A Realist’s Guide to Pricing Your Product for the Market

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Paul Dorrance’s online course, Proven Lessons for Success in the Business of Farming. To sign up for the course, visit learn.acresusa.com.


Putting a price on your farm product is a highly emotional experience for farmers. The price you ask for encapsulates so much more than profit. It includes all the sleepless nights you spent listening to the coyotes howl and wondering if your lambs were safe, that late frost that caught you and your tomatoes off guard, the equipment breakdowns in the field, and the love, care and stewardship you poured into your operation to bring that specific tomato or that pound of ground lamb to your customer.

The problem is that your customer doesn’t understand that, and despite how much we tell them, they never truly will. So most conversations you hear about product pricing revolve, as this one will, around mechanical, mathematical, logical approaches. However, it is worth recognizing from the very beginning that price represents so much more than the result of a formula. In this article, we’ll discuss what not to do first, and then move through some concepts of how to capture your sleepless nights and stewardship efforts in order to arrive at a price that you can be proud of and your customer can pay.

My first piece of advice: don’t attempt to be a low-cost producer. There are generally two categories of any business: low cost or high value. Whether you are purchasing clothing, tools or wine, all of us have a decision to make. Do I spend money on a quality product that will last or do I cheap out and buy something that will disintegrate in the washer, break in the field or taste like turpentine? I would argue that small-scale farmers fit squarely in the “craftsman” category of goods and services, and our pricing needs to reflect that.

Trying to produce food cheaply is a downward spiral that looks remarkably like a toilet flushing, and that approach is what has gotten America into the sewer of our current food system. Many people point to innovation, technology, efficiency and scale as ways to reduce or spread cost across more products, therefore reducing the cost of production, and I am not against any of those things. You can produce high-quality food on a large scale — just look at Will Harris and White Oak Pastures as one example. You can and should utilize technology to be more efficient. But there is only one way to produce cheap food: you cheat. Sub-therapeutic antibiotics, growth hormones, genetically engineered seeds, CAFO animal factories — these are all methods that indicate a business has chosen profit over values in an effort to produce food as cheaply as possible. Don’t be one of those farmers; your customers, neighbors and family deserve a high-quality product worthy of paying good money for.

So how do we price items? How much is it worth? How much is too much? We have to sell it to make money, right? It is so tempting in the face of those questions to glance across the aisle at our competitor’s price board, look up someone else’s online shopping platform, or find similar products in the grocery store aisle and just copy their prices. Surely they’ve done their homework, analyzed their markets, and have logically arrived at that price. Perhaps. Or maybe they did the same thing you are now contemplating, and so did the farmer that they copied from, and the chain of uninformed pricing goes back several iterations!

That’s a cycle you don’t need to perpetuate. But while I don’t want you to copy your competitor’s prices outright, it is worth knowing what they are for two reasons: it serves as a reality check on what you come up with independently and provides you with the knowledge that you are either cheaper or more expensive than they are in order to inform your conversations with your customers.

The good news is that we don’t have to copy, or even worse guess, to price our products. Instead, you need to start with what it cost you to produce said product. Ensuring that you are priced at least at/above cost of production seems so obvious, but you’d be surprised how many farmers don’t do it. It goes back to one of the initial questions I asked you: are you running a business or is this a hobby? Nothing wrong with either, but a business needs to be profitable to survive; a hobby does not.

Let’s cover the basic costs of production with a simple pork enterprise example, where I am purchasing ten weaned piglets, raising them to finish, processing, and selling the meat. To bring that pork to the point of sale cost me:

$500 purchase | 10 piglets, $50 each

$2,070 | Feed, 9,000 lbs

$2,000 | Processor, about $200 each

$4,570 | Total cost

$457 | Total cost per pig

So all I need to do is make sure that my cumulative pricing for one pig’s worth of products covers the $457 cost of production. Easy, right? No wonder they call hogs the “mortgage lifter” — hogs are so profitable! Not so fast. Let’s take a step back and look for what is missing from this example. For starters, we’re definitely missing some of the more hidden costs:

• Infrastructure (fencing, feeders, waterers, barn, trailer, freezers)
• Utilities (water, electric)
• Transportation (fuel, mechanical, for both initial pickup & processor trips)
• Marketing (online presence, farmers’ market fees, mileage)
• Death loss (minimal for hogs, but not for a poultry example!)

