When it comes to hemp, an emerging crop that is generating considerable interest in agricultural circles, producers face the question of how long to wait and how much research to do before they jump in and try it out themselves.
Two enthusiastic Colorado hemp producers recommended taking the leap, but also expressed notes of caution, during the annual Regenerate Conference in Albuquerque, hosted by the Quivira Coalition, Holistic Management International and the American Grassfed Association.
Interest in hemp seems to be running at a fever pitch. Many agricultural conferences and expos have added the topic to their agendas and trade show exhibits this year.
Among those who have added hemp to their programming is Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, which is teaming up with the Eastern Colorado Small Business Development Center to offer its first hemp production conference on Dec. 17 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Hays Student Center. The cost is $50, and registration can done on-line or at the door.
In addition, the Small Business Center is hosting a separate series of Harnessing Hemp workshops, including two that will be held after the first of the year in Greeley and Ft. Morgan.
At the Regenerate Conference, Ed Berg, a retired petroleum geologist from Salida, made no bones about his enthusiasm for hemp.
"Hemp is the most valuable crop on earth," he said.
Then he added a caveat. "Vertical integration is the key," he said.
Industrial hemp grows easily and produces lots of fiber, but what is really driving the hemp gold rush is the value of hemp oil for medicinal purposes. Berg and his family have started making a variety of hemp products in their kitchen under Colorado's Cottage Food Act, which allows producers to make and sell nonperishable items from home as long as they are sold directly to consumers and as long as sales do not exceed $10,000 a year per product.
So far Berg said he hasn't had any trouble staying under that threshold. Setbacks have included losing a year's worth of seed to ants, problems setting up an internet store because of restrictions on standard credit card issuers and plants testing too high for THC, the psychoactive compound associated with cannabis use.
"It's a rodeo," he admitted.
But he also added he believes there's a future for small growers selling products into local markets.
"I still think there's a great future for small guys getting into the craft end of it," he said. "There will be a commodity market, but there will also be a market for those who aim higher. There's a thirst and a hunger among people of wanting to connect to the land."
He credited the Colorado Department of Agriculture with being great to work with for pioneering growers. Eventually Berg plans to move his operation into a commercial kitchen as his business grows.
Scott Perez, of Durango, has also been dabbling in hemp production and research for several years.
"Hemp is probably the most regenerative plant you can have," he said. "It grows well with no water and no pesticides. It can be used to pull toxins and heavy metals out of the soil. The roots help break up the soil."
One of the main reasons to get involved now is to have input on how the federal regulations evolve, he said.
"Hemp could do a lot to help our local economies. But right now if you go to the store, chances are the products you see have been imported," he said.
He has several concerns about USDA's interim final rule and how it will impact U.S. growers. He urged everyone to visit USDA's AMS website, read the proposed rules and post comments before Jan. 1.
"They have regulations there that are going to kill small producers," he said. "If you are interested in hemp, I encourage you to get a little more politically active."
One of his concerns is a testing requirement that stipulates the top few inches of the bud be used to determine if the plant's THC level is acceptable. Perez believes that's an arbitrary method and doesn't account for the fact the bud is where most of the THC is concentrated. A more accurate reading would use the entire plant to determine the ratio of THC to CBD, or cannabinoids, he said.
He and others also think the 0.3 percent threshold for THC is too low and should be rounded up to 1 percent.
Perez is also concerned that runaway interest in CBD oil is creating a CBD "bubble."
"All of the investment is going into that area and not enough into using the fiber," he said. "We could be using hemp to replace plastics."
Though there's not much value in the fiber yet, that could change, he added.
"I would encourage you to grow it, bale it and store it," Perez told farmers in the audience.
NJC's first-ever hemp conference on Dec. 17 is intended to cover "all you need to know before you grow," from the crop's agronomic characteristics to enterprise budgets to banking and testing requirements, according to organizer Andy Bartlett who teaches crop and soil sciences at the college.
They've also invited a couple of growers to share their experiences, including one farmer in the Sterling area who planted 1,100 acres of it this past year.
NJC has a demonstration hemp plot of its own at the school greenhouse.
"It's been interesting. It's unlike any other crop I've ever worked with before," Bartlett said.
Margaret Foderaro, the assistant to the director of the state hemp program, will cover regulations and policies at the meeting, while Colorado's Farm Service Agency will be there to discuss crop insurance availability and other implications of the 2018 farm bill.
Hemp is still new, and there's lots to learn. Both Berg and Perez, the southern Colorado growers, advised would-be growers to do their homework before getting started.
Among other things they both stressed the importance of finding reputable seed stock providers. Without doing some research, beginning growers are at risk of getting poor results in the field, and seed can be costly.
"Know who you are getting your seed from," Perez emphasized.