When it comes to groundbreaking cannabis policy, Alaska has long been the tip of the spear — or, perhaps we should say, “tip of the spade” — alongside fellow trailblazers California and Colorado. But is growing hemp in Alaska even possible? In a region best known for blustery blizzards, sub-zero temps, and seemingly endless nights throughout the winter, outsiders may be surprised at just how suitable to the task much of the mammoth-sized state actually is.
While it’s certainly more difficult to grow hemp outdoors in Alaska than in most of the “lower 48,” it is possible to do so in certain locales. Moreover, as annual temperatures continue to rise for better or worse, broader swathes of arable soil may soon open up. Researchers are starting to try out some strains of corn near Fairbanks, and hemp will typically grow under the same conditions as corn.
Plant Hardiness Zones
Alaska exists within a fairly diverse range of plant hardiness zones, beginning at the extreme cold of zone 1b — suitable only for plants that can grow in -55 degrees Fahrenheit — up through 6a, where plants need only be cold-tolerant down to 0 degrees. Parts of the state that fall into zones 1b-3b are entirely inhospitable to hemp growth. However, within the limited stretches of zones 4a-6a — found along the southern Pacific coastal regions — conditions could prove favorable to cultivation, as parts of Wisconsin lie within these same zones and have seen productive harvests in research trials. The hospitable region in Alaska generally runs from Juneau up through Anchorage, and along the chain of Aleutian Islands in the south.
Alaska features five distinct climate zones, two of which can potentially support the growth of hemp. The Subarctic Maritime and Continental Maritime zones, which cover the Gulf of Alaska coastline along the Pacific being the only parts of the state where the ground has no permafrost. Though it faces a challenge even here, hemp is known for its hardiness, and moves are being made to put the state’s coastal climes to the test.
Length of Growing Season
Hemp is fast growing once it begins to break through topsoil, but still prefers a good four months to live out its life cycle. At the time of this writing, the duration of the growing season in Alaska is in a state of flux, due to ongoing climate change resulting in rising temperatures statewide. For 2018, the average ranges between 100-105 days, which is somewhat short, but certainly not insufficient.
Average Annual Sunlight
To grow well, hemp requires about 12 hours of sunlight per day. Naturally, the Arctic Circle is all the way out of the picture here, as it completely loses all sunlight during the long, polar winter, and most of the state has fairly short days throughout the season as well. But in the south, throughout the hospitable zones, experience between 85 and 126 days of sun each year, evenly split between fully and partly sunny days. This again places the hospitable zones right on the margin.
Average Annual Precipitation
Average Annual Precipitation: Interior and northern Alaska can be so arid they’re considered desert climate, even though they’re positively frozen over. Rainfall in the hospitable regions varies quite wildly, depending on specific location, with areas surrounding Anchorage and Juneau likely to see over 200 days of precipitation each year, bringing more than 100 inches of annual rainfall. Meanwhile, the westerly regions and the islands, which are oft given over to the storms that in the Gulf of Alaska,
can typically expect closer to 150 days of precipitation with about 80 inches of rainfall per annum. Hemp can handle limited water supply on account of its deep-growing taproot, but these quantities are well within the plant’s acceptable range.
For hemp, the general rule is that higher ground is harder ground when it comes to growth prospects. Mountain terrain gets chilly in a hurry as one ascends, and Alaska certainly has mountains, with Mt. McKinley standing as the highest point on the entire North American continent. Alaska’s mean elevation sits at a formidable 1,900 feet, but the growing zones for hemp are typically much closer to sea level, given their immediate proximity to the Pacific coastline.
Alaskan soil tends to be on the acidic side, frequently dipping as low as 4.0. Adjustment is necessary most of the time, as 6.5 is ideal for most cultivable crops, hemp being but one among many.
In the coastal stretches, where hemp enjoys real growth potential, Alaskan soil is often volcanic in nature. Hemp requires well-aerated, loamy soil with a high phosphorus profile. Though naturally rich in phosphorus, the presence of other minerals in Alaskan soil binds with the molecule in a manner that makes it unavailable to plant roots. Fertilizer can be used to break the ionic bonds, thus freeing up the molecule for plant uptake, care must be taken not to over-fertilize, lest levels should become too high. The state typically recommends fertilizer with an 8-32-16 profile for most plants, but research is still underway concerning ideal hemp fertilizer composition.