As you can see, there is much more that goes into producing a pound of bacon than a simplified chart. However, even after we are able to track down each individual input that needs to be accounted for, I’m guessing that there is one more thing that we’ve forgotten. Farmers are some of the worst about this; we always forget to account for … ourselves. We almost never pay ourselves, but our time is valuable, and must be accounted for. Daily chores, time spent in the truck moving animals or picking up feed or getting to the farmers’ market, time spent in front of a computer building a pork products flyer. However you tally everything up, your time had better be part of your calculations. Personally, I value my time at $30/hour. Another way to handle this would be to add in a profit margin above production. If you take this route I would recommend 25-35 percent for your high-end, craftsman-level product. Without sharing the entire cost chart and how I came up with it, my true cost of production for a single hog was $840 — almost double our simplified initial estimate!

The next question becomes how much meat comes off an individual animal. As I mentioned earlier, once I started tracking and adding up the cuts coming back from the processor, I was shocked at how few premium steaks there actually are on a finished steer. You have to track and count up the weights you get back in order to come up with an average number of each item. For my hog example, I figured on 32 pounds of sausage, 46 pounds of loin chops (bone-in or boneless? It matters), 12 pounds of bacon, 6 pounds of spare ribs, 24 pounds of ham and 10 pounds of shoulder; this totaled 130 pounds of meat. That means that my average price per pound for pork should be at least $6.47 to cover my true cost of producing that hog. There is definitely flexibility to move that price around depending on the cut, and this is where you can start to compare yourself against your competitor. She sells her bacon at $8 per pound? Maybe you can match that, but only if you sell your sausage at a pricey $6.50 per pound. Which will you have more of? Which is more likely to be seen as a premium cut? Probably move the sausage at $5 per pound, sell the bacon at $12, and be ready to tell your customers why the price difference is so completely worth it!

That brings me to my final word of advice on this topic: don’t back down. You worked hard on your product. You put in the time, you put in the money, your animal or plant paid the ultimate sacrifice, all so that your customer could eat healthy, clean and humanely. That is worth the price, no matter how many times someone visibly blanches or outright scoffs at your prices and walks away with their nose in the air before getting in their car to wait in the fast-food drive-through line. Be ready to tell folks why your product costs what it does, but do not waiver. If you can’t sell your product for what you need to, then the only conversation that needs to happen is whether or not to continue that enterprise. Have a sale every now and then, offer excess inventory for a reduced price, adjust your prices based on demand and supply, but always keep your bottom line in mind and do not sell below it — that is the realm of a low-cost producer who cheats to sell cheap food, and that cannot be you.

Paul Dorrance lives in Ohio. He’s run a successful pastured meat business and is now helping others do the same. For more information, go to pasturedprovidence.com.

No-till Farm Integrates Animals, Wise Use Of Technology

An aerial photo of Red Shirt Farms.


Red Shirt Farm is a no-till operation on 13 acres of hilly land that is realizing its mission of revitalizing the health of its soil. Located in the western Massachusetts foothills of the Berkshire Mountains near the New York border, this diversified micro-farm is a successful enterprise producing quality crops and livestock.

It’s been over a decade since the farm began its transition to no-till, a few beds at a time. For farmer Jim Schultz, the merits of no-till are pragmatic.

“We saw for ourselves how bad tillage was for the soil and how much better it was where we didn’t till,” he said.
Switching to no-till has brought dramatic improvements in the health of their calcareous, silty loam soil and the quality of the plants they grow. They now experience less insect pest and weed pressure, and earthworm populations have increased dramatically.

Besides not plowing or turning the soil and using only minimal, shallow tillage, Red Shirt Farm uses a number of regenerative practices, such as mulching and cover cropping. Jim doesn’t like to leave bare ground, even between beds. To prevent weeds from establishing and soil quality from deteriorating, walkways get heavily mulched with old hay or composted wood chips.

Raising healthy food is a central goal at the farm. Jim strives to produce nutrient-dense vegetables and the farm abstains from the use of all biocides (insecticides, fungicides and herbicides) and synthetic fertilizers. He follows the re-mineralization program developed by Dan Kittredge of the Bionutrient Food Association and works with Advancing Eco-Agriculture, John Kempf’s company. And although the farm follows organic principles and practices, Jim has chosen not to get it certified.

A Farmer on the Bench

When he retired at age 53 in early 2015, Jim and his wife, Annie Smith, who works full-time as a registered nurse, started Red Shirt Farm. This summer marks their sixth year of commercial production.

