Industrial hemp is a potentially lucrative crop for eastern North Carolina


I’ve been tempted to write about this one for a while. I get asked about it all the time, and there seems to be so much confusion concerning it.

Hemp is the same species as marijuana (Cannabis sativa), but it doesn’t accumulate the chemical THC that is responsible for the hallucinogenic effects. It is being promoted largely because the plant also contains chemicals with therapeutic properties. The major one in question is called cannabidiol or CBD for short.

This CBD oil is extracted from the flowers of the plant. It has been prescribed to treat seizures, inflammation, anxiety and insomnia. Many cancer patients swear by it to help control nausea from chemotherapy. Evidence for control of epileptic seizures is overwhelming, but other claims appear to require more study.

CBD oil is not the only reason many agriculture institutions are recommending planting hemp. The plant produces high-grade fiber for making rope, cloth and paper. Hemp fiber is strong, supple, absorbent and durable. There are types better suited to oil and others better suited for fiber.

All hemps have a greater cellulose to lignin ratio than most plant fibers. Lignin is the chemical that gives plant stems their woodiness and stiffness. The low lignin content makes hemp cloth comfortable to wear.

Hemp cloth is coarse fibered. This makes it somewhat unattractive for garments, though clothes made from hemp are durable and keep increasing in comfort with every use, much like leather. The original Betsy Ross flag was made of hemp. Hemp paper absorbs ink uniformly and it degrades far less than conventional wood fiber paper.

Hemp also can produce more pounds of fiber per acre per year than any other commonly used plant. Furthermore, when oil is pressed from the seeds, the hemp meal can be a very useful livestock feed component.

As I see it, the biggest problems with hemp are public perception and the difficulty separating it from drug marijuana. In the field, there’s no way to distinguish pot from industrial hemp. They both look and smell the same. Unless a quick field THC test was developed, law enforcement people would have a difficult time enforcing current drug laws.

As far as hemp farmers are concerned, there is also a risk. Crops must be tested for their THC content. If samples are taken back to the lab and found to have a concentration of greater than 0.3 percent THC, the entire crop must be destroyed. This could be a risky business.

I expect hemp production to spike dramatically in the next few years. I also expect conflict regarding hemp vs marijuana legal issues. Some farmers might be forced to destroy crops. Still, other folks might try to play the game of disguise and plant both.

Companies are already trying to harness the novelty of hemp products. Expect to find hemp in common nutritional supplements. Hemp seeds might become as popular as poppy seeds, flax seeds or sesame seeds, and you soon could find them on hamburger buns. Whatever the case we certainly have not heard the last about industrial hemp.

Hemp plant in a field in eastern North Carolina. (Photo courtesy of Nettie Baugher)

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Canning can be a rewarding hobby


When I was young, home-canned fruits and vegetables were a mainstay of our diets. I especially loved the jams and jellies, particularly wild strawberry. There was never a problem finding canning supplies in stores. The home-canning supplies seemed to dwindle until the last few years. Now there seems to be a resurgence, and I couldn’t be happier.

Back in 1983, I drove to rural West Virginia to spend the weekend with my future wife and her family. They were into canning even more than I was. The first thing her mother showed me was their cellar, where she kept all the preserved goodies. The place was stacked to the ceiling wall to wall.

The second item was the yearly recording of everything she put up that year. Every year Elloise and the family canned over 300 quarts of green beans and nearly that many quarts of tomato juice. The rest of the place was filled with jelly, vegetable soup, peaches, apple sauce, deer meat chunks, pickles and just about anything else they harvested, wild or domestic.

That’s how most country people made ends meet years ago. They had a garden and they didn’t waste it. My family did much the same, just not on quite the same grandiose scale. My mom preferred to freeze most things and we made a ton of pickles.

It was fun, and we made it a family project. Everyone helped, even my father. We used to experiment with spices, and that was always interesting. I remember making some great garlic dill pickles. The best recipe was less vinegary, but the jars had to be kept cool.

This past summer Roberta and I were busy with conferences and we let a huge gob of cucumbers get overripe right before we were to go on vacation. We took the cucumbers to our off-the-grid camp in northeastern Maine and processed them out in the bush.

Years ago, my mother gave me a recipe for ripe cucumber pickles that is simple and fantastic. We made 24 pints of the prettiest sweet relish imaginable. I couldn’t bring myself to waste those cukes even though we were on vacation. We sterilized our jars over a converted turkey fryer, and every jar sealed.

