© Matt Ehnes

In December 2018, Colby Johnson, a fourth-generation farmer, attended a state department of agriculture meeting in Great Falls, Mont., roughly 60 miles from his home in Conrad, Mont. Johnson—whose family farm grows 300 acres of hemp grain varieties—had a lofty goal that day: to gather enough signatures from state farmers to approve the formation of the Montana Hemp Advisory Committee.

Current and prospective Montana hemp farmers packed the meeting as the state’s pilot program under the Agricultural Act of 2014 (the 2014 Farm Bill) was in full swing. The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (the 2018 Farm Bill) had also just passed, and interest in hemp as a lucrative commodity was piquing. That same year, a crop report released by hemp industry advocacy organization Vote Hemp stated that Montana farmers grew 22,000 acres of hemp under the state’s pilot program.

Despite the interest, however, complications of growing hemp were already becoming apparent in Montana’s market. Johnson thought an advisory committee could help address those issues. For one, farmers were getting burned by bad actors: namely, processors and extractors that promised payouts for hemp biomass but never delivered. “People would do the acreage and grow on these contracts, and when it came time to harvest and pay up, people couldn’t find these guys that they thought they trusted,” Johnson says. “We needed to figure out a way to hold these individuals accountable.” Johnson thought a committee could improve the market by creating recommendations to the state department of agriculture and set a standard for the rest of the country.

The committee would also institute the country’s first state hemp checkoff program, which would collect a tax from licensed hemp farmers to invest in marketing, research and education.

After a resounding, unanimous vote of approval, the committee was ultimately formed (and the hemp checkoff program implemented) in March 2019. Montana Department of Agriculture Director Benjamin Thomas appointed nine small- and large-scale hemp farmers from across the state to serve on the committee.

But the committee’s approval wasn’t the only great thing to happen to Johnson at the meeting. It was also where he met the love of his life, Jackee Beck of Racetrack Beck Ranch in Deer Lodge, Mont. Beck, who had been growing hemp for cannabidiol (CBD) for the past year, attended the January meeting and was also appointed to the hemp advisory committee.

The rest is history: Two years later, Beck and Johnson have fallen in love, had a son, Carter, and joined forces to help each other and their families grow and harvest hemp at their respective farms, which are 200 miles apart. All the while, they continue to actively help other Montanans grow hemp, securing their place as the next generation of successful and more sustainable farmers.

 

Why Hemp?

Sometime between 1915 and 1920, Johnson’s great-grandfather, Tom, a sheepherder, founded Johnson Farms in Conrad, Mont.

“Since then … our family has transitioned from sheep herding to growing wheat … in the Golden Triangle,” Johnson says. (The Golden Triangle, known for its ideal wheat-growing conditions, consists of the cities Havre, Conrad and Great Falls in North Central Montana.)

On more than 5,000 acres, the Johnsons, including Colby and his father, Paul, primarily grow malt barley for the brewing powerhouse Anheuser-Busch, along with spring and winter wheat.

After a brief departure from the farm to attend Duke University, Colby Johnson returned after graduation in 2012 and convinced his father to grow different pulse crops (leguminous crops harvested for their seed), including peas, chickpeas and lentils. In addition to pulse crops, the Johnsons also started to grow canola, mustard, hay, corn and soybeans. (In 2018, Colby Johnson was also appointed to the Montana Pulse Crop Committee.) Besides diversifying their offerings to bring in more revenue, Johnson also wanted to integrate new crops to benefit the soil. “Each plant gives and takes different nutrients,” he says.

© Matt Ehnes
Colby Johnson's hemp crops, grown on 200 to 300 acres in Montana, are processed into food products for Whole Foods, Dr. Bronner's, Patagonia Provisions and others.
© Courtesy of Jackee Beck and Colby Johnson
A dioecious hemp crop growing beneath the Pintler mountains in Deer Lodge.
Beck (left) and Johnson (right) frequently make the 200-mile trip back and forth from Conrad to Deer Lodge.
© Matt Ehnes

When the Johnsons began considering hemp, prices for many U.S. commodities began tanking due to the trade war with China. That dispute “wasn’t good for farmers,” Johnson says, but hemp gave them an additional commodity to work with and potentially profit from.