Although Jim is a second-career farmer, he is not new to agriculture. As a young man, Jim had immersed himself in organic agriculture before turning his attention to making a living and raising his family. The farm’s name is a somewhat obscure reference to his long hiatus from farming as his primary occupation. “To redshirt” is a verb that refers to the sidelining of an athlete with lots of potential so that he can learn the system and make a bigger impact when he returns to the field, explained Jim, who has background in sports and coaching. “We redshirted for 20 years. The kids were growing. We were paying off the land, and reading and learning.”

Jim became interested in farming after high school, but he chose a pre-med course of study at Williams College instead. When he answered an ad to housesit and care for livestock for Caretaker Farm owners Sam and Elizabeth Smith while they led a college study trip to Sri Lanka, he met their daughter and his future wife Annie Smith, who was home on winter break. Romance ensued.

Inspired by the experience, Jim took a leave from college to learn to farm. At Sterling College in Vermont he studied sustainable agriculture and worked with draft horses. He also did apprenticeships on several small farms in New England and enrolled in the New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod to study renewable energy systems, sustainable agriculture, and bioshelter technologies. Jim and Annie then travelled west to complete their undergraduate degrees at The Evergreen State College in Washington, where he managed the student organic farm and double-majored in Ecological Agriculture and Education.

The couple returned to Massachusetts for graduate school. After earning a master’s degree in education at UMass Amherst, Jim worked for 26 years as a public school teacher, coach and administrator. In 2000, the couple purchased the open land on which they would build their home and later farm. Jim continued his agricultural education, attending two or three organic and eco-agriculture conferences annually and reading voraciously, keeping alive his dream of farming.

In the early 2010s, Jim and Annie started a very small CSA to test the waters. Interest was strong and initially their CSA doubled in size every year. In the years leading up to launching Red Shirt Farm, Jim had been slowly renovating the land and opening up more and more garden beds. “We were farming before work and after work and on weekends,” Jim recounted.

“I retired early because I wanted to farm before it was too late,” explained Jim. He decided it was worth sacrificing his pension. “This is what I really wanted to do all my life.”

While Jim is the principal farmer, Annie fills various roles on the farm. As the face of the CSA, she greets CSA members on Tuesdays and Saturdays when they come for their vegetables and she orients new members. She also does the farm’s bookkeeping, runs the family household, and comes up with the annual growing plan for herbs and flowers, which Jim implements.

Pandemic Pushes Production

Most of Red Shirt Farm produce goes directly to customers through its CSA program, currently 100 households strong, and two farmers’ markets. As it has for many small farmers, the pandemic has opened up opportunities for the farm. This year it was able to retail a much larger proportion of its production than in 2019.

Red Shirt Farm is located in a region known for upscale vacation homes and famed arts venues such as Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Jacob’s Pillow, a summer-long dance festival. However despite the appealing image that Berkshire County, Massachusetts, presents to the outside world, many county residents live in small rustbelt cities distinguished by shuttered factories and large pockets of poverty. Most notable is Pittsfield, where General Electric left behind a toxic legacy of PCB contamination.

Wealth and income disparities not withstanding, a strong demand for locally grown food emerged several decades ago in Berkshire County. For more than 25 years, the community organization Berkshire Grown has helped sustain this demand and pride in local agriculture.

Until this year, Jim was reluctant to add a second farmers’ market. The best area markets take place on Saturday afternoons so the farm would have needed another truck, more canopies, and additional employees to participate in an additional farmers’ market. But during the pandemic, with farmers’ market customers carrying out transactions online, those sticking points disappeared and Red Shirt Farm easily added another market.

“You don’t have to stand there for four hours. Nothing’s wasted because everything is pre-ordered,” Jim explained. With this increased market access, the farm doubled its farmers’ market sales.

Jim and Annie Schultz.

Making Their Beds

As a no-till farm, Red Shirt Farm shies away from disturbing the soil, except when there is no alternative, such as for harvesting root vegetables. This raises the obvious question of how they manage crop succession.

When a crop is done, Jim and his crew make a single pass of the flail mower, which is lightweight and maneuverable, to cut down plant materials and chop them into mulch. Often they can plant directly into this mulch. Otherwise, they re-prep the bed with hand tools.

For a crop like kale or Brussels sprouts with stout stalks, they cut the tops off at ground level in November, leaving the roots in the ground for the microbes, and mulch the bed with hay. Occasionally, crop residues are so thick that they have to rake them into the wheel track. Later they will add those residues back into the bed.

