A company that grows industrial hemp in La Junta for processing, packaging and distribution in Colorado Springs was featured during the recent statewide Colorado Hemp History Week promotional tour.

A company that grows industrial hemp in La Junta for processing, packaging and distribution in Colorado Springs was featured during the recent statewide Colorado Hemp History Week promotional tour.

During a stop on the multi-city tour, Folium Biosciences Vice President and Head of Global Sales Ryan Lewis described how his company quickly outgrew its original facility with plans to continue expanding rapidly, all while being entirely self-funded by a group of family members and friends.

“This is a business with 60 percent margins, and our revenue will be over $100,000 this year,” he said inside a new production facility in east Colorado Springs that uses ethanol to extract oil from hemp.

“We are the largest vertically integrated producer of hemp-derived cannabinoids in the country,” he summarized. “We are strictly business-to-business, supplying some of the biggest companies in the U.S. and shipping our products around the world.”

The company recently purchased the former Walmart store in La Junta to use for biomass storage, he said.

Industrial hemp is attracting interest because it grows easily and provides benefits to the soil while contributing to an amazing array of products, 30,000 or more by some counts.

The weeklong tour around the state was being held in conjunction with national Hemp History Week.

Hunter Buffington is the executive director of the new Colorado Hemp Industries Association, which was formed just three months ago.

The association is working to advance legislation, standards and guidelines favorable for the industry, she said.

She said the group would also like to improve the crop’s processing and handling infrastructure and make sure more of the hemp products produced in Colorado are made from Colorado-grown hemp.

“Quite a few hemp products are being made in Colorado already,” she said next to a display table filled with samples of everything from paper to shampoo to fiber.

“Up until now it’s been easier for manufacturers to get hemp from other countries than it is to get it grown right here in Colorado, so we think there’s great potential. There is just so much economic opportunity with this plant. This crop is being used in plastics and medicines that are changing the world,” she said.

While farmers are looking for viable alternative crops, especially in a time of low commodity prices, hemp production is still in its infancy.

Many start-up hemp manufacturers, including the one Lewis represents, have largely bypassed conventional farmers in favor of growing the crop within vertically integrated systems.

Rick Trojan, who oversees a 2,500-acre hemp farm near Eaton, Colorado, one of the largest in the country, is a member of the COHIA board.

He thinks farmers have been left behind because of archaic laws and lack of educational and infrastructural support, not by choice on the industry’s part. He hopes the association will be able to resolve some of those hurdles.

Lewis, too, said he wanted to collaborate with more farmers and help them identify the right genetics to grow, but also noted some challenges.

“This year I’m making deals with farmers to grow the crop,” he said. “There’s a learning curve on the farmer’s side of it too. I spend a lot of time just teaching them about the economics.”

For starters, farmers need to be realistic about profit potential. Instead of expecting to make $200 or $300 a pound, in reality the market price is more like $20 to $30 a pound, he said.

“This is still an agricultural commodity,” he said.

The typical farmer mindset of pumping fields with fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides to get better returns is the antithesis of how Lewis wants to see his crop handled. He prefers that nothing extra be added besides water. About 80 acres out of the 500 his company is currently growing is certified organic, he said.

The company spent seven years perfecting a cultivar that is high in CBD, a compound with desirable medicinal properties, and extremely low in THC, the active psycho-trophic compound found in marijuana. (Hemp must test below 3 percent THC to be considered industrial hemp and not cannabis. Plants with higher levels can run afoul of the law.)

The company now clones plants from that line and raises them under an identity preserved protocol on isolated tracts of land far removed from any other crops to prevent cross-pollination.

Most industrial hemp is grown either under marketing contracts or as part of a profit-sharing program, Lewis and Trojan said. Often farmers will set up a separate legal entity for growing the crop as a way to minimize any legal risk.

For now, rules vary from state-to-state, and there is uncertainty surrounding its movement across state borders.

Despite ups and downs and roadblocks along the way, hemp has been around since the founding of the country, and advocates want to see it re-claim its old identity as something useful and health enhancing.

“The U.S. constitution was written on hemp,” Trojan said. “Just think about that.”