When I peruse the grocery aisles, I now notice a greater array of jars, lids and other supplies. That tells me more folks are taking advantage of their hidden talents. Home-canned stuff just tastes better.

In fact, there are some commodities I’d rather eat canned than fresh. I love fresh peaches or pears, but I’d much rather eat a jar of canned ones. We can our own apple pie filling and the store-bought stuff just can’t hold a candle to it.

I must admit I still miss my mother-in-law’s green beans. I remember helping them pick and clean a few bushels of beans one day and for dinner, we ate a couple jars of her canned ones, because everyone liked them better. We usually drank her canned tomato juice too, because fresh juice didn’t keep long in the fridge.

The best part about preserving food at home is the satisfaction people can derive from it. Home-made jellies, pickles and such also make great gifts.

Vacation off-the-grid pickles and relish

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Many poisonous mushrooms await foraging greenhorns


I’ve never been one to promote mushroom foraging even though I do it myself, and there are many relatively safe fungi out there. Too many poisonous lookalikes abound. I’ve taught long enough to know that no matter how concrete and specific I think my instructions are some people will misconstrue them.

Mushrooms have specific anatomical characteristics for identification just like green plants do. If you think you might like to learn about foraging mushrooms there is no substitute for practical assistance from an expert. That coupled with some formal training can get you started. Experience is as critical as it is in learning to drive or fly an airplane.

Some common anatomical features that should throw a flag are a ring (annulus)on the stem-like structure (stipe). A bulbous sac (volva) at the base of this stipe is usually problematic too. Unless you are positive of your identification, stay away from mushrooms with white spore prints. Spore dust emanates from undersides of the caps.

My first general rule of thumb is to learn a few species extremely well. Pick ones that are common and distinctive. Always verify your collection with an experienced mycologist. Never collect anything without supervision until you are absolutely sure of the species you have. Try to get every sample verified by a mushroom expert before proceeding further.

Another important consideration is to learn the typical characteristics of poisonous mushrooms. Amanitas are the most common group of poisonous mushrooms. They have white spore prints, a ring on the stipe, a cup at the base of the stipe, and a membrane called a veil that connects the ring to the edge of the cap.

A frequently encountered Amanita is called the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria). These fungi are usually orange to red and have a flaky crust on the upper surface of the cap. They are poisonous but not deadly so.

The problem is that there is a white-capped version of this fungus, and it looks like several edible species. That is until one notices the cupped base and the white spore print. It’s important to be very observant.

There are other Amanita species that are far more poisonous and just as easily confused with edible mushrooms. The destroying angel is often found growing among and edible species called the meadow mushroom. From a distance, they look nearly identical.

Upon closer inspection, the gills are a different color and the spore print is much different. Some people don’t have the patience to wait for a spore print. This is a mistake, especially for beginners. Simply handling poisonous fungi can make some people sick. Wearing rubber gloves is often a good idea for newbies.

Another important rule to remember about foraging mushrooms or green plants is to only consume a small quantity the first time. What might be perfectly agreeable to one person might make someone else very sick. Subsequent meals can be larger.

Folks who make a concerted effort to learn poisonous fungi will have more success as mushroom foragers. Amateur mycologists should remember that they are always in the learning stage.

White versions of the fly agaric fungus

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Joe-Pye weed is a pasture nightmare but a hot perennial ornamental


My father-in-law fought this weed voraciously. It would sometimes fill up the hillsides and bottoms, hiding his cattle. Sometimes it seemed the more he clipped it, the thicker it got. He would turn over in his grave if he saw folks plant it on purpose.

Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) is a common pasture plant that most livestock generally avoid. Because of this, it can be a dominant plant in fields where animals graze. Consequently, less land is available for more desirable forages.

Low palatability means poor meat production, and that’s why my father-in-law disliked it, ironweed, milkweed, dogbane and several other pasture plants. He certainly wasn’t the only cattle farmer who felt that way, and many farmers tried to avoid chemical control in fear of making their animals sick. However, thick underground stems make mechanical control ineffective.

Many folks now take a different view of this aggressive plant. Joe-Pye weed is becoming a popular ornamental wildflower for several reasons. It’s easy to grow. It has beautiful pink to purple flower clusters from mid-summer until early fall.

The nectar from these fragrant blooms helps feed many species of butterflies, notably monarchs and swallowtails. Bees like it too and so do hummingbirds. Seed heads persist well into winter and become food for many species of birds, particularly chickadees and finches. Joe-Pye weed is common throughout much of the country and Canada.