Red Shirt Farm also has other ways to deal with crop residues. During the growing season, they sometimes solarize with a clear plastic tarp. At 75°F, it only takes 24 to 48 hours to kill nascent weeds and accelerate the breakdown of the residue.

Another option is using a black silage tarp to block the sun and cook living and dead plant material and seeds. Tarping this way allows the residues of a chopped crop or cover crop to break down and kills any weed seeds that germinate in the moist, warm conditions. In the winter this process takes months, but in warmer periods it can be completed more quickly.

The main tool Jim uses to make “a nice, fine seed bed” for mechanical seeding is the power harrow. Jim sets it to go down to a depth no greater than 2”. It can even be adjusted to only disturb the top half-inch of the soil, he notes. The power harrow “stirs” the soil but does not invert it like a tiller.

No-till methods encourage leaving roots in the ground and more organic debris on the surface. “We’d like to incorporate more of these techniques, but we’ve had a harder time getting good germination when we direct-seed into a rough bed,” he said.

A number of no-till or low-till organic vegetable growers are averse to cover cropping because they lack a good way to kill them without tillage. Not so at Red Shirt Farm, where they seed some beds in winter rye in order to grow their own mulch straw. The walking tractor and its implements give Jim a good system for turning cover crops into mulch that he can use elsewhere on the farm.

However, winter rye is particularly difficult to solarize due to its extremely vigorous root system. In May, the solarization process for winter rye can take three days or longer, three times as long as for many other crops.

Usually, however, Jim favors winterkilled cover crops for fall planting. Timing is always a big factor in determining the most appropriate cover crop for a given situation.

Shifting Irrigation Strategies

Red Shirt Farm mainly relies on drip irrigation, along with some overhead irrigation for germinating direct seeded crops. Until a couple years ago the farm got its water from the house well, which produces 5 gallons a minute. This prevented the farm from watering as few as three beds at a time. Now that the farm has its own drilled well, which produces 26 gallons a minute, it’s possible to irrigate all the vegetable beds in a single day. And in a half hour the farm can irrigate six 100’ beds with three drip tapes each.

Most drip tape has emitters spaced 8 or 12” apart. Red Shirt Farm favors 4” emitters. That choice is a carryover from when they had to depend on drip irrigation to water newly seeded crops before they germinated.

Drip irrigation also provides the means for fertigation on the farm. Jim uses a Dosatron, a water-driven non-electric injector that meters out the nutrient solution into the irrigation water at the desired rate. He mixes up a 5-gallon bucket with the quantities of different nutrients needed for the area being irrigated.

Over the course of a growing season, fertigation will clog up the emitters on drip tape. “We used to get medium-grade drip tape and save it as long as possible,” he said. But after they began fertigating, they switched to cheap-grade drip tape, which they discard after a single growing season. They donate their old drip tape to a start-up nonprofit organization that collects feed sacks and used drip tape to be made into shopping bags.

Integrating Animals

Relatively few vegetable growers integrate livestock into their operations. Despite its small land base, Red Shirt Farm raises animals on pasture. They are central to the farm’s mission.

“We have a regenerative farm, in that we incorporate animals into our operations,” Jim said. “One of our main goals is animal welfare. We breed and hatch our own birds and process them here.”

They also raise feeder pigs, which are likewise slaughtered on the farm.

For the last six years, Red Shirt Farm has also been doing its part to preserve several heritage poultry breeds. Instead of ordering newly hatched chicks as replacements for their layers and for the next round of meat birds, Red Shirt Farm maintains year-round populations of two breeds of chicken and one turkey breed.

Their laying hens are Black Australorps, and for meat they raise Buckeyes, which the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy considers an endangered breed. They also breed Standard Bronze turkeys. Jim said that they are selecting the birds for their breeds’ desired characteristics to help bring these them back to their Standards of Perfection.

In a given year they raise about 100 turkeys and keep another 15 or 20 turkeys as breeding stock. They also typically raise 700 or 800 meat chickens and keep a flock of 100 to 200 laying hens. The numbers fluctuate as they raise their own replacement stock and cull birds as needed.

Their farmers’ market customers and CSA members count on being able to get their eggs from Red Shirt Farm so Jim and Annie keep laying hens, though eggs are not one of their “main profit centers.”

“In the winter we bring the birds up closer to the house where we have electricity. The chickens have a day-run in the caterpillars. We compost their manure,” Jim said. Two caterpillar tunnels provide winter poultry housing. Red Shirt Farm has experimented with the Rolling Thunder mobile high tunnel, but they don’t have enough flat land to make it worthwhile.

