There is no stereotype of an industrial hemp farmer. From academics to marijuana producers, urban farm activists to generational ranchers – it seems there’s a place for everyone in the burgeoning industry.
That was apparent as more than 100 people attended a pair of presentations and panel discussions Saturday in the Summit Room at the Four States Agricultural Expo in Cortez.
In a telling moment, Abdel Berrada of Mesa Verde Ag Solutions asked members of the crowd to raise their hands if they grew hemp in 2018. A few hands went up. Then Berrada asked who plans to grow in 2019. More than a dozen hands shot up across the room.
Berrada said hemp has been around for thousands of years, and there are hundreds of uses. The outer stalks can be fashioned into rope, textiles, building materials, paper and industrial products. Seed can be converted into food, oils, solvents and cosmetics. Leaves and flowers have medical and anti-microbial properties.
Growing hemp in Colorado has been legal since 2014, but just last year, the U.S. Farm Bill legalized industrial hemp in all 50 states. That was welcome news for Kat Bagley, co-founder of the Venus Moon Ranch in Hesperus, which is starting a Four Corners hemp co-op.
“I know I’m, like, young and I’m a female and I’m from New York City, and I’m here in Southwest Colorado, and I’m able to hold conversations and shake hands with these old-school cowboys, and I’m just grateful they’re able to see I’m here for the right reasons and I care about them,” Bagley said.
She’s doing more than just shake hands. She’s consulting with farmers and helping them add hemp to their land.
Bagley said hemp is an incredible bioremediator that can pull heavy metals and radioactive materials out of the soil. She said hemp helps restore soil and has ecological and economic implications worldwide.
“It’s opening up more markets for small farmers, for traditional farmers, to diversify their crop, to fix their land if their goal is to go back to organic eventually,” Bagley said. “You can do this with hemp.”
During a panel discussion, there were plenty of technical and legal questions. A vegetable farmer asked how he could start growing hemp, and audience members asked whether commercial nurseries can sell starts or seeds. One asked whether there is a market for hemp pollen.
Panelist Brendan Findlay, who has been growing hemp for two years, said there’s not only a market for pollen, but there’s a market for hemp roots in Europe. He said the future is bright for hemp and he referenced the possibility of converting hemp into super-capacitor batteries.
“How do you actually turn a field of hemp into a bunch of batteries?” Findlay said. “Hopefully someday someone will come and say, ‘You know what? We’re going to show you how to do this right here in Montezuma County.’”
Some members of the audience expressed concern about legal gray areas. In Colorado, hemp is defined as a cannabis plant with not more than 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Farmers face penalties if their crop tests over the limit or is transported without the proper documentation.
Panelists and hemp farmer Scott Perez urged farmers to “get political” and work with local officials, county commissioners, legislators and the Colorado Department of Agriculture to avoid “getting busted.”
“We are on the ground floor of this industry and we need to do it right,” Perez said.
In an interview after the panel discussion, Montezuma County Commissioner Jim Candelaria, who grows hemp with his wife, Jan, said he’s had several conversations with Sheriff Steve Nowlin and a local Colorado Bureau of Investigations agent to make sure law enforcement officers are trained properly.
“This is so new, I don’t want them to be out there doing something that they shouldn’t be doing and them hurting our farmers,” Candelaria said.
He said education is important as the hemp industry grows. Candelaria said hemp creates income and employment for farmers and value-added services – which has broad implications for Montezuma County.
Some of those value-added services are popping up in Southwest Colorado.
Patrick Labruzzo, director of Ayani Botanicals, worked in the cannabis industry for the past decade. In about a month, he said he will be ready to accept biomass at the first hemp processing facility with a permit from Montezuma County.
“Most local farmers are just getting going, so this coming harvest we should be in full swing,” Labruzzo said.
He said he saw a need for a local processor in the Four Corners area as more and more farmers prepare to plant their first hemp crop. Ayani Botanicals is starting small but will be ready to expand with demand, Labruzzo said.
For certain, Colorado leads the way in hemp. But Berrada, who has studied hemp for the past four years at Colorado State University, said a lot of genetic material was lost when the U.S. declared hemp illegal in 1970. Hemp farmers are basically starting over, and there are plenty of opportunities.
“I don’t know everything about hemp,” Berrada said. “There’s so much to know.”