On a farm tucked away on a lonely state road in Illinois’ Kendall County, Rob Montalbano and Kevin Blomberg are taking a flyer on growing smokable hemp plants for CBD.
“We’re focusing on high quality flower. That’s what we want, that’s our focus,” says Montalbano. “Smokable or for CBD oil. I’m trying to grow high quality strains.”
Montalbano, who owns and runs the farm with his wife Christina, has teamed up with Blomberg, a long-time cannabis aficionado and self-taught plant geneticist (“You can find all the genetics papers online!”) to push the smokable CBD market forward. Montalbano and Blomberg believe that the current state of the CBD market, which is oriented towards low-quality plants with low levels of CBD, will change, as growing consumer demand pushes the creation of a consistent market.
While CBD hemp is selling for between $300-$400 a pound now, Montalbano and Blomberg are betting that it will catch up to West Coast outdoor cannabis prices soon, which range around $1,500 a pound. And because their product will be premium, they’re aiming for even higher prices.
This season they’re growing 1,600 plants, outdoors, on the second year of their three-year license. Last year they grew 860 plants, with three varieties devised by Blomberg. This year there are even more varieties with dozens of phenotypes, all in service of finding a high yield plant that hits USDA requirements of delta-9 THC concentration levels and new rules for overall THC concentration levels, where plants have to be found under 0.3%
“We’re running 13 different varieties this year, just trying to figure out which will go best with the new USDA regulations, which is under 0.3% total THC, which is kind of a superhard task. Last year we got two varieties in our line up that were USDA compliant,” says Blomberg.
The new rules are a lot harder.
“As of October 31 of this year, USDA rules step in and they say anything under 0.3% total THC, which is THC-A too, after decarboxylation. That’s a very hard feat. I haven’t seen any variety yet, where you can just throw the seed out and go full ripeness and it tests good. That’s almost impossible,” says Blomberg.
Blomberg is running clones of Sativa, Indica, Ruderalis and hybrid plants he’d developed. They keep the hardiest plants and seeds for greenhouses they operate in the winter.
“Over winter we ran a bunch of seeds. We put them through the stress test to see which are the strongest. When you’re done with that, you’ll have 2-3, and you keep cuts of each one that are our favorite. With plants, you can pick your favorite kid and toss away the other 19,” says Blomberg.
Talking to them about the state of the market, it seems that almost everything is arrayed against them. Banks they’ve talked to won’t lend against CBD hemp. They think they can find an agent who will insure the crop, but haven’t closed a deal yet. There are no CBD hemp processors in Illinois, and since the Illinois Department of Agriculture approved hemp sales to cannabis cultivators for processing, they haven’t received much interest. Unlike every cash crop, there is no ready market for sale.
“There’s some markets online, but there’s definitely not a main commodity market where I could send it,” says Montalbano. “That’s a big thing, with corn they just send it to the grain depot and drop it off. I’ve got to find a buyer.”
But these guys are farmers, with patience bred into them through years of watching plants grow. Things will change, they insist. They’ll wait.