This year, during the pandemic, several curious conventional farmers stopped to talk when they saw chickens out on pasture. Earlier in the season, those farmers were having trouble getting Cornish Cross chickens and wondered about Red Shirt Farm’s source. Jim explained that they keep several flocks of heritage breed birds. They agreed that makes sense in times like these, Jim recalled.

While Red Shirt Farm has no intention of becoming a hatchery, they have sold small batches of 20 chicks to homesteaders that want heritage breed birds.

Red Shirt Farm also raises about seven feeder pigs a year, which they buy from a local farmer who prefers heritage breeds. These pigs, which are part Duroc, part Old Spot and part Berkshire, do very well on pasture.

Red Shirt Farm is licensed by the state to slaughter poultry on the farm. They work with a custom butcher to get their pigs killed and processed. They sell their homegrown pork by the half and whole pig.

Grazing livestock and mowing have transformed the lower fields at Red Shirt Farm from weedy brambles into decent pasture. It works well for them to take an early cutting and use that hay as mulch because poultry do better on 8” pasture than on taller grass.

The Hunt for Good Compost

Red Shirt Farm buys about 45 yards of commercial compost annually from area farms. Delivered in bulk, compost goes for $35 to $40 per yard. The compost available for purchase is usually made from municipal leaves, wastes from commercial landscapers, and other plant materials, as well as food waste, smaller amounts of animal manure and sometimes offal from on-farm poultry processing.

Jim is not fully satisfied with the quality of locally available compost. It tends to be sold before it’s fully finished — at a stage where it’s hydrophobic and too coarse to successfully seed into. And when Red Shirt Farm experiences low germination rates, Jim worries that the compost might contain persistent herbicides, which he is anxious to avoid. “It’s hard to find good compost,” he lamented.

Jim gets around the shortcomings of his purchased compost by reserving it for certain situations, such as mulching, where “it’s less important that it’s coarse and unfinished. In our no-till system, we’ll leave lettuce roots in and put a 2-inch layer of compost on the bed before the next planting.” He also uses purchased compost “to get the biology going and raise the organic matter levels when we open up new beds” on previously uncultivated ground.

Long term, Jim would like to put in an aerated static pile composting system. Such a system uses a fan and perforated pipes to blow air throughout compost windrows in lieu of mechanical turning. At present, Jim makes some compost from a mixture of animal bedding and vegetable scraps laid down in a large windrow, with new materials always added at one end. Jim restricts the width and height of the windrows to keep them from going anaerobic. He refrains from turning his compost because “we don’t want to disrupt the fungal hyphae.”

After a year, he considers his compost to be sufficiently finished for perennial plantings like orchard trees and berry bushes, as well as for flower gardens and opening up new ground, places where the presence of weed seeds would not be a problem.

Another Kind of Compost

In 2018, Red Shirt Farm assembled its first Johnson-Su bioreactor. It appealed to Jim because of all the benefits it offers. It produces fungal dominant compost with a much wider diversity of microorganisms than conventional, quick-turnaround compost. It also requires far less labor and is odor-free. Turning compost piles to expose them to oxygen destroys fungal organisms.

The materials needed to build a Johnson-Su bioreactor include re-mesh and six 4”-diameter perforated drainage pipes, which are used to create channels for airflow within the bioreactor. These pipes are positioned so that inside the bioreactor, no material is further than one foot from the flow of oxygen. The bioreactor sits on a pallet with circular holes cut for the perforated PVC pipes. The whole bioreactor is wrapped in inexpensive landscape fabric. Once assembled, fungal hyphae rapidly colonize the compost feedstock. Within a day or two, their growth lines the perforated pipes sufficiently to hold air channels in place, and the pipes are removed.

The bioreactor is a temporary structure that produces finished compost in one year’s time. Part of the assembly process involves filling the bioreactor with whatever feedstock is to be composted, which at Red Shirt Farm consisted of raw dairy manure from an organic farm, wood chips and leaves. The materials are layered alternately every 6 inches, finishing with a layer of wood chips on top to act as a cap.

In the desert Southwest, where David Johnson and his wife Hui-Chu Su designed and tested the bioreactor, regular irrigation is required to support fungal activity. Jim took a chance that rainfall in the temperate Northeast would be adequate. The 12-month period in which Red Shirt Farm tried out his first Johnson-Su bioreactor was wet, with at least weekly precipitation, and when he opened up the bioreactor after a year of incubation, the material was moist.

