TUSCOLA COUNTY (WJRT) - The first farmers in Michigan licensed to grow hemp are now harvesting the crop.
The 2018 Farm Bill paved the way for the crop's legalization as a commodity.
Then in April the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development launched the first-ever Industrial Hemp Ag Pilot Program.
Marty Zwerk, with Zwerk and Sons Farms, said it's been a learning process.
"It's like the wild west, they call it, is what every says," Zwerk said. "Cause there's no, it's just all new."
Zwerk said Wednesday night was the first time their equipment was used to harvest their 40 acre test site.
For the last couple of weeks they'd done some hand harvesting. "It's very, very labor intensive, so now we're going to go to the mechanical part of harvesting, which we always planned on doing," Zwerk said.
Thursday morning they took another pass at the field.
Zwerk said hemp is the first new crop he's launched during his decades of farming.
"It's exciting, it's been a pretty steep learning curve," Zwerk said. "Every day it seems to have another hurdle to overcome. But we're learning as we go."
The learning curve started in May shortly after the first round of planting was complete. The Memorial Day weekend rain washed away what was planted.
In June they planted a second time. It's grown fine since then.
Zwerk told us they really had to think about whether or not they wanted to be part of this emerging crop. "We talked about it, you kind of blew it off a little bit like, 'ahh, we're not going to do that'. And then you started running the economics of it."
Once the hemp is off the field it comes inside one of their Tuscola County buildings where it's briefly stored before going through a specialized dryer.
The entire building is being repurposed to process the hemp. "We've invested in some processing equipment, drying equipment to keep it in condition," Zwerk said.
More equipment still has to be installed. The extruding machine which gets the CBD oil from what remains of the plant is on its way.
Processing a crop is a new step for this long-time farm.
"We don't make our corn into ethanol, we haul it somewhere, they make it into ethanol. The sugar company makes our sugar beets into sugar," Zwerk explained.
Harvesting the rest of their 40 acre test plot could take up to three additional weeks.
According to MDARD, 572 farmers have grower licenses, while 433 farmers have a license to process and handle hemp.