Mark Doudlah FarmRite Organics™
“Farma” for People
“Once you get the ‘farming bug’ there is no cure, not like you can take a pill for it,” laughed Mark Doudlah, owner of Doudlah Farms, LLC and their branded label, FarmRite Organics™. “My Dad Earl had a big impact on my life as a farmer. He farmed 300 acres here in Southern Wisconsin (Evansville). I have been involved in production agriculture my entire life. I got my start in Agriculture in 1982 as a sophomore in high school. Dad rented me the first farm he bought in 1965 the year I was born. My son, Jason will be the 5th generation farmer. Jason is finishing up his farming short course at UW-Madison and plans to continue his BS in Agriculture. Jason was an important resource while we were considering industrial hemp production.”
“I was a conventional Chemical farmer until 2008. Once Dad was diagnosed with Mantel Cell Lymphoma (a farmer’s cancer). We were convinced by UW-Madison oncologists that pesticides and other chemicals were responsible for his cancer. It also put a new awareness as a whole to public health problems in general and my part in all of this as a farmer,” reflected Mark.
“In Dad’s honor, we decided to farm 40 acres organically. During this transition, we had a huge learning curve. We had to raise the bean head over the organic soybeans to top cut the weeds to give the soybeans sunlight. This was a steep learning curve. We had to learn what works and what doesn’t. Healing the land is a long term process. Stimulating the biology is now the focus, and the old NPK paradigm goes on the backburner.”
What accelerated this learning curve was meeting Jeff Moyer of Rodale Institute. “I sat in on a MOSES Organic Farming Conference about Crimped Cereal Rye. See our farm is 1/3 very productive, 1/3 average and 1/3 erodible (HEL). I was asking myself, ‘How do we do organic on hilly (HEL) ground?’ Sitting in that seminar was an eye opener. My Ah-ha moment. I realized that I had just planted cereal rye on all of my conventional corn ground. That gave me the confidence to transition 650 acres of cereal rye in corn stalks (some HEL) to organic soybeans by using the No-Till Crimped Cereal Rye Method that I just heard Jeff Moyer use and had already trothed at Rodale. What an inspiration!”
“Later I worked with Erin Silva at UW-Madison on No-Till Organic Corn. Now Corn is much more difficult than soybeans. Corn needs nitrogen early, which is hard to do at the right time. 1% of the energy used in the world is to produce synthetic nitrogen for corn in the USA alone. Enormous energy is needed to start corn,” stated Mark. We are trying to mimic that with biology and legumes. Rodale has been able to do organic No-Till corn, but they have a longer growing season in Pennsylvania and can get vetch to produce nitrogen at the right time and still terminate with a crimper.”
Doudlah with his wife Lucy and son Jason currently farm 1,500 acres organically; 500 that he owns and another 1,000 rented acres. The main crops are food grade soybeans and corn, specialty flint-dent corns, blacks, pintos and dark red kidney beans, along with a food grade hard red winter wheat. His cover crops are primarily cereal rye, vetch, daikon radish, buckwheat and clovers. “The limitation for organic cash crop grains is nitrogen. We have to grow more nitrogen, yes we have manures, but we need more legumes to grow more nitrogen and conducive biology to pull nitrogen from the atmosphere. We also need to think more about human health and what we grow dictates human health. Our farm slogan is ‘Your Health is Deeply Rooted in Our Soils’™ noted Mark. This emphasis on human health and biological production led Mark to plant industrial hemp for the first time in 2019. “There were several little things that led to the decision. CBD (cannabidiol) from hemp is key to human health for some. We have all of the cannabinoid receptors. Due to propaganda, this crop was neglected for decades, but we’re going to see that change quite quickly. We are interested in becoming part of that supply change for food, supplements and oils. CBD has been shown to give pain relief, anxiety relief, insomnia relief and many other benefits in the treatment of cancer. I am not qualified to talk about all the benefits, but everyone should do their own research about all the benefits of CBD. As organic farmers we need to take back our markets including “Farma spelled with a ‘F’ not ‘Ph’.”
“I get excited about this crop. In my conventional days I was part of the problem. I thought I was feeding the world, but I was really making people sick. CBD is a way for organic farmers to improve profitability and be part of the human health solutions. The decline of human health has the ability to bankrupt this country, so it’s important we get on the right track.”