David Johnson has a detailed YouTube video and other instructional resources online, but as far as “how to use the end product, I haven’t found as much information,” Jim said. The Johnson-Su bioreactor produces two types of material. Most of the compost is a very fine, pasty material that turns into slurry when mixed with water. Jim makes it into a spray that serves as a soil inoculant. He scoops out the other type of material from along the bioreactor walls and wherever there are wood chips that haven’t fully decomposed. That material is full of fungal hyphae. They sprinkled that onto new beds, also as an inoculant. While they did not do any controlled studies, “Anecdotally, it performed well,” Jim said.

Jim has also been experimenting with indigenous microorganisms (IMO) in his high tunnels. However, with so many variables, it’s hard to say whether the IMO has had any impact.

Once an Educator …

Jim spent half his life teaching and coaching students in the public schools. As a farmer, he has been able to continue to educate young people.

Every year Red Shirt Farm selects four apprentices, who normally start in April and stay on through November. They generally live on the farm unless they are from the local area. Few are currently in college because college calendars tend not to be compatible with the farm’s needs.

Apprentices receive room and board plus $900 per month and access to food grown on the farm. The Red Shirt Farm apprenticeship program focuses on their apprentices’ education. They learn much more than how to do the tasks of daily farm work.

Jim strives to expose his apprentices to the knowledge and skills they would need to start their own farm or work as a farm manager or in other non-entry-level positions. Apprentices also have access to a full library at Red Shirt Farm.

2020 was Red Shirt Farm’s sixth year working with apprentices. Asked if any have become farmers, Jim mentioned one former apprentice, a chef without prior farming experience who spent two years on the farm, who is now running a farm on Martha’s Vineyard.

Working with Roots Rising is another aspect of the farm’s educational work. This local nonprofit organization works to empower youth and build community through food and farming. Its programs engage high school-age students from Pittsfield. Many participants are high-risk kids. Because of its great reputation, it has become very competitive to get into. The organization employs kids in its farm crews and running the Pittsfield farmers’ market, and next year it will launch a youth-run food truck program.

Red Shirt Farm is one of the farms that benefits from a Roots Rising farm crew of a dozen kids. They visit the farm one day per week in the summer and one afternoon per week after school during the spring and fall. “It’s nice for us to have twelve willing hands for big weeding, composting and tarping projects,” said Jim. For example, they tarped the ground for the new vegetable beds between the hugelkultur orchard rows on an extremely windy day. “They were being lifted up by the tarp,” Jim recalled.

Roots Rising pays an hourly wage to the young people it employs. They spend a half-day working on a farm and the rest of the day take part in programming that emphasizes self-development, group development and interpersonal and life skills. The curriculum includes educational workshops and culinary and financial literacy.

Jim is excited about the culture that Roots Rising is building. He told me that the organization has an educator that teaches the youth traditional and indigenous songs and that they also create their own songs. Roots Rising has feedback circles called group talk where the youth participants receive feedback from their peers and adult mentors, and also evaluate the adults.

“This is how I wanted school to be when I was a teacher,” Jim commented. As a biology teacher, he said he would have loved to have a farm as a learning lab.

Besides apprentices and the Roots Rising crew, the farm employs four to six part-time hourly workers. They work on pick/wash days and one other day of the week. Two of these workers are Roots Rising graduates so they were familiar with the farm and its practices. That’s been a significant advantage.

“Regenerative agriculture holds the key to resolving our health crisis and our planetary crisis,” Jim said. “To share this is so rewarding and essential, for there are so few resources to train young people.”

Tracy Frisch lives in New York State.

How to Avoid High THC Levels in Hemp

A field of Connecticut hemp beside a tobacco shed.

By Noel Garcia, CCA,  Joe Pedroza & Larry Zibilske, PhD

Hemp growers have one goal in mind: Produce crops with high yields and quality.  However, of all crops, hemp alone has the unique statutory constraint that THC, one of the naturally produced cannabinoid oils, must not exceed 0.3%.  Most growers are now painfully aware that a potency test showing a THC level higher than the federal limit will mean the total loss of their crops and in the worst case, they will be classified as negligent growers. For oil crops, it can be a real balancing act to achieve the highest content of CBD while limiting THC to acceptable levels. However, as fatal as a high THC result is, growers are learning that other factors can lead to a failed crop. 

Plant stress is a condition that can be challenging to understand for many growers. Marijuana growers discovered that if they stress their plants in the last few weeks before harvest, they can induce higher production of THC. But stress in industrial hemp can lead to disaster.  

