When Grace Holtkamp was living in London to finish up her Ph.D., she had no intention of becoming a hemp grower.

“I was unhappy in my job – it just wasn’t the right space for me,” she said. “My family has a wedding venue in central North Carolina and fall weddings overlap with hemp harvest. My mom told me she could use help with hemp, but I didn’t even know what it was. I took some time off and came home.”

Grace, who had no crop-growing experience growing, said her mother Lynne is a dreamer – and was determined to grow CBD hemp. “She found a great consultant at North Carolina State University for the first season, then I came in,” said Grace. “I worked for half a season with that consultant to figure out what I was doing, and the rest involved assembling my own team and educating myself by going to the industrial hemp summit, contacting other growers and learning from processors.”

Merry Hill Farm, in Mebane, is licensed under the North Carolina Hemp Pilot Program. The Holtkamps received licensure early in the program, and their farm was one of the first female owned and operated hemp farms. They are now also licensed under the USDA.

While the Holtkamps’ first growing year was a disaster, the second year was much better. “I loved the plants and learning, paying attention to details,” said Grace. “It was a great opportunity to come back to my family farm. I had never contributed to the farm, but it brought our family together.”

The Holtkamps wanted to grow a reasonably profitable crop and bring that profile to the agritourism side. “Once we got into it and found this plant is amazing for so many people and the environment, we knew we needed to do it properly,” said Grace. “That’s when I took over as lead grower.”

She enjoys the seed selection aspect of CBD hemp farming. “I wanted to grow as many different varieties as possible,” she said, adding that she chooses varieties that will thrive in their bioregion. “From an outreach point of view, I thought that would be a great way to expand my knowledge and offer more exciting choices to consumers. A lot of the genetics available on the East Coast have come from the Western states.”

She seeks genetics with mildew resistance, hardiness to withstand wind and resistance to regional diseases and pests.

“The fun part for me is the terpene profile,” said Grace. “It’s the personality profile of a hemp plant. It’s interesting to balance the field by growing varieties with different terpene profiles. I’m covering a range of bases to see what does well here.”

Merry Hill Farm purchases clones in 72-cell trays from several North Carolina growers. Grace said there’s a lack of locally available hemp clones because a lot of farmers who came into it early dropped out due to regulations.

“We plant over several days,” said Grace. “In our bioregion, plants have to be in by mid-May. Plants need the correct photoperiod and amount of time to manage pests and weather systems. We can’t have baby plants out on 90º days.”

Grace Holtkamp returned to the family farm to help with a somewhat unique venture – she and her mother now run a hemp farm with a U-pick option. Photo courtesy of Merry Hill Farm

Grace has tweaked her fertility program and keeps notes on everything she does throughout the season. She grows all hemp organically with minimal spray applications, feeding plants at the correct time and allowing beneficial insects to help with pest management.

Pest and weed control and maintaining the irrigation system throughout the growing season are constant challenges.  “We grow in red clay, so emitters come loose or get clogged,” said Grace. “Once the initial flowers appear, we don’t spray or fertilize. We flush plants so they have two weeks of nothing but water before they’re cut. There’s no fertilizer residue in the plants, so it’s smoother and softer, especially for those who smoke hemp.”

This year, Grace grew Cherry Citrus. “We liked Cherry Wine when it first came out,” she said, “so we look for varieties with the Cherry lineage because they know we like those qualities. It’s a combination of piquing the individual consumer’s interest with the terpene profile and the practical agronomy aspect for our bioregion. We need to know we can harvest within the USDA harvest window at a compliant level of THC.”

While cannabis varieties grown for CBD are genetically predisposed for lower THC levels, there’s no guarantee flowers will always test within legal range of 0.3% or less.

“THC levels spike due to stress in the plant,” Grace said. “That can be due to weather, which will cause the most fluctuation in the cannabinoid levels. Fertilizer can also affect THC levels.”

She noted that each season is different, and growers should be familiar with weather outlooks and understand that it takes about two weeks for cannabinoid levels to evolve.

“The USDA harvest window is 30 days after initial flower,” said Grace. “We produce lower-level CBD percentages because in order to remain compliant, we harvest sooner than we’d like. I don’t want to send anyone home with something that’s psychoactive or unsafe. We take each season at a time, monitor the plants and try not to stress or push them.”

In describing some of the current industry challenges, Grace referenced cannabinoids such as Delta-8, CBG (cannabigerol) and THCA (tetrahydrocannabinolic acid). “As science has expanded, the law side has been on the back of it, and they’re trying to keep up,” she said. “In the middle are farmers who are simply trying to grow something good for our bodies and the earth. We want to do it legally and compliantly, but it has not always been an easy or straightforward course.”

In 2018, Merry Hill hosted the country’s first U-pick hemp event. The Holtkamps launched this unique option to bring together law enforcement, public officials, community leaders and the public to offer transparency, education and outreach.

“Pick-your-own was a gray area,” said Grace. “The most important thing is to know the local laws, which cannabinoids are regulated and in which way and understand shipping laws – what might be legal in one state is not okay in another state.”

For those who pick their own, Grace provides documentation verifying plants are tested by a DEA registered lab and the farm holds a USDA license for growing.

Each season, she develops a brochure explaining how hemp is regulated, hemp terminology, how to safely choose hemp to purchase and how to dry and cure it at home.

Many people who visit Merry Hill Farm are from out of state, and they come with questions. This affords Lynne and Grace the opportunity to address concerns – “Transparency, being able to meet the farmer, accreditations the farm should have for the product, what people are comfortable asking for, such as a COA (certificate of analysis) or a THC report, which we always provide,” said Grace. “That relaxes people, then they enjoy the beautiful cannabis plant they can enjoy and take home safely.”

Visit Merry Hill Farm online at merryhillhemp.com.

by Sally Colby