These conspicuous perennials can get large, often attaining heights of seven feet or more. They grow in full sun to partial shade and tolerate a wide variety of soil conditions, especially wet places. Long pointed toothed leaves emerge from the thick stems in groups of three or four.

Many ornamental cultivars are being developed. Most are much shorter and more compact than the wild types. Still, they are very winter hardy and adaptable. They make a great privacy screen because of their height and density.

Another selling point is that they are a native species. Actually, there are numerous related species of Joe-Pye weed scattered throughout our range. Some require a skilled botanist to differentiate them.

These plants also have few disease and insect problems. Deer and rabbits don’t often bother them either. The flowers also can be used in flower arrangements both fresh and dried.

Joe-Pye weed has been used medicinally to treat a myriad of maladies. Its diuretic properties make it useful for kidney stones and bladder infections. It also can help treat inflammation. Other claims are treatments for headache, fever, sore throat, digestive problems, asthma and impotence.

On the downside, Joe-Pye weed contains alkaloids that can be very harmful. They can block blood flow and cause liver damage. Joe-Pye weed use has even been linked to cancer. Those taking lithium should also avoid supplements containing Joe-Pye weed, also called gravel root.

I’ve seen commercial supplements containing this plant in stores and on the internet. They’re usually sold under the name of gravel root. However, due to potential side-effects, I’ve never had any urge to try them.

close-up of Joe-Pye weed flowers

 

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Sunflowers are a symbol of summer


We don’t grow many sunflowers commercially in this part of the country, but they are one of our most recognizable flowers. Many folks grow them on a small scale. There are so many reasons to grow sunflowers. They are beautiful, birds love them, they have medicinal qualities and they’re edible.

Sunflowers are easy to grow. They aren’t fussy about soil type but don’t thrive in wet acid soil. They require full sun and grow well in hot weather. They also benefit from high fertility. Sometimes it’s good to fertilize sunflowers frequently if soils are very sandy.

The only real problem growing these flowers is that birds will sometimes dig out seeds before they germinate. Deer eat them too. In our area, sunflowers have few insect problems except in the fall, when grasshoppers can defoliate them. Our high humidity often makes plants susceptible to powdery mildew.

Sunflowers are interesting in that their flowers turn in response to the direction of the sun. They certainly aren’t the only plant to do this, but since flowers are large it’s very noticeable.

Sunflower fans know that there are different types to choose from. There are tall sunflowers, short ones, plants with large solitary blooms and plants with many smaller ones. Most sunflowers are yellow to orange with a dark brown to black center. However, they can be a multitude of colors.

There are basically two types of sunflower seeds. Confection seeds are the large striped ones commonly packaged for human snack food and are often eaten at sporting events. There are multitudes of the smaller oilseed types. These are often a major component of wild bird mixes. They are also used to make sunflower seed oil we buy in grocery stores.

Sunflower seeds continue to gain popularity. They have twice the protein of walnuts or pecans and they are very high in Vitamin E. They are also high in fiber and low in carbohydrates. They also are an option for people allergic to tree nuts or peanuts.

Seeds aren’t the only part of the sunflower that’s edible. People can cook and eat the leaves, and the flower petals make a great tea and are colorful on a salad. Too many can make the salad a little bitter.

Sunflowers also have a history as medicinal plants. They have been used for sore throats and to treat arthritis. Sunflower oil has even been used to treat athlete’s foot.

The main reason most people grow sunflowers is that they’re pretty, dramatic, and they attract birds and other wildlife. Sunflowers can provide incredible color. That’s probably one reason why so many children are fascinated by them. Seed heads are easy to dry and save for bird feeders.

Sunflowers also are versatile in that they can be cut and used in flower arrangements. Blooms often last for a week. The yellow to orange types seem to last longer in a vase than do many of the other colors.

I love seeing them along the roadsides. I wish folks planted more of them. Summer just isn’t summer without sunflowers.

Sunflowers are a familiar sign of summer. This is my daughter, the Horticulture Extension Agent for Pasquotank County North Carolina. The picture was taken back in 2013.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Rhinoceros beetles are menacing looking but completely harmless


Occasionally, someone will bring in a large curious-looking insect for me to identify. Males have a big horn-like structure on their heads. Females have no horns.

These insects are in the group called scarab beetles. Their major colors are greenish to gray to nearly black, and they can be over two inches long.

These curious creatures are rhinoceros beetles and they are completely harmless. Sometimes people call them Hercules beetles, unicorn or horn beetles. There is a related insect called the triceratops beetle that is often mistaken for the rhinoceros beetle. Some folks even keep them for pets.

