Colorado: Hemp is filling in the gaps among the Western Slope

Ribbons of fruit trees and grapevines run across hillsides under the rocky folds of iconic Mount Garfield, the place where legendarily good Colorado peaches grow. Now another crop — hemp — is sending up green spikes in the midst of all that fruit.

Dozens of Palisade-area growers are grabbing hold of the lucrative promise of hemp. They are counting on it to deliver much bigger profits than other area crops. A few are ripping out vineyards or orchards to make way for hemp. Most are planting hemp in a patchwork of fields in Colorado’s premier wine country that mostly used to sprout alfalfa or lie fallow.

The hemp is getting noticed in a region heavily into agritourism. “My wife and I came over for a wine festival and as we were driving around, I said, ‘holy mackerel, there sure are a lot of little hemp fields’,” said Duane Sinning, whose surprise is notable because he directs the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s hemp program.

How much hemp is growing around Palisade is a bit of a mystery. The agriculture department doesn’t reveal acreage in any given area. The department gives a state overview: in Colorado there are 23,500 acres of hemp growing in fields and another 3.9 million indoors. There are 688 registered growers. Mesa County, which takes in the Palisade-area fruit country, has 62 of those registered growers cultivating 75 fields.

That leaves hemp-trend guestimating to the eyes — and the nose. Ten hemp fields fringe just one section of road on the east edge of Palisade. Hemp fields butt up against the trellises of grape vines on the mesa above Palisade. In at least one orchard, hemp is planted among the fruit trees. The unmistakable scent of hemp now wafts across the twisty Fruit & Wine Byway that used to be only redolent of fruit.

Hemp is also popping up in Colorado’s other designated American Viticulture Area — the North Fork Valley in Delta County. That county has 64 registered hemp growers working 73 fields. In Montrose County, the next county south, there are 31 registered hemp growers working 50 fields.

Why hemp? A green rush for CBD oil

Hemp is making inroads where wine and fruit once ruled because sales of the cousin to marijuana are expected to reach $1 billion across the U.S. this year. Hemp is touted to have uses in 25,000 products, but it is mainly one of those products — cannabidiol, more commonly known as CBD oil — that is fueling the green rush. 

CBD oil, which by law can contain only a trace of the high-inducing component of marijuana, is being used in salves, tinctures, creams and cosmetics. It is being infused into wines, beers, coffee and hard ciders. Even the Coca-Cola Co. and Coors Brewing Co. are talking up the future of CBD-infused products.

“There is going to be a high degree of demand,” said Brian Olson, the owner of One Straw Organic Orchards and one of the lead hemp growers around Palisade. Olson is expanding his long-time organic jam and jelly business and jumping into hemp in a big way with the purchase of large extractor to process CBD oil for himself and other Palisade area hemp growers.

He estimates that he can make $112,500 on an acre of hemp; that is based on a generally accepted number in the hemp industry of $50 per pound of hemp. Compare that to other crops and it is easy to understand the appeal. An acre of alfalfa brings in about $400. Peach and grape crops might net $6,000 to $12,000 an acre in good, hail-free years.

The National Hemp Association offers a much more conservative profit estimate of about $60,000 per acre. New Frontier Data, a cannabis research firm, estimates hemp grown for CBD can bring in anywhere from $2,500 to $75,000 per acre, depending on many growing and processing variables.

Chip Wernig, a financial adviser who has added hemp farmer to his resume, thought he would be growing peaches when he bought some land and moved to Palisade last year from the Front Range. Now, he is going gangbusters in the hemp business.

“The money — it is here, right in these buds,” Wernig said as he grasped a thick stalk on one of his 22 acres of plants.

Wernig is processing his plants in a repurposed hops dryer that a long-time Palisade grower agreed to rent to him when the market for hops tanked. That allows Wernig to skip the traditional time- and labor-intensive method of drying hemp by hanging it. Instead, his workers use four large forced-air heater bins that dry the hemp in 72 hours or less. They then tip it into a baler that spits out rectangles of hemp the size of a hay bale wrapped in plastic and ready for oil extraction. He estimates each bale is worth $6,000 to $7,000.

Wernig said he hopes to lease more acres around Palisade and expand his hemp crop to 100 acres next summer. The burgeoning market and windfall profit figures that are floating around don’t mean that all fruit-country farmers will be turning to hemp. Legal matters relating to hemp are still more snarled than a grape vine.

Ruth Elkins, the owner of Sprigs & Sprouts lavender farm and gift shop in Palisade, tried to expand into growing hemp, until her insurer and banker threatened to drop her. “You might as well be growing methamphetamine in a bud,” Elkins said. “Who wants to be treated like a drug dealer?”

But Elkins said she is not giving up on hemp: she is just waiting for legislative change.

Growers holding their breath over Farm Bill

Hemp has been treated as an illegal drug by the federal government since 1957, even though hemp has minuscule amounts of the THC that creates the psychotropic effects of marijuana.

Industrial hemp crops have been legally sanctioned in Colorado since 2012. But hemp is only legal if the THC levels are less than 0.3 percent. Anything over that means an industrial hemp crop has turned into unlicensed marijuana grow and can be confiscated and destroyed.

Amendment X on the November ballot in Colorado could change the THC limit to 1 percent.  It also would move the definition of legal industrial hemp out of the state’s constitution and make it statutory. 

Growers are holding their collective breath for national change with the 2018 Farm Bill. That bill would designate hemp an agricultural crop rather than a drug. That widely supported bill has been languishing for more than a year because of a controversial measure tacked on to it — a work mandate for those receiving welfare benefits. 

Some new fruit-country hemp growers fear that passage of that bill would lead to saturation of the hemp market and a drop in prices. “As more and more people get involved, I worry about what will happen,” said hemp grower Eban Abshire, who grew 25 acres of hemp this year.

Talbott Farms is the biggest fruit grower in the Palisade area, so some of the hemp converts have been pushing Bruce Talbott to switch some of his family’s fruitlands to hemp. But he said he isn’t ready.

He said he considers the land around Palisade where his family has grown fruit for six generations “elite ground.” Hemp can be grown in many places across many states and parts of Colorado, he said, but peaches can’t. They need the rich soil, the unique geography and the mild climate of fruit and wine country, he said.   “Growing hemp,” Talbott said, “is a dream I don’t share.”

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