The following excerpt is from Doug Fine’s new book American Hemp Famer: Adventures and Misadventures in the Cannabis Trade (Chelsea Green Publishing, April 2020) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
The easiest part of hemp planting is figuring out your seed depth, plant spacing, and watering protocol. The hardest part of hemp planting is getting your farm equipment to implement those instructions.
In fact, I’ll tell you right here to plant at a half-inch depth in moist soil that allows for good seed-to-soil contact and thus maximum germination. Doing that with the 7-to-15-inch spacing we discussed will occupy 47 minutes of your 20-hour planting day. The other 19 hours and 13 minutes will mostly be spent under a terrible device called a seed drill. By, say, 11:00 a.m., generally the emotional nadir of a planting day, you’ll be dirty, bloody, very hungry, and thinking, Huh, I would’ve thought my first hemp-planting day would involve more actual planting of hemp. By lunch you should consider yourself in very good shape if you’re even sinking the first seeds in the ground. In case it helps you remember that you’re not alone, this diary of my group’s three-acre 2018 planting of the dioecious Samurai cultivar in Oregon’s Emerald Triangle reflects how planting day usually goes.
7:05 a.m.: Survey of Field, Yoga, Return to Child Mind. The ideal date range for sowing hemp is a latitude-factored-on-climate-change issue. It’ll vary from late March to mid-June depending on your spring weather forecast and cultivar. In 2018, it is at the end of May for our field above the Rogue River. By this point we’ve cultivated billions of microbial communities before the seed even hits soil—mostly by leaving it alone for 20 years.
Not long after sunrise I set my coffee on the tree stump that marks our snack stockpile and tool dump near the gate to the field. After a few Sun Salutations, the whole thing looks so doable. I’m sure we’ll have our 50 pounds of seed in the soil in no time and I’ll be tubing the river by midafternoon.
I should know better. By 2018, I am aware—as I wake in the farmhouse of my mentors and partners Edgar and Margaret up in the hills of southern Oregon’s famous cannabis-cultivation region—that before noon we’ll have basked in two dozen nerve-curdling delays. This is not my first hemp rodeo. I’ve chased goats, woodchucks, and one determined family of wild pigs out of hemp fields.
After a baker’s dozen plantings, I have learned that the only certainty will be joys and hassles we can’t dream up. For instance, the Pacific Northwest version of the—ho hum—Anthropocene epoch’s annual millennial wildfires won’t start for a few weeks in Oregon, and they will last for more than five weeks. But as always, I am willfully forgetting the coming realities of planting day. Spring has sprung. So right off the bat, I’d probably be happy in the DMV.
Being outside sets up a struggle between logic and endorphins, between deadlines and love, where the right brain wins every time. As you stretch, you’re smelling forsythia and raspberry blossoms. Working in the dirt. Your office has no walls. Courting hawks land in nearby limbs. Nothing else exists. For those unused to the feeling I’m describing, it’s called sanity.
From a practical perspective, this “child mind” is what makes you forget last season’s planting nightmares. It is probably some chemical wafting out of healthy soil that casts an indisputable spell of forgetting. This is, really, the essential component of childhood—you don’t know, or don’t care, what’s coming next.
It’s not only last year’s seed drill delays that you forget. Your product’s bottle caps don’t quite fit the bottles? Your state’s regulators are sticking with the absurd “field out of view from road” requirements for another season? Whatever, that was yesterday. Today is planting day. The ultimate now.
7:19 a.m.: Return to Barn for First Human Error–Caused Tractor Breakdown. The wise farmer approaches planting day very much the way a pro ballplayer approaches spring training. It’s intended to get the cobwebs out. But Major League Baseball is smart enough to have 37 days of practice games. We farmers have to wake up, get dressed, and immediately pour lubricants into the wrong reservoirs in tractors.
Terrible sounds and smells alert the group to the problem. In 2018, our perpetrator (not mentioning names, he is just playing an assigned role) avoids eye contact by checking irrelevant tanks with a dipstick. Then the tractor expires into a profound quiet. Our planting day stops before it starts.
This, of course, happens when the temperature is still frosty, and the last thing anyone wants to be doing is unscrewing metal plugs. The next 27 minutes are spent draining one disgusting fluid, pouring in a second, and remembering that we meant to run to town yesterday to pick up a third.
7:46 a.m.: Talking Big. This important phase of planting day commences when, already three-quarters of an hour behind schedule and clustered around the stalled tractor and seed drill, your whole team is now on-site. Just seeing a bag of hempseed unleashes passion. The infectious excitement about the season opening in front of you all results in conversation that goes something like this:
“We can probably do two hundred fifty thousand units,” your partner gushes, pouring a bit of test seed into the seed drill reservoir from a 25-pound bag balanced precariously on his shoulder. “These babies look like they’re ready for it.”
Before you can decipher that remark, the tractor-fluid situation gets straightened out and the engine turns over, leading to a group cheer. The ice is broken.
The aged diesel motor is loud. You shout louder. The hawks scatter. You and your team continue crunching numbers, visualizing the killing the enterprise is going to make when this superlative crop finds itself on shelves.