“Wisconsin is well positioned to grow industrial hemp. Our farm grew hemp back in the 1930’s. We still had it growing wild on the farm into the 70’s when I cut it out of our soybean fields with my dad at the age of 5. It sure would be great to have those genetics now. Hemp and tobacco have some production similarities, so the tools and the old tobacco drying sheds served this hemp production well.”
“I was introduced to producing hemp in 2018, but due to the banking reservations and by-laws of the banking industry in Wisconsin, it was difficult to get the necessary financing or keep your operating loans so I decided against it at that time. However, the 2018 Farm Bill, (which legalized hemp production at the federal level) made it possible in 2019. Getting a reliable seed source was the next big concern, and learning a lot more about hemp production. I made plans and bought T2 Trump hemp seeds, a variety for CBD production. I bought 35,000 seeds, enough for 20 acres, for $1.00 per seed- a steep investment for a new crop. The seed came in a bag about the size of a 2 pound coffee bag. I thought ‘this can’t be $35,000 worth of seeds?’” laughed Mark.
“To ensure the best germination, my son, Jason and I decided to transplant hemp seedlings instead of direct seeding them. My son raised 800 pastured organic certified broiler chickens while in high school, so we retrofitted the chicken tractors into small greenhouses. We purchased 128 cell trays, a dimpler and a seeder. We then began the process of seeding the trays, which we covered with vermiculite. We got great germination. It was about as easy as growing transplants for tobacco. We retrofitted an old Ellis Tobacco setter and transplanted the hemp into rows with 48” between plants and 90” between rows. We decided to add a liquid organic fertilizer, humic and biology to the transplant water. We then came back the same day; and planted a cover crop so we would mow for weed control rather than cultivate.”
“We put down three (3) bushels of cereal rye per acre and twenty-five pounds of medium red clover seed. We then went over the whole field with our roller crimper, which is more like an old cultipacker. We wanted the immediate seed to soil contact to get our cover crop started for the weed control. The rolling did not faze the small hemp plants. The cover crop gave us weed control, moisture control, erosion control, nitrogen productions and biological activity as it was mowed into the row” said Mark.
“Jason modified a push mower to pull alongside a rider to mow the alley in just one pass. It took approximately 30 hours to do the 20 acres with the dual mowing system. We also used a stand up mower with a 36” deck to mow between the plants. The mowing helped a lot with eliminating early weed escapes and establishing the red clover. Wet weather can really degrade a hemp crop. The rain and the wind can splash dirt and knock over plants. We had a really rainy 2019 with some high winds, so a lot of the hemp plants were laying down after a heavy rain event. I am a big believer in cover crops to protect the plant and soil from damage. It also perfectly sets us up to rotate to corn the following year, since we have such good weed control and a tremendous amount of nitrogen production with the red clover. We also hand-hoed each plant twice around the base of each hemp plant to clear weeds and push back the cover crop to give the hemp a solid start,” explained Mark.
Hemp harvested for CBD production only uses the flower and the leaves, not the fibrous stems. Hemp is dioecious, which means that there are separate male and female plants. Only the female plant is used for CBD production. CBD is produced in the flowers in special resin glands called trichomes that only occur in the female flower and surrounding leaves. THC, which is the active component in marijuana, must be less than 0.3% in industrial hemp by law. CBD levels vary, depending upon the hemp variety and other factors, but the value of the crop increases with higher CBD levels.
“I did not have as great a risk as some other growers. The hemp seeds I bought were feminized, so I was guaranteed that 99% of my plants would be female. Out of 35,000 seeds, we only had to pull 320 males. Some growers that bought regular seed, averaged 50-60% males. Pulling those out is labor intensive and lacks field production uniformity.” noted Mark.
“We are currently working with a company to bring the price of seed down and CBD levels up. The industry is striving for 10%+ CBD out of the biomass. Eventually, the cost of seed will decrease exponentially. We are hoping for approximately $0.40 per seed next year. The whole industry is developing quickly. Europe is already harvesting seed, flower, and fiber in one pass.
Hemp harvested for other uses, such as fiber for paper or rope, will use both male and female plants and those varieties will have very different characteristics. When marijuana was classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance in the 70’s, the entire national hemp seed bank was destroyed. A lot of genetic diversity was lost as a result. Since the 2018 Farm Bill $500,000 was allocated to restore a national hemp seed bank. Eventually, specialized varieties will become more readily available.
