by Matie Belle Lakish

For many San Luis Valley residents, hemp offers both adventure and the hope of profit. 

And the plant, with its new-found legal status, offers so much! Nutritionally, the seeds offer high quality protein, necessary fatty acids, a good balance of vitamins and minerals, and carbohydrates for energy. Medicinally, the flowers offer CBD oil plus numerous other cannabinoids, terpenes and other constituents, most of which have yet to be studied. Neither seeds nor stalks contain any cannabinoids, but they show great promise for use in other industries. Construction, clothing, and paper products will see growth as the long, strong hemp fibers become commercially available. 

Archeological evidence reveals that hemp fiber and seed have been used for thousands of years, starting in Asia and spreading throughout the Middle East, Europe, and eventually, the Americas. However, the research into the various constituents of hemp is rather recent, and this has allowed breeders to select varieties of Cannabis Sativa for fiber, seed, or medicine. Of those plants used for medicine, hemp plants are those whose buds and flowers create cannabadiol, or CBD, rather than tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive constituent known for its “high”. The new 2018 Farm Bill allows the legal, although controlled, cultivation and use of hemp for fiber, food and medicine. Since Cannabis has been legal in Colorado for a few years, some farmers experimented with hemp, and entrepreneurs in the valley have a head start on several new industries, but there are challenges.

Most growers I talked to agreed that China and Canada, which have allowed hemp production for several years, have cornered the market in the fiber and seed industries. China has also been pro-active in patenting medicines developed from hemp. Challenges also exist for new growers in acquiring land, and getting seed and equipment to work with hemp. 

For those reasons, most new hemp growers are producing CBD oils, where America is perceived to have a quality advantage. Even relatively small growers can get a start by making and marketing CBD oil. There are also a number of businesses starting up to support those growers.

Jae Sanders of Beyond Organica said their local company wants to provide small farmers with high-CBD strains of plants, offer informational support to those farmers, and market a nutrient line of soil amendments to help people get started. They are growing six strains of high-CBD plants for sale, primarily to farmers who have 40 acres or less. She anticipates having the organic plant nutrients, which are designed for all stages of hemp growth, available locally, possibly at Saturday Market. The website is www.beyondorganica.com. 

National Hemp Exchange has taken production to a higher level. I met Jeff Cox at the Seed Exchange, and he invited me to visit their facility outside of Monte Vista. Jeff is the laboratory manager and oversees the extraction of CBD oil and isolates in a state-of-the-art lab. He first showed me the 17,000 sq. ft. greenhouse where they grow clones of three CBD strains of hemp with enticing names: Cherry, Cherry Wine, and Wife. All three are well known in the CBD industry as being high in CBD and low in THC. By planting clones, growers can be sure that plants will not exceed the .3% THC required by federal law. Growers who use seed cannot be sure that some errant pollen hasn’t polluted their seed stock. 

The mothers of the clones are short, stubby, bushy plants from which dozens of cuttings have been taken. Approximately 5-inch cuttings are treated with a rooting enzyme, inserted in flats with conical-shaped holes in the bottom, and placed in a watery, organic medium to grow roots. Thousands of these cuttings float in their little boats the length and width of the huge greenhouse.

Clones for CBD growers and CBD oil appear to be the main products marketed by National Hemp Exchange, but they also grow hemp for fiber, seed oil, and edible seed. While in the greenhouse I spoke with their head grower, Ron Jones. Ron, a former landscaper, moved from Texas to oversee growing these plants. When I asked about his motivation for making the move, he cited the health benefits of Cannabis. He also shared an interesting piece of history. Under the Romans, slaves were fed a gruel made from 90% hemp mixed with 10% oats, which kept them working hard all day. I asked him about pests. He said they are rare, but can be controlled with a spray of soybean oil.

Jeff then took me to his turf—the lab, where we were joined by Austin Buckingham. Described on the website as, “State-of-the-art 3,200 square foot heated testing and processing plant is specially designed for high-output processing of oil and isolate.” This stainless-steel work space was spotless, without even fingerprints. 