What happens if the plant is stressed early in the vegetative state and how does that affect overall yield?  Potential growers have asked, “Isn’t hemp basically a weed and shouldn’t it grow well unattended?” The answer is yes, but not as a commercial crop. Between heat, drought and low humidity, Texas and other arid states can provide plant stress challenges to producing a harvestable crop.  So let’s review the experiences two Texas growers had this year.

(Background: Texas growers started under a handicap: Licenses didn’t start being issued until the middle of April — then already more than a month late for planting and they weren’t issued immediately upon application. Accordingly, growers were in a panic to get their crops going.)

It’s late June and the weather is hot and humid — typical conditions for the Lower Rio Grande Valley region of Texas for the time of year. A new greenhouse grower, excited to invest in a new and promising crop, sets out to start his grow. He starts with topsoil purchased from a local supplier; it’s a sandy loam which he blends with coconut coir and perlite.

The seeds germinate and for the next several weeks, the plants are growing well. One morning as he walks through the rows of potted plants, he notices many of the young plants are beginning to flower. The plants are only five weeks old and six to eight inches tall. They are not an autoflowering variety.  What’s going on?  

Another grower in Texas is preparing to plant his first crop.  He has seven acres but decides that it would be wise to start with one. It’s a new operation and he hasn’t fully established the drip irrigation system, which he decided to self-install. It’s getting late in the season, so he direct-seeds before it gets any later. The seeds germinate and everything looks great.

He has close to 2,000 plants in neat rows, stretching out in the hot Texas sun. Things are going smoothly, but it’s August now, and the temperatures are starting to tick higher and higher. For two weeks, temperatures went over 100º and the plants begin to show signs of stress.  Insects soon moved in and made the situation worse.  As the grower walks his field, he notices his plants, now five weeks old, are starting to flower but they are not an autoflowering variety.  What’s going on?  

First, let us understand the mechanisms that trigger a plant to switch to its reproductive (flowering) stage. Flowering is initiated either autonomously or by environmental factors. Photoperiodic flowering is controlled by the amount of light and dark hours. With photoperiod strains of cannabis, plants switch from the vegetative to the flowering phase when they get longer than 12 hours of dark.  By contrast, auto-flowering strains are not dependant on light or dark hours and are genetically programmed to begin flowering when they’re 4-5 weeks old.  

Other crops show similar characteristics. Olives, for example, are controlled by vernalization: they must have a minimum number of cold hours to initiate flowering. So is that what happened to our Texas hemp growers?  Was it so late in the year that the plants got enough hours of darkness to initiate flowering?  In these cases, the answer was no.  Let’s look at each situation separately and analyze what went wrong:

In the first grower’s case, the lab analyzed the media and the well water he used to irrigate.  A comprehensive analysis showed that the media-mix the grower purchased was mostly inert and devoid of nutrients (and life).  The pH was high at 8.3 and highly calcareous with 1,200 ppm of calcium as carbonate.

Additionally, even though coconut coir was added, it did not contribute to the active organic matter as it had not been composed. So, active organic matter measured only 0.52%. The well water tested high in dissolved solids at 1,155 mg/L — mostly sodium and chloride. Notable too, was an elevated boron level of 1.8 mg/L, which can occur naturally in wells deeper than 100 ft.  After talking with the grower and discovering how he was fertilizing and irrigating his plants, we understood how stresses had built-up.

He explained that he did not feed for the first 3-4 weeks of growth and had only been watering the plants using a backpack sprayer. He wanted to avoid root rot from overwatering, so he only watered every two or three days.  The media in the pots, composed mostly of sandy soil, would become hard and compacted when it dried. The minerals from the water began to build-up in the media, to the point where it had become white and crusty.  

The outcome was the plants had experienced chronic stress from underwatering, lack of nutrients and accumulated sodium and boron that was reaching toxic levels as evidenced by a plant sap test that indicated 230 ppm of boron . The response from the plant was one of survival and to reproduce. As Dr. Ian Malcom said in his famous Jurassic Park line, “life finds a way.”  The instinct for survival and reproduction is what drives all life on earth.  In the case of our young cannabis plants, the response was to flower.

When we reviewed the conditions of the second grower, we found a different pattern of problems. Our soil analysis showed that nutrient levels were mostly adequate except nitrogen, which was excessively high at 290 lbs/ac. As the plants grew, the excessive nitrogen stimulated rapid growth, leading to a weakened cell structure, making the plants susceptible to insect attacks.

