Richard Phelps, Director of Farming at Integrated CBD, talks about his experience in farming, what led him to join Integrated CBD, and how he’s bringing the latest AgTech practices into organic hemp farming.
Q: How did you become interested in farming?
A: I was surrounded by farmers growing up, including family and friends. At fourteen, I started working on my uncle’s farm during the summers, which I continued to do throughout college. My dad always stressed the importance of having a healthy work ethic, and agriculture checked that box. It also allowed me to work with my hands, which I’ve always loved.
I knew early on I wanted to make farming my career so I went to the University of Arizona and earned my degree in agriculture economics with a business minor. I added the business degree to ensure I gained the high-level administration and strategic planning knowledge I needed to effectively direct farming operations. After graduation, I worked for my uncle for a few more years to continue learning and growing in a hands-on setting.
Q: How did you become the Director of Farming at ICBD?
A: In 2014, I found Integrated Ag, which is the sister company of Integrated CBD. I spent the first three years or so managing farms for them where we grew everything from alfalfa to citrus to cotton in both organic and conventional fields. During that time, I was able to apply what I’d learned in college and gain the real-world, large-scale farming experience I needed to take on bigger roles.
After the 2018 Farm Bill passed, we started exploring hemp production. Since it was newly legalized in the U.S., we thought there was going to be a boom in demand sooner than later. We spent a few months researching the economics and saw a huge opportunity to grow and sell industrial hemp. After that, things happened fast. Less than a year after we started looking at hemp, I was appointed Director of Farming, we had a solid business plan, and we started planting our first hemp crop in June 2019.
Q: What is Integrated CBD doing differently than other hemp suppliers and farmers?
A: What really sets us apart is our background in large-scale industrial farming. To put it in perspective, most other hemp growers come from greenhouse backgrounds where they are used to doing everything manually. Other hemp farms are usually 10 to 50 acres with the largest at maybe 200 acres. Integrated CBD has 10,000 acres. At our level and scale, it’s not just the size of the field that varies but the equipment and processes you need to have in place. We have the financial backing and agriculture experience to supply large volumes of hemp and hemp-derived CBD. It would be a huge learning curve, not to mention very expensive, to try to make the leap from doing everything by hand to using the equipment that we have.
We’re also vertically integrated, meaning that we control the process from seed to shelf. While there are a handful of other large-scale industrial hemp farmers, they aren’t taking it beyond the growing stage. We’re planting, harvesting, drying, and extracting CBD from the plant. Other farmers rely on outsourcing everything after the harvesting stage. I’m excited about this difference and our customers are, too. Vertical integration means we’re more efficient, cost-effective, and transparent, which allows us to deliver a superior product and experience to our buyers.
Q: How are you integrating technology into your agricultural practices?
A: One of the most important things we’re doing is using subsurface drip irrigation. By irrigating from the ground up, we don’t lose water to evaporation. This allows us to significantly reduce water consumption over traditional irrigation methods. We’re pairing this with soil moisture and plant sensors that tell us the health of each plant and whether it’s getting enough water. If the sensors tell us that a plant is at risk, we can tailor our irrigation schedule to get it healthy again. This is an equally important part of our AgTech approach, because it can drastically reduce crop loss.
We’re also experimenting with robotic weeders that are attached to a tractor and use cameras to measure each plant they pass. We program in what the size of the hemp plants should be and the weeder pulls anything smaller than our parameters. Weeds are a huge problem for organic farmers since you can’t spray any pesticides to kill invasive plants. We’re excited to ramp up this practice and keep using technology to improve our efficiency and productivity.
Q: What are Integrated CBD’s biggest farming accomplishments to date?
A: I’m most proud of the success we've had with our first planting, despite the inopportune timing. Because Arizona didn't issue licenses for farmers to grow hemp until June 1st, we had to plant during the summer, which we normally wouldn’t do. Usually we’d plant around March, but that wasn’t a possibility for us or anyone. I know many other hemp farmers who planted around the same time and have had either complete failures or 80-90% crop loss. We’ve experienced some crop loss, but not to that extent. We're on track to harvest our first crop in October.
Q: What should people know about organic hemp farming?
A: It’s more expensive, riskier, and requires more upfront planning than conventional farming. Organic fertilizer is about five times as expensive as traditional fertilizer. For instance, we use liquified fish as one of the components of our fertilizer—and it doesn’t come cheap. Organic farming’s risk is also greater. You have less margin due to the added expenses, as well as fewer tools to control pests and correct nutrient deficiencies. Conventional farmers have a wide range of tools they can use to course correct at any time. Not so with organic. If you fall behind at any time, there’s no catching up. You really have to be on top of everything from the beginning.
All that said, I enjoy the challenge that organic farming poses. It provides better end products, while being respectful to the land. And because it’s more sustainable, organic farmers will have healthier soil for years to come. To me, that’s a win-win.
Q: What are you most excited about as you look to the future of organic hemp farming?
A: I’m excited about how new the industry is. It has the potential to be lucrative and could greatly benefit Arizona farmers. Plus, like I said earlier, I like the challenge of growing organic hemp. Hemp is a sustainable plant by itself but when farmed organically it’s even more so and increases the health of the soil. You're actually bringing the soil back to its natural state, adding carbon into the soil which will increase its productivity for the future.
I hope by showing that organic hemp farming can be done, others will follow our example. As more farmers start to farm organically there will also be an increase in soil health in the region.
Q: What are you most passionate about as it relates to your job?
A: I love my job because it’s different every day. You get to see something that you start—a seed in the ground—turn into a harvestable product and then be refined into a consumable for customers. I get to wear many different hats, which I love. I’m both farmer, manufacturer, and salesman. Having ownership over the whole process is important to me, and I’m really proud of the quality of the product we’ll be able to deliver to our customers.
To learn more about Integrated CBD’s farming practices, visit www.integrated-cbd.com/our-farms.