Hemp farming seemed like a natural next step for the Johnsons after years of experimenting with different crop rotations. However, they wanted to keep their risk relatively small. So, they’ve dedicated about 200 to 300 acres (4% to 6% of their total acreage) to hemp each year.

“Jeff Kostuik [of Canada-based Hemp Production Services/Hemp Genetics International] was the first guy I talked to,” Johnson says. “I understood that Canada had been growing hemp for almost two decades before we were allowed to, so I got a hold of him, and … he gave me a lot of info.”

However, Johnson couldn’t purchase Hemp Genetics International's (HGI) seeds because of unclear guidance from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Frustrated, Johnson’s brother (and Johnson Farms’ attorney) Ross wrote a letter to U.S. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana outlining the struggle. Tester took up the issue—within two weeks, Johnson says—by co-writing a letter with U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and CBP in April 2019. Shortly thereafter, U.S. farmers were permitted to purchase hemp seeds from Canada, and Johnson began legally buying seeds from HGI.

 

Two Farms, Two Uses for Hemp

Johnson and his farm have since been focused primarily on grain production. “Being a small grain producer, I always knew that the grain aspect of hemp fit in best with our operation, although it wasn’t the shiny, awesome, huge money-maker that CBD was two years ago,” Johnson says. “I always knew it would always make money, and we didn’t have to change our operation drastically.”

Victory Hemp Foods processes the grain Johnson produces; the grain is eventually made into products for Severino Pasta (sold at Whole Foods), Dr. Bronner’s soaps and lip balms, Patagonia Provisions' seed mixes and more.

For Beck in Deer Lodge, about three hours south of Conrad, CBD hemp made the most sense. Also a fourth-generation farmer, Beck and her family now primarily raise beef cattle on land the family previously used for sheepherding. Her family has flood irrigation set up for the feed they grew for the cattle on the ranch. In early 2018, an agency representing hemp farmers contacted Beck to see if she would be willing to grow hemp under the flood irrigation to collect data. “I originally said no just because of the stigma behind [growing hemp],” Beck says. Shortly after that, her mother was diagnosed with cancer, and she started to investigate the medical benefits of CBD. She called the agency back and agreed to give it a shot. Beck and the agency are no longer working together, but she has stuck with the crop. Three years later, Beck is producing 100 acres of recently USDA Organic-certified hemp.

Her products are extracted by a contracted processor into menthol rubs, gel caps, lotions, gummies and more via two different brands: Mountain Mend and Diamond B Collective. The Mountain Mend brand is positioned to attract outdoorsy-types who like to hike and ski and is sold in local outdoor-gear shops, such as Bob Ward’s. Diamond B Collective, named after the Becks’ beef cattle brand, is more of a boutique brand sold at high-end golf courses, ski resorts and private clubs throughout the state. She hopes to eventually distribute Mountain Mend and Diamond B Collective products to gas stations and convenience stores.

Last year, the Johnsons tried growing hemp for CBD in Conrad; however, “it didn’t really pan out,” Johnson says. “We had a pretty good snow in September that wrecked everything. That’s what you get for living in Montana. The only month I haven’t seen it snow is in July.”

 

The Big Sky Country Advantage

Cold as it may be, Montana is an ideal state for growing hemp, according to Johnson and Beck. The growing season is short because the frost creeps up quickly and the snowfall is heavy—but its arid atmosphere and cool nights stave off waves of botrytis that quickly can ruin a farmer’s crop.

“This is my push with all crops: Montana has the cleanest air, the cleanest water and the cleanest soil,” Johnson says.

Beck says her water in Deer Lodge comes “straight from mountain lakes [and] snowpack, right to the field.”

“I’m sure if we wanted to … we could market it as ‘glacier-fed,’” Johnson says.