“Hemp is usually ready to harvest in late September-early October. For a CBD crop, that is when the resin glands sill and turn a golden color, which indicates maximum CBD levels. DATCP was notified and sampled our field to ensure THC was less than 0.399% and issued a Fit for Commerce Certificate.”
“We harvested and dried the hemp in two different ways. We had shed space for about half of the crop. About 15,000 plants were hand harvested, speared onto a lathe, and hung in the existing tobacco drying sheds to cure. Hemp plants can have a 3” trunk, which is nearly impossible to spear, so we had to spear higher up the stem and dry it trunk down. The tobacco shed worked very well for this process. The curing process for hemp is similar to tobacco. The hemp flower is very tight, so mold can be a problem. We added five large barn fans to circulate air in the shed to control humidity.”
“The other half was harvested with a modified whole plant chopper that was developed previously for native seed and then dried in an air dry bin used for corn and bean drying. The bin also worked well, but the trichomes are very fragile, so there is some quality loss with this chopping process. The modified harvester helped to minimize the damage. UW-Madison Ag Engineering is procuring grants to work on new dryers and threshers to reduce quality losses and improve efficiency for Wisconsin growers.”
“After a lot of weekly testing it was proven that there were higher CBD levels in the hemp cured in the drying sheds. I am not sure if that will justify the extra manual labor and costs at this time,” noted Mark.
“To finally complete the harvest of the shed dried plants, we built a ‘bucker’ which is a machine to strip the leaves and flowers from the stem. It worked well, but was very time consuming. A hemp plant can have 20-30 stems to put through the bucker. To speed the process us we also made a thresher and married it to a large fan and cyclone to pull the leaves and flowers away from the threshed plants. A 75 micron filter bag was installed to catch the airborne kief (crystallized trichomes). There is not much of an avenue for the remaining fiber right now, maybe it could be used as bedding. Hemp currently can’t be used as a feed source, and the fiber infrastructure is lagging so there aren’t as many options. This will change quickly as the Midwest grows zero acres of cotton and Levis has found a way to make hemp fiber feel like cotton. Wisconsin’s rich paper production heritage will transition to hemp for efficiency and environmental benefits. Even our founding fathers wrote the Constitution on hemp paper.”
Hemp flowers and leaves need to be dried to 10% moisture content or lower for safe storage and CBD extraction. “It is important to develop new extraction techniques for organic production. It is a challenge to our developing industry. Some common post extraction purification methods are difficult to be done organically. The organic certification process will help the industry move away from harsh chemicals,” explained Mark.
“There are a lot of moving parts in this business, so we are selling our hemp in different ways. We currently are doing some direct sales to retail stores, mostly the premium hemp flowers cured in our tobacco drying shed. We also sell wholesale biomass to processors that make various CBD products. We eventually want to have our own product line, and our long term strategy is to develop an organic health and education center. Since our daughter Emily is studying to be a naturopathic Doctor, we are looking at creating a clinic and filling it with healthy organic options. CBD products are just part of that vision.”
“Farmers need to work with extractors to vertically integrate the supply chain to receive more value from this hemp crop. It is important that we receive a fair price for providing a healthy ‘Farmaceutical’ grade product to the healthcare industry. Organic farmers need the profit to regenerate their soils to continue to provide nutrient dense safe products to the conscious consumer. That is now my definition of an organic farmer- ‘Provide nutrient dense safe products to consumers that want the health benefits or organic agriculture.’”
“One last piece to this puzzle, is before you get started, make sure to get legal advice regarding your contracts. You need to preserve value onto your farm. Start at retail pricing and work backwards and only grow what you can afford to lose monetarily. There is risk in thc testing, weather, drying, storage, transport and getting paid. Insurance is also difficult because it is so new to the industry.” said Mark.
“We also need to do a lot of consumer education. We need to get people over the marijuana propaganda and help them understand the difference in the THC levels, which is only 0.3% in hemp. The medical and scientific research communities need to step up too. There are 190+ cannabinoids in hemp, and we don’t know what they all do, or if CBD is even the best one for your health. Full spectrum products are probably the best. A lot of research is still needed. It’s exciting times for organic farmers. Farmers are providing medical solutions to the public-this crop has to be organic,” emphasized Mark.
“It’s a blessing for farmers to have a profitable crop for them and one that is good for our consumer’s health, and isn’t that why we are organic?”