Here CBD oil is made and other substances are isolated from the oil as follows: The part of the plant used is the flower bud. These are dried and cured until moisture is 5% to 8%. The plants are then pulverized in a hammermill, and placed in a 220-micron fabric bag. The bags of hemp powder are then placed in an ethanol bath for half an hour, then filtered once, placed in a cryogenic freezer to -50°C, then filtered again. This winterization process takes out the fats and waxy lipids that might spoil or allow fungus to grow. The remaining liquid is placed in large tanks and heated under vacuum. During this process, the ethanol is evaporated and then condensed into other tanks, leaving a dark green crude. This crude then undergoes fractional distillation. It is possible, with this process, to get very refined components, including a perfectly clear distillate. Although I did not speak to Jeff about it, their website says they will perform this refining process for other growers. Currently, they hire 22 employees. Check out NationalHempExchange.com.

I wanted to know more about other local hemp producers, so I traveled to Del Norte to the San Luis Valley Hemp Company. An older Main Street building houses the sales room and the processing plant for their products, which include hemp seed and oil as well as CBD products. They primarily grow varieties bred for fiber and seed.

Shanan Wright and Monte Robertson are long-time valley farmers working circles instead of acres. I asked them my question: Is hemp a viable economic opportunity for valley farmers? Their answer is a qualified “Yes.” 

This is their company’s sixth year growing hemp, and Monte said hemp needs 60% less water than alfalfa and half as much as potatoes. However, financially, hemp returns $40 less per acre than high-grade alfalfa. He thinks hemp could be a good cash crop to use in a three-year rotation. Hemp has a deep root system, and if those roots are turned into the soil they add valuable minerals and humus. Hemp also needs fewer chemicals during its growth cycle, and no fungicides or pesticides are currently required. Monte said hemp has a “good self-protective mechanism and bees love it.”

Hemp for fiber is planted differently than hemp for CBD oil. Plants for CBD production are widely spaced to allow for a bushy plant with lots of terminal ends that form nice buds. Hemp for fiber is planted closely to encourage tall plants that provide long, strong fibers with a head to harvest for seed. This spacing also discourages weeds. 

However, tall, strong plants require special equipment. Irrigation sprinklers have to be set very high to clear the tops of the plants, and farmers have to forego irrigating when the plants grow too tall. Hemp also requires special equipment for planting seed and for cutting the stalks and stripping them of leaves. Monte found an old seeder from the ‘60s that still accommodates hemp seed, but farmers are having to adapt other equipment. Also, hemp’s tough stalks mean they are hard to cut with today’s equipment. Seeds are harvested with a machine that cuts the top two feet off the plant and threshes the grain. The stalks are then mowed just above ground level to harvest the fiber from the stems, which often grow 10 to 16 ft. tall. 

After harvest, the seed is hulled and processed at SLV Hemp Company’s local processing plant. Currently they can process 1.5 tons per day. They are upgrading their equipment to handle 11 tons per day, at which time they will be able to buy seed from other growers to process into hulled seed and edible oil. Monte says, “We send contracted CBD plant material to a Colorado Springs Lab for processing. They also produce our CBD end products for us.” Hemp stalks are cut down, crimped and left to rot in the field, then baled. “Our fiber is sold to Bascore in Nebraska who makes textile grade material for Patagonia and Recreator clothing companies.” 

Another supporting industry is being developed by Formation Ag, previously known as Powerzone, a pump and equipment dealer out of Center. Since hemp requires a special machine to harvest it, Formation Ag has created equipment for the task. They are now marketing their new hemp harvesting equipment nationwide on their website. 

And finally, there is retail. I went to Elephant Cloud, Crestone Mercantile, and Crestone Creative Trade to see what hemp products are carried locally. Elephant Cloud has several food products made by some of the larger companies, primarily in Canada. However, they also carry all the products from San Luis Valley Hemp Company, including their excellent hemp seed and hemp powder for incorporating into baked goods. Several brands of CBD oil are available in their back case. Lonnie’s shop (Crestone Creative Trade) has handmade one-of-a-kind hats and bags made of hemp cloth. The backpack is a work of art. Check it out. 

The verdict? While the hemp industry is still in its infancy, it appears likely that it will be an economic boon to the SLV and is probably here to stay.

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