“Gonna be a great season,” you agree, ignoring the fact that implementing your colleague’s 250,000-unit suggestion would mean 25 times the storage you have dialed in for the flower harvest alone.
As the seed drill is attached to the tractor in a sort of awkward Iwo Jima re-creation, you spend some moments wondering if they award prizes for Most Righteous Farmer of the Year. Before getting a seed in the ground, you tend to put the cart before the oxen.
In the business cycle, planting time represents what you might call the R and D retreat, or the spitballing phase. Some good ideas do come from these field meetings. But really what unfolds represents the primate love of daydreaming. It’s pleasant to visualize that “lying on the beach with an umbrella drink” moment that provides the final scene in 73 percent of movies produced in the 1980s. Everything is ahead of you.
7:51 a.m.: Tractor Moves. Leading a parade of choking farmers and dogs, the farm conveyance crawls 200 yards to the field, churning roughly Bhutan’s annual petroleum output. This is one reason my product labels boast of a petroleum-free harvest. The planting, usually but not always, has been a different story.
8:04 a.m.: First Seed Drill Malfunction. There comes a moment on planting day when the final distractions fade. You feel an all-systems-go sensation. You’ve built soil, acquired your genetics, and prepped your field. Your seed has germinated at 95 percent in the 100-seed paper towel test you conducted as soon as you brought it home six weeks earlier. The tractor has bumped its way to the east side of the field, something that seemed wildly improbable half an hour ago. There you plan to make your first “pass,” which is farmer-speak for the bundle of rows you plant each time your tractor does a lap.
Something clicks. The whole crew feels it. An internal timer signals that you’ve daydreamed long enough. Between fast-moving foggy hints of rain and skin-singeing teasers of how hot the day may get, everyone shoots one another an effervescent thumbs-up or shaka. Let’s get to work.
This, according to the universal calendar of hemp, is when the seed drill fails. As the walls of our bubble of forgetting explode around us again on May 28, Edgar and I shoot each other a glance that says, Oh, right. This.
This is my fourth year of planting delays. His 62nd. We know our day has changed. We will have to spend many gory hours resolving this kind of SNAFU.
The seed drill (also known as a grain drill) is a device invented to punish us for something (maybe for staying still and farming at all, rather than wandering around seminomadically after caribou, wildebeest, and bison, the way we’re hardwired to do). It’s a nonmotorized machine hitched to the back of a tractor (or oxen team), basically a storage container with carefully calculated leaks that drop seeds down a series of chutes from the bin to the ground as often and as deeply as you calibrate it to do. Theoretically.
Like the tractor itself, it’s supposed to make agricultural endeavors easier by improving on the time it would take actual human beings to plant seeds. Instead, working with a seed drill is easily the most maddening element of planting season. Not the only maddening element. Just the most reliably maddening. More practically, seed drill–maintenance delays ensure that agriculture remains about as efficient as it was on the first planting day along the Euphrates.
We appear to be trapped in a constant here, which I call Fine’s Law of Abandoning Traditional Economic Rituals, or FLOATER. This constant establishes that in mechanized agriculture (defined as farming that employs machines rather than hands, hand tools, or livestock), a mission critical problem with a poorly designed, factory-made piece of crap will occur exactly once per pass during the first morning of a given year’s planting season.
It can vary, but early in the day when everyone and everything is rusty, the time it takes to plant a pass plus deal with the malfunction leading up to it usually totals around an hour and a half. We have about 60 passes in front of us this day.
For a long while all the hawks can see are eight booted feet protruding, midfield, from under a tractor and its seed drill attachment. All they can hear is the occasional expletive when yet another socket wrench attachment proves to be just the wrong size.
Despite the delay, spirits are high in the long-angled morning light. That’s because the mood in the field is that of a home birth. We are hemp midwives, and loving it. If you speak to most midwives, they’ll tell you it’s a pretty joyful occupation. A perpetual birthday party. And in our bodies as we plant any crop, oxytocin is exchanged as in any parent-child relationship.
Plus as a farming group, enough of us know that the pace tends to pick up in the afternoon. Even during the worst moments of FLOATER despair, it helps to keep in mind that the hemp will get planted. It’ll just take 10 times longer than you’ve budgeted.
I haven’t yet heard anyone say, “Dang, planting day was just too much of a pain in the ass. I decided not to go through with it.” I have indeed heard such a sentiment following harvest quagmires. But not at planting.
The brain is a remarkably flexible chemistry lab. It can secrete, at electromagnetic speed, any emotion for which the situation calls. The sequence of planting day emotions is: Bliss. Frustration. Elation. Repeat. Unless you really do plant a small-acreage crop by hand, though (not a bad idea), just don’t imagine for a second that you’re immune from the FLOATER constant.
Doug Fine is an investigative journalist and an award-winning culture and climate correspondent for NPR, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, among others. His previous books include Hemp Bound, Too High to Fail, and Farewell, My Subaru. Find him online at www.dougfine.com and @organiccowboy.