Regional: Colorado group laying groundwork for industrial hemp co-op
CARBONDALE — A recent tour at a small experimental hemp plot by a group of advocates who want to develop a local hemp growers cooperative revealed some of the challenges the fledgling industry faces before it can become established in Colorado.
In this case, the half dozen or so plants intended to produce hemp seed were quite possibly exposed to and contaminated by pollen from what was determined to be a male marijuana plant that was inadvertently growing nearby, the group discovered.
That means the hoped-for new hemp seeds could already be tainted with too much THC, the drug that produces the marijuana high when smoked or ingested, to qualify under new state regulations as agricultural hemp.
“One of the things we are trying to figure out is how marijuana and hemp can coexist without cross-contaminating each other,” said Sue Gray, one of the founders of the newly revamped, Carbondale-based Colorado Hemp Education Association (formerly the Roaring Fork Hemp Cooperative Association).
That’s just one of the concerns among would-be hemp growers and producers of recreational marijuana who worry that, without proper controls, both industries could be compromised.
“I think we can do both amicably,” added Jackie Chenoweth, another member of the hemp association. “But it’s important that we work together on this.”
Other hurdles if the hemp industry is to take root involve the establishment of reliable, certified seed sources for hemp and regional infrastructure necessary to process hemp products. For now, it remains illegal to transport seeds or raw hemp across state lines.
“At this point, we are sort of blindly feeling our way through this,” Gray said. “We are getting together with other organizations that have been around longer than ours and educating ourselves, so that we can go out and educate the community and the farmers.”
Amendment 64, approved by Colorado voters in 2012, not only legalized recreational marijuana possession and licensed retail sales in the state, it also directed the Legislature to establish rules and regulations for growing, processing and selling industrial hemp.
Hemp is related to and resembles the marijuana plant in some ways, but lacks the drug component of tetrahydrocannabinol. Federal and state laws define hemp as having a THC content of no more than 0.3 percent.
The Colorado Department of Agriculture is in the first year of its new hemp program since allowing farmers to begin registering in March to establish research and development plots and eventually grow commercial crops. Those crops are subject to state testing for THC levels to determine their purity.
It could be the beginning of a lucrative new cash crop. Hemp is grown both for the natural fiber that can be used for fabrics, paper, rope and even building materials, as well as hemp seed oil that can be used in soaps, health products and some foods.
Door is open
Industrial hemp was a major crop in the United States up until the 1970s, when marijuana was classified as a controlled substance under federal drug laws.
Because of the plant similarities, hemp farmers were required to get a permit from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to legally cultivate it. Few if any permits were issued because of the difficulty for law enforcement to distinguish between marijuana and hemp.
Last year, in response to the legalization of recreational marijuana and hemp in Colorado and Washington state, the U.S. Attorney General’s Office said it wouldn’t intervene in hemp and marijuana cultivation in states that legalized it.
But many things must be figured out before Colorado and other states can establish a legitimate hemp industry.
The Colorado Hemp Education Association would ultimately like to establish a hemp growers cooperative in Garfield County and the Roaring Fork Valley, but decided to reorganize as an educational association as a first step.
Though disappointing, the findings at the local hemp test plot are just part of the learning process, Gray said.
“There are a lot of complex issues related to growing hemp here that need to be worked out,” Gray said.
The group’s first meetings last spring included a handful of local landowners and farmers who are interested in growing hemp.
“Some are active farmers now, growing hay and other crops and raising cattle,” Gray said. “They would like the opportunity to switch over to something that might be more profitable and provide some security for the future.”
Garfield County commissioners decided last month that they would allow state-licensed hemp growers to operate within agricultural zone districts in the county. However, the county will not attempt to regulate the industry itself, leaving that job up to state regulators.
“Clearly, any growing, cultivation and production of industrial hemp will need to be permitted through the Colorado Department of Agricultural prior to establishing an operation within the county,” said Tamra Allen, planning manager for Garfield County.
“It will be handled like any other agriculture operation,” she said. “Anyone who want to grow hemp will have to do what the state requires. As long as it’s in an ag district, as far as the county is concerned, it’s an allowed use.”
Currently, the state ag department takes registrations for two types of hemp permits: one for research and development and another for commercial production. As of the most recent count, close to 120 farmers had registered in the state, mostly on the Front Range.
R&D sites are limited to 10 acres or less and are subject to a $100 registration fee plus $5 per acre. Commercial operations are not limited in acreage and are charged $200 plus $1 per acre.
Among the regulatory requirements that growers must follow are to provide:
• Maps, including GPS locations of all growing locations and varieties planted.
• Affidavits of lab tests showing that the crop varieties will produce a THC content of 0.3 percent or less.
• Documentation of in-state processing.
Growers are also subject to random field sampling by ag officials to verify THC content. Costs associated with those tests are to be covered by the permit holders. The state says it will test at least one-third of all registrants each year.
Cause for concern
“There is an obvious need in this country for a paradigm shift, not only in our food but in our clothing,” said Barbara Filippone, founder of EnviroTextiles in Glenwood Springs, which imports finished hemp and other natural fiber products for local textile manufacturing.
Filippone is supportive of establishing a local hemp industry, but cautions that the necessary supply chain and markets must be established first.
She also worries that a state license to grow hemp is not adequate immunity to federal prosecution, especially if hemp crops are found to contain too much THC.
“I fear that a lot of these farmers are being set up for failure,” she said, adding that some of those involved in the industry have cross interests in both recreational marijuana and industrial hemp.
That’s a dangerous mix, said Filippone, who as an economic developer has helped build hemp and other natural textile industries in different countries around the world, including India, South Korea, China, Romania, Hungary and Poland.
Cross-breeding of different plant varieties is unheard of in the countries that have an established hemp industry. Many growers in those regions have never even seen a marijuana plant, Filippone said.
The potential for cross-contamination between marijuana and hemp in Colorado and other states where both are now legal is a legitimate concern, she said.
“What I see happening is that a lot of people who think they’re buying hemp seed have no idea where it came from,” Filippone said. “Half of these people are unaware of the varieties being grown, and it’s a concern if they’re tested by Colorado Ag and found to have high THC levels.”
She also said the state and even the county could do more to help establish an adequate infrastructure in different parts of the state, including the Western Slope, so farmers can be successful in growing and marketing hemp products.
The hemp association’s Gray agreed.
“That’s one of the very things we’ve been talking about, is coming up with a way to establish a processing facility and necessary infrastructure to handle the hemp that’s grown in this valley,” Gray said.
When it comes to growing hemp, “we could probably start as soon as next year,” she said.
But until the supply chain and infrastructure are in place, that would be premature, Gray also acknowledged.
“We want to be able to do this with correct research and development that will lead to a legitimate product,” she said.
The co-op itself will be formed once farmers, processors, sellers and others critical in that chain are established, she added.
“We’re just the leadership and education team to help lay the groundwork for that to happen,” Gray said.
Representatives from the local group plan to attend the Boulder Hemp Festival next month, which is to include a tour of indoor hemp-growing operations in that area and collaboration with other hemp advocacy groups.
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