Nestled between views of the Three Sisters to the west and a rocky outcrop of sage and juniper to the east, tiny green seedlings flutter in the wind as they begin to take root. Will and Moira Burns, newly married—and until recently, hobby alfalfa farmers, squat in their newly planted 10-acre hemp field outside of Redmond, examining the rows of baby plants that will grow upward of 8 feet tall. Moira smooths dust from one of the leaves, her pregnant belly making it difficult to be nimble, while Will checks a drip line for leaks.
- Magdalena Bokowa
"To be blunt," begins Will—not intending the bad pun, "It's been one helluva wild rollercoaster to get to this point." He gestures to the field around us where 20,000 baby hemp plants proudly stand, all 12 inches in height, brought in as seedlings a few weeks before. They were methodically planted with the aid of Will's grandfather's tractor, a specialized planting arm borrowed from a fellow hemp farmer and neighbor, six laborers and Will's father and grandfather—who both live next door and who have been growing alfalfa, hay and cattle for the better part of 60 years.
"We've had to invest more money than we had saved for, underestimated how many starts we needed and made a few bad calls last year with our pilot crop. But, we're devoted to the healing benefits of this plant and want to make this a sustainable business for our growing family," Will says.
Having had experience as medical marijuana growers in the past led the Burns' to convince their family members to try hemp farming on a small plot of their 100-acre+ family land.
"It's been a few-year process," says Moira. "First we started with a small greenhouse with 12 plants of cannabis and harvested that for three seasons. Will's father was into it from the start, but Will's grandfather came around more slowly. He complained the neighbors could smell it and was worried what they thought about us.
"Eventually though, I think as legalization came through recreationally and the stigma started to lift, they started asking us more questions about it. I think the turning point was when I gave them some mentholated CBD cream for his back—and he liked it. He kept asking me for more of that 'hippie cream," and we laughed, saying, "you know you could grow the stuff to make this hippie cream."
"It's cool to be a part of a multi-generational farming effort," Will adds, "Especially since, how many young farmers can you say are continuing their family farm? It's been fun to adapt and stay on the land, showing our grandparents we'll continue their traditions—just in a slightly different way."
- Magdalena Bokowa
A growing green scene
If it seems like Central Oregon has exploded with newly planted hemp fields, it's not your imagination—and the data supports that observation. In 2015 under a newly established pilot program, there were 13 registered growers of hemp in Oregon, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
Now? There are 1,342 registered growers on 46,219 acres in Oregon alone, and it's increasingly ballooning, especially as word gets out that hemp can be a promising cash crop.
An ancient plant, hemp and marijuana are the same species of plant—but hemp is generally described as non-intoxicating cannabis, with .03% of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) the psycho-active substance responsible for getting you "high." Cannabis, bought at a local dispensary, can have upward of 20% THC.
"If you're getting into hemp farming, be prepared for a lot of jokes on getting buzzed," says Will Burns. "I've had to become an educator for everyone from visiting out-of-state relatives to my little 8-year-old cousin. It's a big misnomer."
- Magdalena Bokowa
- Will Burns tends to a young hemp plant.
With a reported 50,000 various uses, hemp has been used since the Roman ages as a building material. George Washington grew it for its industrial fiber. There's even a 6th Century hemp-mortar bridge in France. Hemp's thick woody core—the hurd— is a tough fiber used for anything from paper to rope to building materials. Its oilseed, extracted for its anti-inflammatory properties, has exploded in popularity as a medical alternative for pain management. Everything from creams to tinctures to dog food and bath gels have been flooding the market, as are food alternatives such as hemp milk made from hulled seeds or CBD infused non-alcoholic beverages.
It's becoming commonplace to buy such CBD drinks—local favorites such as Boneyard's Lemon Ginger CBD sparkles brightly in a can and tastes just like any other soda. Bendistillery's Ablis is currently sold in three flavors across 10 states, but with a reported $7.6 million investment, the Tumalo production facility will more than double in size to 20,000 square feet and will release six flavors in cans by the fall.
