Hemp farming has 2 key twin challenges: Firstly, Improve yield and secondly, regulatory compliance. Which is done by monitoring the prevalence of male plants and THC levels. Forward thinking hemp farmers are resorting to drone technologies to overcome these challenges.
Marijuana industry is big business
Recent articles from Wall Street reports that it’s no secret by now that the marijuana industry is a big-money business.
Hemp farming industry
What is significant though is the potentially larger growth trend contained within the cannabis movement: Cannabidiol (CBD).
Hemp plants are considerably cheaper to grow than cannabis. This makes hemp plants the preferred crop choice for CBD extraction.
CBD Market size
How big is the CBD market?
The Brightfield Group projects a year-over-year CBD product sales growth in the United States of 706% in 2019 to around $5 billion and sales of $23.7 billion by 2023.
Comparatively, about $620 million worth of CBD products were sold last year in the United States (based on 706% growth to $5 billion). This results in a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 107%! Growth estimates for cannabis, is around 25%.
Using drone technologies to increase hemp farming yields
The increase in the market of demand is fuelling the competition among marijuana growers. Today, more and more of them are pushing for bigger farms to accommodate the huge demand for CBD products. With a bigger size of farms came a new set of problems and challenges for the farmers.
Managing huge farms with as little manpower as possible requires more advanced use of technologies, including drones. Hemp farmers use drone technology to bring precision agriculture to their hemp fields for plant counting and canopy sizing. Therefor, instead of “walking the field” to estimate size, farmers are using drones (and AI) to count and size plants.
Quantitative analytics then evaluate:
- the varieties,
- the surface replanting opportunities, and
- monitor sexual maturity and harvest opportunities
to prevent the loss of CBD concentration.
Drones can also be used for stress and disease monitoring. Rather than taking random soil samples, and scouting for visual indicators of plant stress is more effective. Vegetative indices are able to quickly identify indicators of stress. RBG and multispectral hemp crop imagery are used to measure plant health. This imagery is also ideal for capturing crops and processing vegetative indices (such as NDVI or VARI). It also allows for counting of crops and identifying water pooling.
Specifically challenging to farmers is the question of how the environmental growing conditions affect THC levels at harvest. This may result in hemp plants found to have more than 0.3 percent THC at harvest, to have be destroyed.
Hemp farming regulations
THC levels in hemp farming
Regulators strive to keep hemp as an agricultural commodity rather than a controlled substance. They do this by licensing and regulating hemp farmers. The main objective is to prevent the leakage of residual THC into the marketplace.
To ensure a low level of THC potency, strict limits are placed on when a hemp crop can be harvested. Testing therefor has to be very accurate as a THC level above 0.3 percent of dry weight could put an entire crop at risk.
Remote sensing options via drones use technologies such as IR for testing for THC levels. These are currently being experimented with and are showing huge potential.
Male hemp plants
Determining the gender of the plant (female plants are better for products like CBD). Managing inputs like irrigation and fertilizer. Getting accurate sizing and stand counts throughout the growth cycle. Are all challenges that may impact profits. Hemp is both a high-cost, high-profit plant. Therefor losing only a handful of seeds can mean a significant losses.
Hemp farming cost about $10,000 per acre, or $4 per plant
Drones are used to limit the number of male plants produced within a hemp crop. Hemp farmers seek to have as many female plants in their crop as possible. This leads to higher flower density, which in turn leads to a more productive and higher revenue-generating crop.
“Male hemp plants are typically one in 10,000 of total plants and very difficult to find.”
Using a drone to survey the field from above, the software can pinpoint the locations of the males. As a result the farmer can then cull the unwanted plants to maximise CBD production will while complying with regulations to limit THC levels.