Hidden in a corn field in southwest Colorado is a thriving hemp crop being cultivated by agronomists from Colorado State University.
Despite the secrecy, the experiment testing 12 varieties of industrial hemp is above-board, with permits and permission from the Colorado Department of Agriculture, CSU and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
“We’re keeping a low profile to avoid any trouble, like vandalism or theft by youth mistaking it for marijuana,” said Abdel Berrada, senior researcher with CSU’s Southwest Ag Research Station in Yellow Jacket.
Industrial hemp — a genetic cousin of marijuana — is used to make paper, oil, biodiesel, rope, clothing, soap, and as a substitute for plastic and other products.
Hemp is defined as not more than .3 percent THC, the psychoactive ingredient of recreational and medical marijuana, which typically has 10 to 30 percent THC.
A provision in the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill sanctions industrial hemp cultivation for research purposes by universities, despite being a banned substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
Voters in Colorado legalized hemp production along with recreational marijuana under Amendment 64 in 2012. Permits for hemp crops are issued by the Colorado Department of Agriculture, and crops are subject to inspection for the .3 THC standard.
A tour Monday of the half-acre crop revealed CSU’s field of tightly packed hemp plants growing 10 feet high high with bright-green, leafy stalks that buzzed with bees.
Berrada and his team were encouraged by the crop.
“We’re excited about the potential for a new profitable crop. They are doing really well in our climate and soil with no major problems or pests,” he said. “We’re learning a lot, and there is a lot more to know.”
On June 18, the agronomists planted more than 1,000 seeds of 12 hemp varieties shipped from Europe, including Italy, Czech Republic and Hungary.
“We needed a permit from the DEA for the seeds, so that was one of many legal hurdles we had to overcome,” Berrada said.
The seeds cost $35 to $70 per pound, he said, which at the low end is about $1,800 per acre. An acre is expected to yield about five tons of hemp.
The experiment is for research, Berrada said, and seeds will not be available to the public. The crop will be sent to CSU labs in Fort Collins where seeds and plant material will be tested for genetics, oil content, biomass, fiber content and seed yield. Because of the crop’s height, it might need to be harvested by hand.
“We want to identify the right variety that will work best for our area and soils,” Berrada said.
Hemp seed production is not much more expensive than other crops such as corn or wheat, according to agricultural economist Jesse Russell, of Grand Junction.
Modifications to combine harvesters are needed to accommodate hemp’s height, and fiber cultivation is more expensive because of added wear and tear on equipment.
Regulatory issues are a potential barrier for widespread hemp industry.
The U.S. Farm Bill provides for hemp research exempt from federal drug laws. However, permits issued to local farmers from the state agricultural department under Colorado’s hemp law don’t have that legal protection and are vulnerable to federal prosecution.
High permit fees and shipping costs also are challenges, along with spotty banking services.
A potential processing solution includes retooling the closed sunflower seed mill in Dove Creek to handle hemp.
In Fort Lupton, Colo., a PureVision Technology has set up a facility to process 25 tons of hemp fiber per day, according to the Denver Post.
“This facility would likely support less than 1,800 acres of fiber production,” Russell’s study states. “There is considerable development to be done in Colorado’s hemp value chain to support any sizable production of industrial hemp.”
The local test plot in Montezuma County is irrigated at the rate of an inch per acre. No herbicides or pesticides were used, and nitrogen was added to the soil.
“There has been a lot of local demand for information about hemp, and there are a few private growers,” Berrada said. “And that is what we do: respond to the needs of the farmers.”
Tours of the hemp crop are available by appointment. Contact the CSU Southwest Colorado Research Center at 562-4255.