CBD is everywhere, but in fact, at the federal level to have it in food and drink is still illegal. The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act prohibits adding even approved drugs to human (or animal) food in interstate commerce, meaning that Ablis sold in Puerto Rico is technically illegal.
CBD has not been approved federally except in cases to treat extreme forms of epilepsy and none of the products flooding the market have been scientifically proven, prompting scientists and officials to warn Food and Drug Administration officials at a 10-hour, May 31 hearing of the dangers of deceptive marketing.
The FDA, not known to move quickly, has released a series of tweets in recent months aiming to clarify its position. After its director resigned earlier this year, the FDA released a document June 16, "What You Need to Know And What We're Working to Find Out" which states, "We are aware that there may be some products on the market that add CBD to food or label CBD as a dietary supplement. Under federal law, it is currently illegal to market CBD this way." The agency continued that they have "unanswered questions about the science, safety and quality of products containing CBD."
A public forum is open to submit commentary until July 16—and companies cashing in on the cash cow will continue to do so until regulation is put in place.
The Effect of the Farm Bill
The potential for the green plant turning into green cash is one that is catching the attention of everyone around—especially Central Oregon farmers used to growing hardy alfalfa and hay.
Data from New Frontier, an independent cannabis analytics company, suggests that the lucrative payout can be anywhere between $2,500 to $75,000 per acre for CBD extraction-worthy crops.
"There's a lot of excitement in the farming community, because hemp is seen as a high-return crop," says Eric Steenstra, president of VoteHemp, a nonprofit hemp farming advocacy organization. "There are many farmers around the country who are struggling to make ends meet, and they're looking for an alternative like hemp to boost revenue." According to VoteHemp, high-quality hemp sold for CBD extraction can garner between $35-40 per pound. The Burns family said they averaged about $45 per pound last year.
The Burns' are some of the many Central Oregon farmers taking advantage of changes that happened with the passage of Congress' 2018 Farm Bill—which removed industrial hemp from the Controlled Substances Act. The bill classed hemp as an agricultural commodity, achieving something marijuana—the type that gets people high—has yet to do: become federally legal. Marijuana remains classed as a Schedule 1 drug—putting it on par with heroin and Ecstasy, which the Drug Enforcement Administration sees as having "no medical benefit" and "high potential for abuse."
With hemp, Oregon farmers had a head start in getting it to market. Oregon has had a hemp program in place since 2015. According to Oregon State University's Crop and Soil Science Department, Oregon hemp will soon beat out the current number-two ranking commodity—cattle ranching—which yielded nearly $820 million in 2017 alone. Oregon is expected to net more than $1 billion in sales of hemp, and the entire U.S industry is projected to hit $22 billion by 2020, according to New Frontier Data, which collects data on the emerging field.
Deschutes County itself is the third-largest industrial hemp-growing county in the state, according to ODA, with over 75 industrial hemp farms registered in the county. It follows only Jackson and Josephine counties in production. Jackson County leads the way, with 139 registered hemp farms.
If this season's harvest goes well, the Burns' say they may pivot completely away from cattle farming. "The energy it takes, the water needed, not to mention the methane, to produce cattle doesn't really make it sustainable," says Moira Burns. "I'd personally like to at least reduce the number over time, if not stop it." Their farm—which holds water rights and is at the end of an irrigation canal—already has water-saving drip lines for the crops in an effort to conserve water. They also choose to grow organically.
- Magdalena Bokowa
- Moira Burns holds up a hemp leaf, part of the new crop that her family hopes will be a success.
A Hemp Innovation Center
Though hardy and weed-like in its ability to resist temperature changes and occasional drought, hemp can be tough to grow—well. Many new farmers are struggling to figure out the best methods to get the highest yielding CBD levels without crossing over the 0.03 THC threshold. It's a delicate balance. OSU is trying to foster more hemp research, including opening the Global Hemp Innovation Center in mid-June, aimed at helping growers navigate the growing market of hemp products.
