Casey Ives, director of business development for PureVision Technologies of Fort Lupton, shows off samples of hemp plant materials that can be used in a wide range of industrial and consumer products.
It sounds like a dream gift most farmers would be happy to find under their tree: a low-water-use crop capable of generating profits as high as $100,000 an acre.
Industrial hemp is that crop, farmers were told during an informational expo in Akron. From Rocky Ford to Springfield to Yuma, hemp is already being grown in fields across Colorado, although the risks involved are enough to quickly turn a potential bonanza into a lump of coal.
Progressive 15, an economic development and legislative advocacy group representing northeastern Colorado, hosted the expo featuring experts in plant breeding, production, marketing, manufacturing and law.
Tellingly, instead of having a banker address business financing, the crowd heard from Denver attorney David Bush on that topic.
Bush explained that industrial hemp still falls under the broad umbrella of cannabis, which triggers monetary restrictions, customer due diligence and extensive reporting requirements for banking institutions.
“Regulation is a cost to any business, and these are hugely costly regulations,” he said.
No federal crop insurance or Farm Service Agency support is offered to hemp growers either.
Drawbacks aside, organizers said it was important to give area farmers more information about the crop, which was authorized for interested states under provisions of the 2014 Farm Bill.
“We have around a hundred people here, and the majority are farmers who are interested in looking at it,” said Cathy Shull, Progressive 15 executive director. “As a low maintenance, low water crop, we see it being a good fit for this high desert area.”
“We’re just starting the discussion,” she added. “Maybe it makes the farming in this area more profitable or maybe we can get some processing companies to come in. We’ll be ready if legislation is introduced that we can get behind to make it easier to do this.”
David Loy, a retired farmer and Washington County commissioner who lives in Akron, said the interest was genuine.
“Four of the last five years farmers made money and some of them would be willing to take a risk and try it. They can afford to finance it on their own,” Loy said. “I don’t think we’ll see big acreages. But if they want to do it, there is help available. This is a way to bring them together to potentially share equipment or ideas.”
James McVaney, the owner of a company called 43 Solutions, has recruited farmers to grow hemp across the state. He told the crowd that hemp he grew in the San Luis Valley last summer brought $100,000 an acre.
In an interview later, he described it as an “once-in-a-lifetime” windfall that was enhanced by a somewhat unusual confluence of events. The proceeds came from 800 pounds of seed harvested from five acres.
Tony Grove holds up a promotional T-shirt made from hemp, organic cotton and bamboo. The screen-printed image on the front shows actual hemp plants grown by Hemp Farm Colorado. Grove was selling hemp seed for $10 an ounce at an informational meeting in Akron
However, he said he considered the San Luis Valley too rocky and the growing season too short to be ideal.
“This area has a lot more potential,” he said of northeastern Colorado. McVaney hopes to grow 200 acres of hemp in 2016 and was still looking to line up another 120 acres of production.
“The market is uncertain, but we’re still in the rising part of the bubble,” he said.
Those attending the meeting received a brochure detailing the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s industrial hemp program. Hemp production requires registration with the CDA. The application fee is $500 plus $5 per acre. Certifications are issued annually.
Hemp is still considered a controlled substance on the federal level and can’t be sold out of state, according to the literature. Hemp “grows like a weed,” according to some farmers, but also requires sophisticated management.
Most importantly, plants have to be constantly monitored to make sure levels of THC, the psycho-trophic compound that creates a high when consumed or inhaled, remains below the legal limit of .3 percent on a dry matter basis. Individual cultivars, growing conditions and other factors can have large and sometimes unpredictable effects on those levels.
Farmers invited to speak at the meeting said no specialized equipment was required beyond conventional planters or seed drills and a draper header combine.
“My plan next year is to plant it like wheat. That’s what they do in Canada,” said Fort Morgan farmer Matt Silz.
Mike Sullivan, owner of Hemp Farm Colorado of Brighton, said he left the marijuana industry to grow hemp instead. He was pleased with the 60 acres he grew under irrigation last year.
“Now we have the seed to grow it on a larger scale,” he said.
Sullivan said he was forming a cooperative, the Northern Colorado Hemp Growers Association, to facilitate seed sales, marketing, processing and distribution.
Manufacturers described hemp as a miracle plant suitable to many uses.
Casey Ives, director of business development for PureVision Technologies of Fort Lupton, explained how his company’s biomass refinery was churning out materials used in a large range of industrial and consumer products, such as paper products, sealants, binders, plastics, beverage bottles and even car frames and panels. Renewable bio-based products will continue to replace petro-chemical products in the future, he said.
Plant residue, however, appears to add only residual value. The big item driving the market is hemp oil, which is used in medicinals and health care products.
Bill Billings, co-owner of Nature’s Root, said he makes body salts and other oil-based products that have amazing health properties and huge demand. “In Canada, you can go into a Costco or a Whole Foods Market and buy hemp seeds or hemp hearts,” he said. “Hemp is the most nutritious food on the planet. It is perfectly balanced between Omega 3s and Omega 6s, and it contains 14 to 20 percent protein. As a food product, it’s great.”
Jason Robillard, head of cannibidiol products for Rocky Mountain High Brands of Dallas, said his company was expanding into a 17,000 square foot building in Westminster to pursue the health market.
“This crop is very valuable,” he said. “Do your research. If someone offers you $10,000 or $20,000 an acre, that's not necessarily a great deal. We like to partner with farmers rather than just sell them the seed.”