When kept as pets they are easy to care for. An aquarium with a generous layer of organic soil and a few pieces of rotting wood is good. Rhinoceros beetles are great burrowers. They don’t eat much and don’t require much water.

These critters aren’t exactly lovable, but they adapt to being handled and don’t bite. The only problem that can occur is that male beetles will often fight with each other. Some folks are fascinated by this and enjoy the fights.

Like all beetles, these guys go through four stages of development. In nature, females lay up to 50 eggs in decomposing plant material and these eggs hatch in three to four weeks.

These hatchlings are called larva or grubs and they undergo several molts to increase in size until they are ready to undergo the big change. During the larval stage, these critters eat rotting plant material. They don’t eat plant roots like many soil grubs do. Usually, the whole larva stage lasts about two and a half months.

The third stage is called the pupa stage and it is a resting period that usually takes about three weeks. Larvae burrow into the soil and create a pocket for the pupa to rest while it develops into an adult beetle. Pupas consume no food.

Adults generally live about three months and eat fruit, nectar and plant sap. Despite their large size, these beetles are still able to fly and are often seen flying toward a light source.

When flying beetles land, they can grasp objects quite efficiently with claws on their legs. Some people are intimidated by this, as beetles can be difficult to remove from clothing initially. Also, since they are large, they will land with a significant thud. This often scares folks.

Generally, these insects are nocturnal. In some places in Asia, they’re eaten as human food. In nature, snakes and birds are their major predators.

Rhinoceros beetles make hissing sounds when they’re disturbed. This noise is caused by their rubbing their wing covers against their abdomens. The noise is made strictly for show.

Rhinoceros beetles are one of the strongest creatures for their weight in the world. They can lift roughly 850 times their own weight. Only African dung beetles have a stronger relative size to strength ratio. I think this might be one reason people like them as pets. They can lift and move large objects in their environment.

Take notice the next time you see one of these beetles. You can even see one in the new Lion King movie. They’re really cool.

Rhinoceros beetle

Triceratops beetles are sometimes confused with rhinoceros beetles

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Burning fields is an old practice that still continues


When I first moved to North Carolina, I was surprised farmers were still allowed to burn wheat fields, especially in places where neighborhoods were close. That was twenty-some years ago. Even in the mid-90s, there was a growing group of people concerned with adding more greenhouse gases into the air.

Burning is a management tool that has merits and under some conditions might be the best treatment for certain places. Ridding fields of noxious weed seed is just one advantage, but to a degree it’s overrated. Weed seed under the insulation of soil is likely unaffected.

Insects are partially controlled, but many lay eggs below the soil surface and they might not be killed. This is especially true when the burn spreads rapidly.

Burning removes the material responsible for holding the soil, so planting soon after the burn is important. Phosphorus is a nutrient that is not lost by burning. It might even be made more available. However, if ash residue is blown away it will be lost.

No knowledgeable person would ever argue that control burning is not an important forest management practice. Keeping levels of readily ignitable fuel at low levels is critical for reducing the number and severity of wildfires. Much of the fire problems in California could have been averted if more of this was done.

This method is not a panacea though. Disadvantages to burning include lowering of long-term natural fertility, increased cost of production, less water retention, greater liability risk and possible health concerns. Farms aren’t as isolated as they once were, so fields are in closer contact to residential areas.

There is somewhat less burning than there once was, as no-till planting has become more popular. Drilling into existing stubble means fewer trips across the field. That saves energy and money.

Yield differences are likely insignificant despite what proponents of each method espouse. I’ve seen data showing increased yields planting into stubble and I’ve seen studies that show no difference.

I’ve also seen inconsistent stands of soybeans, because of differences in stubble density. This probably caused seeds to be sown at different depths. Also, some farmers don’t have no-till equipment, so it’s a moot point to them anyway.

So, if we assume that the practice of burning wheat fields will continue, how can we make it safer? We need to pay attention to the weather. High temperatures, low humidity and high winds are all factors that contribute to fires getting out of control. So is not enough labor to do the job safely.

Paying attention to wind direction is critical. So is keeping the edges of the field clean and free of highly combustible materials. Burning a border against the wind can be a slow process, but it will prevent a raging fire from going where it shouldn’t.

I think burning fields will always be controversial. I further agree that it might not always be the best method for field preparation. This is particularly true as homes continue to encroach on farms, but burning is still a good tool to keep in the toolbox.

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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