programs and other tools of the farm bill.
Congress has allowed states and tribal governments to tailor their own regulatory plans for industrial hemp with four key procedural requirements: recording and describing land on which hemp is grown; testing THC levels; disposing of any hemp crop in violation; and enforcement.
In the hemp interim final rule, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced it would relax restrictions that had required hemp growers to test the THC level at a law enforcement lab, and that law enforcement would have been required to oversee the disposal of any hemp with a THC level above 0.3 percent.
Instead, growers will be able to use independent labs to test the THC, and producers will be responsible for properly disposing of any hemp crop found in violation. The labs still have to meet regulations outlined by USDA including registering with the Drug Enforcement Agency because of the possibility they could handle hemp with a higher THC level than 0.3, which is, by law, marijuana, a Schedule 1 controlled substance.
With three negligent violations in a five-year window, a producer’s license to grow hemp will be suspended for five years.
In North Dakota, hemp growers must be licensed as part of the North Dakota State Hemp Program Plan, currently operating under the original pilot program.
Chapter 4.1-18.1 of the North Dakota Century Code outlines the rules and regulations for hemp growing in the state. It somewhat mirrors the interim rule, but also gives the North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner the power to enter and randomly test “any land or areas where hemp is grown, stored, or processed for the purposes of inspections, sample collection, testing, or investigation for the purposes of enforcing” state law.
Harvesting hemp starts around the middle of September, but by then, Gussiaas has tested his crop many times.
“You start testing very early,” he said. “You almost have to anticipate what it’s going to be in a week. You have to get really good at it.”
The longer the crop stays in the field, the higher THC content it will have. For testing, Gussiaas starts with the tallest plant, as it generally will have the highest THC.
“We check the crop every day,” he said. “You want a high CBD content, but as the CBD content rises, the THC level rises. You need to kill the plant off before the THC gets too high. You really have to monitor that closely.”
Gussiaas said the turnaround time for testing is getting faster, but it can still take up to a week in some cases. In that time, he said, the THC level could move two-tenths and render his crop illegal, which Gussiaas said he’s prepared for.
“You better destroy it immediately,” he said. “Otherwise, it could be a (Drug Enforcement Agency) issue. If it’s too high and we have to destroy it, that’s the way it is. I want to be in good standing with the state. You want to live within the laws.”
What makes it tricky, Gussiaas said, is that hemp can sometimes “have a mind of its own.”
“It’s a plant that thinks for itself,” he said. “I’ve grown 23 different crops in my life, and it’s almost like this one has a brain of its own. Hemp is by far the strangest crop I’ve ever grown. Some think it’s a magic plant, and it’ll solve all of our problems. It’s not gonna do that, but it can help us.”
After harvesting the hemp plant by hand — hemp for grain and fiber can be harvested with a combine — Gussiaas and his staff put the crop in a bin and convey it into a one-ton hopper that feeds a 12-head press that does cold-press expelling, as opposed to bigger processing facilities that might use the chemical hexane to extract the oil.
“The companies that use hexane will be in it for the grain and fiber side — they likely won’t get into CBD oil,” he said. “Our customers don’t want (hexane).”
After extraction, Gussiaas said the oil is filtered through barrels to get rid of any remaining sediment and then it’s essentially ready to go.
The extraction process leaves behind “hemp cake” that heads to a milling room. It’ll then be sifted to create different proteins for supplements.
“You can put it in a smoothie, we’ve made pasta with it — it works well for a feed supplement,” he said.
The potential of hemp as a cash crop might be lighting up the eyes of farmers everywhere, but processing remains a hinderance, Gussiaas said.
Gussiaas said Healthy Oilseeds is the only hemp processor for grain and fiber currently operating in North Dakota, and his capacity is between 5,000 and 6,000 acres per growing season, though he noted he is not yet at capacity and is taking contracts.
Like with any product on the rise, Gussiaas expects to see a few processing plants pop up in the Midwest in at least the next couple years, and at some point, a big plant in North Dakota. Montana currently has three plants that process hemp. Minnesota has hemp processing, but it’s generally considered not nearly enough to fill the state’s vast production potential. South Dakota is still in the process of legalizing hemp, but is expected to have it in place by April.
Gussiaas said as hemp production increases, it’ll get even more efficient with better breeding.
“You’re seeing about 1,000 to 1,100 pounds an acre right now,” he said. “Within not many years, you will see 3,000 pounds an acre.”
Putting a hemp processing facility in North Dakota makes sense, he said, because “this is the center where the grain will be produced.” Gussiaas believes Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin will lead the way in the Midwest because of the lower land costs as compared to the I-states (Indiana, Illinois, Iowa).
“The locations will be about transportation, ease of access, railroads, highways, energy — in North Dakota, we have all of those things,” Gussiaas said. “North Dakota has a very bright future when it comes to hemp.”
– Chris Aarhus, NDFU Editor