LANESBORO, Minn. — Phil Reed, first-year owner of Root River Gardens, a hemp farm nestled in the bluffs of the Root River Valley, said if it weren't for his consultant, the operation wouldn't be possible.
Reed's consultant is Luis "Lulu Magoo" Hummel, who still faces criminal charges in Fillmore County District Court of fifth-degree drug sales, felony possession of a controlled substance and gross misdemeanor fifth-degree drug. Seized items from Hummel's farm were tested and found to have over the 0.3 percent THC level, which is the psychoactive part of cannabis. A jury trial is scheduled to begin on Jan. 26 for those charges.
Reed said they began to harvest in the first week of October and wrapped up in about two weeks. Hemp is a "challenging grow" that's not for everybody, said Reed.
"We've got most of the good stuff out of the field already, and are basically just chopping plants now to take in and hang," Reed said on Oct. 16.
He said the hemp plants were put in the ground a little late this year, in May, but usually they would plant in April. Despite the late planting, Reed said it was a "good year" for Root River Gardens.
"The weather was good, and we had the right amount of moisture," Reed said of the growing season.
The slope that Root River Gardens grows its hemp on helps the plants avoid any moisture issues, Reed said.
Reed called his first year as a hemp grower an "awesome experience."
"It's a lot of work, because growing hemp takes a lot of hands-on work with the way we do it," Reed said. "Especially outdoors like this, there's a lot of effort that has to go into it."
He said fortunately for him he's been guided by Hummel, who has helped him out "really big." Reed said without a good consultant, he'd "never make it" as a first-year hemp grower.
"Get the right help," Reed said to prospective hemp growers. "If you're interested in going into (hemp farming), you've got to contact the right people."
He said through Hummel, Root River Gardens has the right people and "friends in the business" to make it a worthwhile operation.
As far as getting the hemp from the fields of Lanesboro to the consumers of CBD, Reed said Root River Gardens relies on a lot of direct and wholesale sales.
"If you're getting into this business you want to make sure you have a place to get rid of your product at some point, and know what those values are," Reed said.
To have hemp made into another product requires processing, for which Reed said Root River Gardens has a couple partners.
According to Margaret Wiatrowski, program coordinator for the Industrial Hemp Program with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, there were 580 hemp licenses issued this year. That number includes both hemp growers and processors.
"We definitely saw a lot of people's plans get scaled way back because of COVID," Wiatrowski said. "That is a trend not just in Minnesota but nationwide, which could end up being a good thing for these markets, because maybe there isn't as much material hitting the market during harvest time."
An MDA inspector must sample each hemp lot produced in Minnesota, and the lots are sampled within 30 days of harvest, said Wiatrowski. Samples are then sent to a lab to be tested for THC levels.
"We're wrapping up our inspections now, especially because of the early winter," Wiatrowski said on Oct. 20. "The bulk of our inspections were done in August and September."
Wiatrowski said over 700 samples had been collected by MDA inspectors this year, and estimated between 5-10% of the samples had failed THC threshold testing.
"It's a relatively small number but not totally insignificant," she said. "But it is a lower failure rate than what we saw last year."
In 2019 there was a 12% failure rate of the THC tests, she said.
Root River Gardens gets its name from the South Fork of the Root River, which flows through Lanesboro and includes a waterfall dam. Hummel met the landowners he's rented the land from while bartending in Lanesboro, and planted 1.5 acres of hemp under the state's pilot program in 2018.
"I've been in the forefront of some of the industry's problems and misunderstandings, but all in all we're moving forward with the operations," Hummel said.
After being charged in Fillmore County, Hummel felt that state officials had forced him to destroy his crop without due process or clear rules in the industry. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture notified Hummel via letter that his license was revoked and his crop needed to be destroyed.
Alleging that his constitutional rights were violated, Hummel and his company, 5th Sun Gardens LLC, filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court of Minnesota last spring against the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, its commissioner and three named officials as well as two unnamed individuals.
Last February, Hummel, through attorney Jason Tarasek, filed a motion to dismiss the case after reaching an out-of-court settlement with the Department of Agriculture.
According to the settlement, Hummel will not seek to recover attorney fees and has waived his right to a hearing on his license revocation. He also agreed that he will not apply for a Minnesota Industrial Hemp License in 2020 or anytime after. Growing hemp again was something Hummel was willing to give up, according to Tarasek.
Minnesota Department of Agriculture senior communications officer Allen Sommerfeld said at the time that the MDA agreed to allow someone else to grow hemp on land owned by Hummel as long as that person meets all the licensing requirements.
On top of consulting, Hummel said that he is now only doing retail and distribution business within the hemp and CBD industry.
"I can keep going forward (with his company 5th Sun Gardens) with marketing and branding, and working and partnering with other companies to create a quality product," Hummel said.
Hummel said once more people understand that CBD is "not getting you stoned, but helping health and holistic properties," he thinks hemp will be a booming industry in southern Minnesota. He believes it's the "politics" holding back hemp from reaching its potential.
"We need to have our own lobbyists, and get people working for the small farmers and not necessarily just big ag," Hummel said. "Give us a chance to show what we can do."
Despite running into troubles with the law regarding his hemp business, Hummel felt the responsibility to stay in the community he became a part of in 2016 when he moved from a suburb of Chicago.
"There's too much work that still needs to be done to keep moving this business forward; I can't just stop now," Hummel said. "If I have to have other people help on the growing side, that's even better, because more people are getting involved and that'll hopefully make a movement."
Wiatrowski said she's already curious about what the hemp program will look like in 2021.
"We're already seeing a lot of interest from new growers, and our application period for next year doesn't open until Nov. 1," she said. "So we're really gearing up for that."