Seventy acres of Beck’s farm are under pivot irrigation, and 30 acres are under drip line and plastic mulch (flood irrigation), she adds. When she was researching hemp and attending conferences, people told her she’d never be able to grow hemp under flood irrigation because it could drown hemp seeds, which are known to be sensitive to water. But Beck says she’s found success because of her family’s years of experience with the technique. “There’s a lot to it,” Beck says, from setting dams in the right place to correctly managing the flow of water. “It’s sort of a lost art,” she adds. “My dad has been doing it his entire life, and he’s the one who guides me.”

In Conrad, Johnson uses mostly pivot irrigation for his grain hemp—except for about 150 acres of dry land that solely depend on rainfall.

Neither Johnson nor Beck have had any severe insect issues, like the grasshoppers they’ve seen plague other farmers in the state. Gophers, on the other hand, are pests that have had their way with both their crops. “The growing point for hemp is above-ground, so if they nip it off right at the ground, the plant’s dead,” Johnson says. “But as far as anything else, we’ve been pretty good.”

© Courtesy of Jackee Beck and Colby Johnson
A honeybee-attracting CBD cultivar at Racetrack Beck Ranch in Deer Lodge, Mont.

Montana has been good to hemp crops, and the crops have, in turn, been good to Montana.

“The first thing I noticed [in Conrad] was the amount of honeybees that were in [the fields]. Everywhere,” says Johnson, recalling the first season he planted hemp. “They look like B-52 bombers flying around because they’re so loaded with pollen.”

In Deer Lodge, Beck commissioned a company to install honeybee hives next to the fields. She’s currently the only hemp farmer in her valley, she says, so she doesn’t worry about pollen drift and cross-pollination from neighboring hemp crops.

Johnson says the ground in Conrad doesn’t have much topsoil and has a hardpan underneath. “The tap roots on the hemp were able to break that up. Not only would they break it up, but the roots that were left would decompose, and it was just amazing,” he says, adding that the decomposed roots add nutrients into the soil. It has helped the Johnsons achieve record yields of their malt barley crop after it follows hemp.

Hemp stands also help cover the ground and keep it cool, Johnson says. He experimented on a 10-acre plot with a different seed variety that he thought was grain but ended up being fiber, which grew up to 14 feet tall. Underneath the canopy, “you can [sense] a huge temperature difference,” Johnson says. “If it’s 95 degrees outside and you walked in there, it was 80, 85 degrees. The soil was cool. It was moist. And that adds a lot to the soil.

“I like to make money, but that kind of stuff gets me just as excited about farming,” Johnson says.

Another exciting aspect of farming is working with a significant other when given the opportunity, Beck says. Johnson and Beck frequently make the 200-mile trip back and forth from Conrad to Deer Lodge and are involved heavily in each other’s operations.

“As a farmer knows—you do everything around the weather. So, if it’s bad in one place, we can run down to the other and get something done, whether that’s seeding or harvesting or baling or planting or combining. … We just go hand-in-hand together to all of those places and do all those things,” Beck says. “And honestly, it is really great.”

 

A Tale of Two Harvests

Johnson and Beck are also gaining experience in the different styles of harvesting hemp.

In Conrad with the grain crop, they use a John Deere S680 combine with 640D draper headers. “When it comes off the combine, we deliver it to our grain bins that have quite a bit of airflow,” Johnson says. “Our full-floor aeration bin is 4,500 bushels, and then we have [multiple] hopper bottoms that have forced air that is 2,200 bushels.”

During the drying process, the grain is taken from the bin and put back in, a process called “turning it over” that allows more moisture to escape. The fans are left on until the grain starts to draw below a 10% moisture threshold.

Deer Lodge’s harvest is quite a different process. Beck, Johnson and a close-knit group of family and friends hand-cut 70 acres of auto-flowering CBD varieties. The harvest took two weeks. “We had anywhere from just me out there cutting to 15 people out there cutting at once,” Beck says, joking that her helpers may not “answer my calls now.”

