SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Despite having more than 20 years of farming experience, 2021 was a year of firsts for BJ McNeil. 

The owner of Rocking Z Acres, a 100% organic farm near Wessington in central South Dakota, planted six fields of industrial hemp this spring.  

“Why not try it?” McNeil told KELOLAND News while driving a combine Wednesday afternoon. “The returns looked better than a lot of better stuff we were trying to grow in our rotation.” 

Photo from BJ McNeil.

McNeil returned to his family farm in 1998 and has been farming ever since. He said a North Dakota company — Healthy Oil Seeds — reached out to him about growing industrial hemp because he has been an organic farmer. McNeil said he was interested in industrial hemp because it outgrows weeds, which is important for an organic farm that doesn’t use any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. 

“It has the potential to become a mainstay crop here in South Dakota because our environment and everything is perfect for it,” McNeil said. “We just got to get the markets and everything else going for it.” 

Hemp is high in fiber and low in active tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, which also comes from the cannabis plant but is genetically distinct from hemp. 

Hemp first became legal in South Dakota in 2020 after lawmakers passed a compromise bill with Gov. Kristi Noem, who vetoed a previous hemp bill in 2019. The federal government legalized production of hemp with no more than three-tenths of 1% THC three years ago in the 2018 Farm Bill.

Photo from BJ McNeil.

As a farmer, McNeil said he was growing hemp to gain as much yield as possible. He noted Healthy Oil Seeds, who was buying his hemp seeds, would crush them into an oil that McNeil said competed against olive oil and fish oil for a “healthy salad oil.” 

McNeil said planting hemp was similar to wheat but it is managed similar to corn. 

“It’s a shorter day crop than corn,” McNeil said. “From when you put it in the ground, it’s about 100 days exactly when it’s ready to harvest.” 

The 100-day timetable ended up being delayed because McNeil planted his hemp in early June and the state ended up having its driest June ever recorded in state history. Despite the delayed start to growing because of the drought, McNeil’s hemp turned in higher profits than other spring crops like peas and oats. 

“Even the fields where it came up late, they still out-yielded anything else we would’ve done in the rotation in place of it,” said McNeil, adding his first field made only 400 pounds of hemp seed but he got paid $1.10 per pound. 

“Corn is about the only other plant I could’ve planted that would’ve done any better,” he said. 

Overcoming hemp harvest horrors  

The biggest fear McNeil had with growing hemp was the harvest. He’d heard horror stories about how the crop could possibly damage combines and his first-day harvesting hemp was described as a “nightmare.” 

“Harvesting is what scares everybody because you’re putting rope through your combine,” McNeil said. “There’s multiple moving parts going around and around and then you’re putting rope through it.” 

McNeil said his crew spent four hours after the first full day combining hemp cutting long hemp vines of the combines. The second day, McNeil’s crew set combines to cut the first 2-to-3 feet of plant material, which sacrificed some yields but made the harvesting process much faster. He said after every full hopper of hemp seed, the crew would do an 8-point inspection of the combine and clean off the spots where the plant liked to wrap which only took about five minutes. 

“The combining was easy once we figured out how to do our inspections,” McNeil said. “Everything got easy except for managing the seed at the farm.” 

In order to harvest hemp seeds, McNeil said the plant has to be extremely wet because if it is dry, the head of the plant will shatter seeds on the ground. Once harvested, McNeil had a bunch of wet hemp seeds, which don’t mature evenly like corn and soybeans.

“You are cutting it so wet, so you can’t let it sit in your truck overnight,” McNeil said. “Wet grain always heats and that temp will get hot on you. If it gets above 130 degrees it’ll ruin the oil in the seed.” 

Photo from BJ McNeil.

McNeil said truckloads of hemp seed were constantly going to bin sites and then he was trying to clean the hemp while it was still wet. Next year, McNeil will not try to clean the hemp seeds before drying the hemp. 

He found a drying solution by putting the hemp seeds into a corn drying bin on low heat. 

“Lots of frustration and lots of learning,” McNeil said. “We’re not scared to combine it anymore.” 

With year one of hemp growing in the books, McNeil said he believes the crop will continue to expand in the state. He highlighted the crop use from fiber to grain can be used for many items. 

“I think long term this is going to be a market that’s going to take off,” he said. “I’m guessing there’s farmers out there that get tired of hanging their hats on corn and beans every year. We all know where corn and bean prices can go. We need other markets out there.”