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The growing field of green - how hemp is taking root in BoCo

 

December 18, 2019

You’re likely to have spotted the recognizable shape of cannabis plants in fields throughout Boulder County and even gotten a whiff of the skunky scent more often this year. Since those spiky-leafed plants are in open fields, rest assured it’s not marijuana – it is hemp.

By definition of the U.S. government, hemp has less than .3% THC, which is the psychoactive element of marijuana. With proper licensing, it’s perfectly legal to grow acres of hemp. But there’s a big learning curve for governmental entities, hopeful hemp farmers, and optimistic investors.

Brian Koontz, Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Hemp Program Manager said registered hemp growers went from 1,000 farmers on 30,000 acres in 2018 to 2,600 registrants this year intending to grow on 86,000 acres. That makes Colorado the largest hemp growing state in the U.S. Boulder County accounted for 113 of those registrants, representing 2,397 acres.

The curiosity factor was especially high this past July when a field of hemp did more than sprout in Niwot - it was installed on the south side of Highway 52 just west of 79th Street. Transplanting a thriving plant from indoors rather than chancing a seed not taking in the soil has led to higher crop success. Given costs of upwards of $1 per seed and an average of 2,000 plants per acre, it’s also less risky financially.

Hemp is used to manufacture fibers, building materials, and fuel. But it’s the recent popularity of the nutraceutical contained in hemp called cannabidiol or CBD for short, that’s led to the boom. CBD is asserted to reduce pain and bring about calmness along with other positive effects.

Boulder County Parks and Open Space Agricultural Resource Division Manager, Blake Cooper said, “Prior to this year, we’ve not allowed it [hemp] on county open space.”

That all changed with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill allowing hemp to be grown nationwide. With that shift, Boulder County open space leased 600 acres for hemp cultivation. County land was rented to hemp farmers at normal rates this year, but Cooper said next year prices will go up to what the market will bear because the crop has a high income potential.

But it isn’t all rosy. “A lot of guys jumped in at the last minute this year,” Cooper said, “and either started projects and planted very late or didn’t bother to get planted at all.”

Statewide, at least 35,000 acres of land earmarked for hemp crops (200 of which was Boulder County leased acreage), sat empty or didn’t produce a harvest.

“It seems to be that there’s about a 60% success rate of everything that’s actually registered,” Koontz said.

Dreams of instant riches were tempered by several factors in 2019. The huge uptick in hemp production bumped up against competition for the steps that follow harvesting – buyers and processors - making it difficult for the market to absorb the inventory. Some potential growers opted out before getting plants in the ground and others were impacted by their lack of experience with the crop or unpredictable weather.

Ryan Lynch Ph.D., co-founder of Boulder Hemp Company, focused the bulk of his doctoral research on the cannabis genome at CU-Boulder. His vertically integrated company cultivates hemp, sells seeds, extracts CBD, and formulates consumer products, such as tinctures, salves and capsules.

Lynch said, “It’s an odd situation where you have an instant demand for a crop that hasn’t really been bred all that well. The market demand of the product is way ahead of where the science and engineering is for supporting all of that.”

The landscape of hemp is literally changing from the ground up through refining the science behind each hemp strain and the evolution of accompanying regulations. Other states are looking at everything being done in Colorado as their template.

In a progressive move, Coloradoans can now apply for a hemp license and get instantaneous approval through the HOP (Hemp Online Portal) system. This resource replaces the tedious paper trail which, because of the spike in demand, was unable to keep pace.

But, the biggest change for the burgeoning industry will occur when the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) takes on oversight duties on November 1, 2020. USDA is working closely with Colorado officials to develop unified guidelines.

Probably the weightiest result of the USDA stepping in will be testing plants for THC levels. Currently tests are performed on a random basis, but under new federal laws every operation will be tested annually and a lower tolerance threshold will take effect. Ramifications of exceeding THC levels are severe; every plant must be destroyed.

Then there’s the complication of collecting samples 15 days before harvest and completing tests at labs which are at capacity and not logistically convenient. Time lost could lead to harvesting and enforcement issues.

“It’s going to be a bit of a rollercoaster ride for a few more years and the gold rush days are probably over. But, if it kind of settles out, it can still end up being a pretty profitable crop compared to corn or soybeans,” Cooper said.

 

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