"We want to understand how to efficiently and sustainably grow hemp for seeds, for hemp fiber materials that can be used in textiles and construction materials, including as an alternative to gravel in concrete, for hemp essential oils that have popular health and wellness uses, and for hemp grain for use in food and feed," says Jay Noller, a professor of crop and soil science at OSU, and the new center's director and lead researcher. Though the center has been well received, there's still a lot of work to be done in navigating this tricky crop.
Examples include making sure that plants don't produce levels of THC that are too high, since those "hot crops" effectively turn into marijuana crops and technically have to be destroyed. THC crops fall under a whole other set of regulations, controlled by either the Oregon Liquor Control Commission or the Oregon Health Authority, and grows are subject to approval or denial by local authorities. In Deschutes County, a decidedly anti-marijuana Board of Commissioners has denied a number of marijuana grow and dispensary applications this year—even ones where the applicants complied with all known local and state regulations.
- Magdalena Bokowa
- Industrial hemp has become a fast growing crop in Oregon and around the U.S.
With hemp as well as marijuana, farmers often can't tell a crop's THC level until months into the growing process, so a program that could certify seeds would be a big help.
"Seeds aren't cheap," says Will Burns, who, worried about quality, opted for genetically verified female seedlings instead. New Frontier says the average seed price is between $1-2 per seed. Hemp farming is also extremely labor intensive, as the Burns' found out when their two-day planting window stretched to 11 days. Industry specific machinery is just evolving and many farmers are coming up with their own systems to help speed along the process. Many farms still rely solely on manual labor to plant, cut down the stalks and to remove invasive weeds. There isn't a standard yet—though ODA officials hope to have growing standards in place by August of this year.
Even though the Burns' sought advice from their neighbors and extensively researched farming techniques online, it was still a challenge. "You can spend a lot of money just on labor," they said. Last year, the hemp they grew for CBD didn't turn out like what they were hoping for in terms of quality. They also had an issue with the extraction processing center, which they said tainted some of their CBD. "It was a..." Moira pauses, "Yeah, it was a total failure, I'd say. But, we learned so much and thankfully have the support of our family to try again."
"My grandfather was actually the one that said we should keep going," says Will. "He said that's the life of the farmer—failure—but it's the good ones that keep going. So we're willing to try again."
Pain relief—but textiles, too
Though CBD is a hot commodity, the textile market is also promising. Down the road from the Burns farm, Evan Long is growing 200 acres of hemp purely for textile production. He grows it like any other crop, via an agronomic method which is both cheap and carries less risk. Depending on how this year goes, he hopes to expand to nearly 2,000 acres next year and is investing in a local processing facility.
"It's important to take a longer-term picture of the hemp market," says Steenstra of VoteHemp. "Right now, CBD is the hot commodity and is a significant driver of the market and profit for farmers. But as an agricultural crop, hemp has significant market potential for grain and fiber."
Farmers often look for strategic partnerships with other farmers and landowners to boost their production capabilities, such as the Burns', who share labor and tools with neighbors. But those relationships can quickly go sour if solid contracts aren't formed.
Recently, three Oregon farms became immersed in litigation over production agreements after the 2018 season. Big Bush Farms alleges it taught three farm operators "best hemp farming practices" and entered into written agreements with the farms to plant, grow, dry and harvest plants—though they allege they failed to see over 222,928 pounds of dried biomass according to a May 29 article from Hemp Industry Daily. The three lawsuits amount to over $395 million in damages. Law firms specializing in cannabis litigation, such as the Canna Law Blog, repeatedly warn of future litigation, as more partnerships are made without due diligence.
Still, those devoted to the plant encompass the Wild-West mentality and say they are in it for the long haul. "CBD is definitely popular," say Will and Moira Burns. "Our advice to other farmers is, learn as much as you can about it, keep it small and manageable and, well, enter at your own risk."