Chris DellaBianca

Chris DellaBianca grows hops as well as hemp.

Hemp is not a new thing.

Hemp fiber has been a staple in the textile business for centuries. The long, strong fibers are used in making exquisite, crisp fabrics used in everything from lingerie to draperies. It was used for centuries in making rope and cord, until nylon and acrylics took over that field. It can be woven into a fiberboard that is as strong as wood. In all more than 25,000 products have the hemp plant to thank for their existence.

Hemp is distinct from marijuana, with its psychoactive properties and medicinal and recreational uses. Marijuana contains in excess of three-tenths of 1 percent of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) dry weight.

The common hemp plant without the higher THC content still contains cannabidiol (CBD) oil. It is CBD that offers the medicinal value in marijuana and hemp. The problem was, smoking marijuana was generally illegal in the U.S. and still is on the federal level. Of course, places like some counties in Colorado have legalized the production and sale of marijuana. However, by growing industrial hemp and extracting the oil, the purported medical value is derived without the need to legalize what has been considered a controlled substance.

Adding CBD to all sorts of consumables like your morning coffee or tea, your milkshake, your favorite bath oil — you name it — has opened up a multi-billion dollar industry, and we now have a gold rush of sorts washing over Colorado. One new grower recently called it the Wild, Wild West all over again, because not all the issues have been sorted out and prospectors, some poorly prepared, are rushing into the fields.

Mom and pop farms and major farm corporations are planting hemp by the hundreds of acres. They are doing it because industrial hemp raised for the CBD oil, and not the Jerry Garcia fan club, yields about $1.66 for every square foot of planting area — $60,000 per acre at current prices. Put that against your peach orchard which brings in a fifth of that number. It seems like a no brainer. Unless you are one of those who loves a cold peach on your breakfast cereal.

One corn farmer recently told us that the corn and veggie acreage in Montrose County has already shrunken because the farmers are planting hemp. Hay farmers, truck crop farmers and some orchard growers are doing hemp. Colorado State Sen. Don Coram, the man who helped guide state legislation that opened the industry in the state, is, himself, a hemp farmer. His Montrose operation supports close to 25,000 industrial hemp plants.

Montrose Valley hops farmer Chris DellaBianca is growing hemp, albeit on a comparatively small scale at this point.

“I had 10 acres that I needed to put into production,” he said. “Hemp fits for me. As a hops grower and processor, I already had the processing tools, like the dryer and stripper, so I could finish my product right here. It was a pretty easy decision.”

DellaBianca has 30 acres of hops that he has successfully developed in the past four years. Hops is a pricey investment to begin with, what with the poles and vine support systems needed. He takes the hops all the way to pellet stage and has sold everything he has grown so far. An admitted do-it-your-selfer and experimenter, DellaBianca put his first round of hemp into the ground this year and will take in his first harvest in late September.

DellaBianca has had hemp on his radar ever since the boom began four years ago, but he was reluctant to pull the trigger because there were still so many legal gray areas.

Congress to the rescue

The 2018 federal Farm Bill changed all that. Hemp became a legally approved crop. That opened up a massive gold field. According to the Brightfield Group, which specializes in CBD research and marketing, the bill opened up an industry that will eclipse $22 billion by 2022.

“That was a game changer for me. Until then any hemp grower was living on the edge,” said DellaBianca. The Farm Bill set up the hemp business as one that could get federally insured loans and could operate completely in the open with no reprisal from either state or local authorities. Even though everything is above board now, there is still regulation, which comes under the purview of the Colorado Department of Agriculture and Kate Greenberg, the Agriculture Commissioner.

Legal marijuana is still regulated under the Department of Revenue.

Deputy Commissioner Steve Silverman told the Montrose Daily Press recently that the hemp industry is a massive boost to the state’s ag’s industry. “It seems like everyone wants to cash in on this thing,” he said.

From the 2017 figures, which showed 532 growers on 12,024 acres at the end of the year, the number of registrants grew to 1075, cultivating 30,950 acres. Brightfield and others think that number could double again by the end of 2019.

According to the Ag Department’s current records, there are 108 hemp growers in Montrose County. That is approximately double what it was a year ago. Most of them are concentrated between Spring Creek Road and the north end of the Shavano Valley and Olathe. Delta County has roughly the same number of growers, with most concentrated in the Uncompaghre Valley, although there are some up in the North Fork part of the county.

Each location of industrial hemp farming must be registered and every one who is connected with the business must be identified. Citizenship verification is also required, and there are background checks. Convicted felons need not apply. The land parcel must be identified by GPS location and any restriction or encumbrances must be listed. The application is 24 pages and each app needs a $500, plus $5 per acre payment. The payment is non refundable. Indoor cultivation is allowed and that application requires a $3 per thousand square feet payment.

Once the hemp is in the ground there are reports that must be filed all the way through harvest and shipping. There are also random inspections, including the level of THC in the hemp farmer’s crop. A test showing too much THC can end a season for a hemp crop. Testing the CBD levels will tell the grower when the proper time to cut the crop has arrived.

The industrial hemp plant is a summer annual. The plants usually are ready to be harvested at about 6 feet in height.

“We will get ours into the dryer right away,” DellaBianca said. “Then we have to get the oil out. I haven’t decided exactly what I will do this time around.” He could do the work by hand with some of the same equipment he uses for hops. Or he could ship it off to a firm that does the extraction and sells the wholesale oil.

“That makes me nervous. I was in a seminar the other day where several people were making the point that there are a lot of bad guys out there. They’ll take your product and you never get paid. It has happened,” DellaBianca says. “Like the guy said, it’s the Wild West gold rush all over again.”

DellaBianca says he won’t let anybody take anything off his property without the money in his hand. When there are billions of dollars in the game, the game tends to produce a lot of shysters.

One More Elephant In The Room

Most of the regulatory action in the hemp arena has been on the regulation of the cultivation of the raw plant. But the resulting product is still up for grabs when it comes to government regulation and the marketplace. Enter, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

And enter they did with a major presence. The FDA sent a stern warning letter to a company called Curaleaf Holdings, a major producer of CBD related products. The regulators said that the company was illegally selling unapproved products containing CBD by making unsubstantiated claims about its efficacy in treating cancer, Alzheimer’s, opioid withdrawal, pain, and pet anxiety. The action and resulting publicity could mean a rough road for Curaleaf (and other CBD-based companies) if they can’t meet the deadline of the 15 days the FDA says they have to prove their claims or drop them.

Michael A. Cox is a Montrose-based content provider. He may be reached at mcox@burrocreekpictures.com

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