hemp field
Hemp field.

By Geoffrey Taylor, MA

Unlike other crops with an abundance of reliable and upstanding seed and transplant providers, hemp farmers are facing an uphill battle in finding not only the right genetics for their agricultural operation but also facing some major hurdles with some seed and transplant providers using unscrupulous practices, low quality seed or outright fraud to dupe local growers into subpar stock that results in poor quality, low yield or downright unusable hemp biomass.

“I know of a few farmers who were taken advantage of, either with low quality seed or through acquiring unknown genetics from shady operators,“ said Johnathan Mills of EcoHemp of California, a permitted hemp producer near Delano. “Unfortunately, there’s no real way to track if the seed you are purchasing is feminized, has a low THC content or is Farm Bill compliant.”

Recent fraud and scam cases across the country provide a glimpse into these unethical seed and transplant sellers and the tactics they’re using to exploit the newness of the hemp market as well as the regulations around acquiring seed only from state-registered sellers, regardless of the state in which they operate.

Many examples of deceptive trade practices in the hemp industry are popping up nationwide—from Oregon to North California and right back to the Central Valley.

“Triton Agriculture is a newly formed farming company, and we focused very heavily on doing things right from the start,” said Travis Copeland of Triton Agriculture, a permitted hemp producer near Wasco. “From focusing on plant health and nutrition, soil work to seed germination techniques, we did our due diligence to ensure this past season would go as planned.”

Unfortunately, a “reputable” seed breeder registered with the California Department of Agriculture provided the group with a batch of seed that had a substantially lower germination rate than advertised. Needless to say, Triton Agriculture faced their own uphill battle due to the low quality genetics they procured from a seemingly honest and ethical provider.

“Always check your seed in person and don’t be afraid to reference back to your MTA, or material transfer agreement,” said Copeland. “Our operation was very disappointed in our seed provider, which led to a lot of headaches and over $500,000 in losses due to low quality seed from a “reputable” seed breeder in California.”

This is not an isolated incident, but one of many that has left many hemp producers with a bad taste for these types of seed sellers. In the case of Triton, they had searched long and far for a reputable and highly regarded seed breeder and trusted their provider to come through with high quality seed at a higher cost.

For some producers, acquiring low priced seed through “Ziploc bag” deals has resulted in catastrophe for their crops. Some more unscrupulous seed sellers purchase low cost seed in foreign markets such as Canada, where seeds can be acquired for less than 0.10 cents per seed. Then, they turn around to sell those same seeds to unwitting buyers for as much as $1.00 per seed.

“As a hemp grower, I’m not surprised that the seed market is as high as it is right now,” said Mills. “But we’re bound to see prices come down and stabilize as the hemp market begins to stabilize.”

One issue for many farmers is using seed that is not verifiably feminized. For many farms who saw cost savings in buying non-feminized seeds, they also saw immense crop issues with cross-pollination between cultivars along with heavily seeded hemp flowers, which reduces market viability for the commodity. 

“Many farmers that lack experience with cannabis and hemp cultivars are having immense issues with pollination,” said Mills. “A lot of people have had pollinated fields resulting in seeded crops because they’re using seed stock that contains both male and female seeds.”

Yet another issue facing many hemp growers in California are low germination rates of the expensive seed stock they’re purchasing. These low germination rates can come from a number of factors, and, oftentimes, the advertised germination rates come from ideal laboratory settings where seeds begin to germinate in the ideal conditions for growth, making direct seeding hemp in an agricultural context a challenge to get anywhere near the projected or advertised germination rates.

Another local farmer, who cannot disclose their identity due to pending litigation, notes that “because our seed germination rate was so low, it feels like the seed provider knew that their seed was not the highest quality and the cost savings reflected that, but at the end of the day, they call that fraud where I come from.”

Valley hemp farmers have to be diligent in their sourcing of quality seed stock and transplant stock and focus their efforts on a number of variables, including photo-period stock versus auto-flower, feminized versus non-feminized, seed versus clone, varietal success in our climate, and other variables that play a major role in a successful grow season with the right cultivar. 

Another major factor for local hemp farmers to consider is the application of your hemp crop for either grain/fiber stock or for use in high-cannabinoid applications. Depending on your grow methodology and intended outcomes, it is critical to choose the right cultivars to ensure your operation meets the agricultural and horticultural goals this season.

“If there’s one thing about farmers, it’s that we adapt and overcome,” said Mills in response to all of uncertainty surrounding the hemp seed and transplant market. “We’re used to doing business with a handshake, but it’s a little more complicated than that in the hemp market.”

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