The grower was not experienced in designing irrigation systems, resulting in built-in watering issues — so many of the plants were exposed to drought conditions during a heat wave that affected the region. The slope of the field led to overwatering at the bottom and underwatering at the top. He did not consider that static water pressure increases with every foot of elevation by 0.433 psi — so he started off with a considerable static pressure differential along the vertical length of the lines: highest at the bottom — lowest at the top.

Under the stresses of heat, unbalanced nutrition, insect pressures and uneven water distribution, the young plants’ instinct for survival triggered a flowering/reproductive response in the less than 100 surviving plants. 

So what should these growers have done differently to avoid such losses?

No matter the crop, planning and preparation are essential to success.  Industrial hemp, in particular, requires very much advance research and planning. There is no better protection against the variables that Mother Nature inflicts to test growers than to have a detailed plan and prepare for your crop’s success — and avoid potential problems.

It can seem like a daunting task with so many factors at play, especially since many think it is beyond their control. And rightfully so, as we frequently hear about storms that hit with little warning and destroy large areas of farmland, and heat waves and droughts that cripple parts of the farming community.  

How can we prepare for these challenges?  

The answer is hidden beneath our feet. Understanding soil health is the cornerstone of every successful grower. The foundation of your plan should be the rebuilding of your soil and its life, and management of its nutrients and structure.  

Soil health is an idea that involves optimizing the relationships between soil physical, chemical and biological factors.  Achieving and maintaining good soil health is essential for producing good crop yields and quality. Fertilizers are only part of soil fertility. Soil microbes live on and around plant roots and interact with roots in several important ways. Among the most important interactions are ensuring plant roots are protected from pathogenic microbes and assisting the uptake of nutrients into the plants. But healthy soil also includes beneficial nematodes, insects, earthworms and fungi — all interacting with each other and the microbes in concert.  

Maintaining balanced nutrition and vigorous soil life at every stage of your plants’ life cycles will ensure that no matter what challenge Mother Nature sends, your crops will have the best chance of making you money. 

Soil or growing media testing is one of the best investments a grower can make, especially when planning a new season. As we saw with our Texas growers, soil lacking in nutrients or having excess nutrients, devoid of life, or being extremely acid or alkaline, all lead to plant nutrient uptake problems — which invariably results in stress.  

Irrigation water analysis is also paramount when installing your farm’s infrastructure. Poor quality water can neutralize the efficacy of nutrients and treatments, affect distribution by plugging emitters when using drip irrigation and change the soil’s native chemistry. 

These tools will help you understand where you need to focus your energy and resources. The goal is to provide the best possible environment for your plants to grow. When we correct our soil’s nutritional imbalances, we facilitate maintaining adequate levels of nutrients in our plants as they develop.  

As the plant grows, its nutritional needs change and meeting those needs will greatly reduce the harmful stresses that prevent the plant from reaching its maximum genetic potential — and limit the production of THC. Simultaneously, we reduce the need for insecticides and other harsh treatments that reduce overall profit. In the case of conventional growers, we also reduce the exposure to strong chemicals and toxic treatments. 

Additionally, it is essential to learn from those who have experience in growing crops — and industrial hemp, in particular. We are still learning about the stresses that affect hemp and the differences between geographical/climatic regions. Add to that the regulatory standards and market requirements that must be met to harvest a profitable crop and one quickly realizes that industrial hemp is one of the most challenging crops to produce.  

We encourage you to reach out to experienced industrial hemp (not marijuana) growers and consultants willing to council you about your plans and goals. Plan and prepare for a successful crop by learning what your soil needs to be healthy and what you need to restore that health. 

Include soil microbes and organic matter in your plan and you will ensure vital relationships are maintained in the plant root environment for the entire season … and beyond.

All crops, aside from hemp, benefit from healthy, living soil. It is the greatest asset we have.  It is our obligation to be the stewards who restore the rich farmlands that once were the pride of our forefathers.

Noel Garcia is a certified crop advisor and is chief operating officer and senior technical consultant at TPS Lab. Joe Pedroza is a Texas-licensed hemp sampler and is business development manager at TPS Lab. Dr. Larry Zibilske is vice president of research at TPS Lab.

Connect Soil Health and Hemp

Acres USA hosted the 2nd annual Advancing Hemp event on May 20, 2021. Now, you can purchase the event replay and not miss a single piece of information! This virtual event was designed to prepare farmers for successful hemp production through practical, applicable advice from industry-leading experts and growers. Learn more about the replay and its content here.