They transport the hemp in a trailer to her brother’s logging facility warehouse, about 60 feet x 50 feet x 14 feet in size, where the hemp is hung up to dry, all by hand. “We were concerned hanging that much CBD product the way people had been doing it—which was in rafters or on ropes. … We didn’t have enough space,” she says. “So, I came up with this idea of hanging [on an] orange construction fence.”

Beck wanted to make sure the hemp flower would properly cure, so she brought in industrial humidifiers, dehumidifiers, heaters and exhaust fans to make sure she was continually controlling the temperature and humidity.

With this season’s harvest, she made a pivot from extracted products to smokable hemp. “The terpene readout [was] way higher than your typical auto-flower hemp crop. … I’m competing with the indoor, very structured growers, and turns out I just happened to have a great process here,” she says. Beck, Johnson and their team are working on hand-trimming the flower now, which will eventually be sold as smokable hemp under the Mountain Mend brand.

 

Mentoring Farmers

At this point, Beck and Johnson have found reliable business partners and feel good about where they’re headed. But they are still not strangers to those who may want to take advantage of farmers.

“The middlemen have … ruined part of the industry,” Johnson says. “I’ll get a phone call, and somebody’s interested in buying what I have. And now, usually the first question I ask is, ‘Are you working for this company or are you a broker for the company?’ And 95% of the time, it’s, ‘Yeah, we’re just brokering a deal.’ I can’t do it, because a lot of these brokers, they’ll say, ‘Oh, we’ll come get the biomass, and then we’ll pay you in installments.’ And I say, ‘Absolutely not. If you guys want it, you guys can buy it, but I need a check the day you pick it up.’ … And the deal falls through.”

“It’s sad because you want to trust people, but it’s just part of playing it safe in the industry because we’ve seen so much negativity,” Beck adds.

Now, Johnson and Beck are teaching new farmers about what to look out for. “I tell all farmers who have any kind of biomass or anything to sell, ‘Make sure you get your money right away … because there’s a lot of people who’ve lost semi-loads of stuff,’” Johnson says.

They say the Montana Department of Agriculture and its work with the committee has also been helpful for farmers.

“I absolutely rave about our state ag department and the director [Benjamin Thomas],” Beck says.

“They are 110% percent on board with the hemp industry and making it work for farmers,” she adds. “They want to see the industry succeed for the farmers in Montana.”

Johnson adds, “Montana seems to be a state where senators, congressmen, they fight for farmers. It’s pretty cool … to witness.”

One of those ways the state has helped farmers is by requiring extractors and processors to be licensed “so we can confirm that they’re real people through the state,” Beck says.

Since 2018, the industry has become much more tight-knit, according to Johnson and Beck. “Everyone sort of talks with everyone,” Beck says. “Now that we’ve been in the industry for a while, it’s easier to sort out the people who we know are just trying to bluff.”

And the couple’s extraction and processing partners go out of their way to help. For instance, when Beck had a small lot of cannabigerol (CBG) hemp plants she had to cut down earlier than the rest of her crop, her extraction partner didn’t want to take on the smaller portion, but the team there helped her find someone to work with it.

In 2020, Montana growers planted hemp on about 11,000 acres and in 104,000 square feet (2.4 acres) of greenhouse space, according to the Montana Department of Agriculture. On Nov. 1, 2020, the state switched from its pilot program to the USDA-approved hemp plan.

Even with all the success they’ve seen so far, Johnson and Beck still plan to keep their hemp-farming risks low for the time being. “As much and as long as we’ve been farming hemp, we’re not putting our entire plates into it, just a small portion,” Johnson says.

Johnson adds that his advocacy for hemp—including his push to create the hemp committee back in 2019—revolved around the idea of creating an industry that, even if all other commodity prices were low, could earn farmers a profit to carry them into the next year.

“That’s just kind of the way of a new industry. You’ve got to win some, you’ve got to lose some,” Johnson says. “Hopefully, keep on doing it the next year.”

 

Cassie Neiden Tomaselli is the conference programming director for Cannabis Conference, produced by Cannabis Business Times, Cannabis Dispensary and Hemp Grower, media brands for which she serves as contributing editor.