Along a 45-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 160, a farmer, a biochemist and a manufacturer have partnered to help sprout a viable hemp industry in Southwest Colorado.
The process starts in Mancos, where farmer Scott Perez planted three varieties of hemp seed this week. A second-year industrial hemp farmer, Perez hopes his three-quarter acre agrarian experiment helps to create a model for farmers across America.
“I saw a headline this week that indicated the outlook for hemp was hazy,” said Perez. “That’s simply not true. Industrial hemp is on the verge of becoming an agricultural revolution.”
Perez based his prediction, in part, after joining forces with biochemist Scott Ottersberg of Durango. Ottersberg is working to launch Green Lab Solutions, which would analyze hemp seeds to determine cannabidiol levels, or CBDs. There is mounting evidence that CBD oils can treat both cancer and epilepsy patients, he said.
“I’ve always been interested in natural products to support cancer patients,” said the former anti-cancer drug designer.
After a laboratory analysis, the hemp would continue east along U.S. Highway 160 to Green Leaf Production Co. in Bayfield, where the seed would be processed into CBD oil.
“Our goal is to provide a safe product for consumers with a predictable clinical outcome,” Ottersberg said.
The partnership would be the first successful industrial hemp operation in Southwest Colorado. That could be welcome news for the families that have moved to Colorado seeking natural cannabis-based medications, Ottersberg said.
Despite the benefits, Ottersberg and Perez were quick to point out that many – from law-abiding citizens to state and national legislators – continue to hold onto misinformed perceptions about marijuana, which stymies the industry’s potential. Hemp grown in Colorado, for example, must contain less than three-tenths of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana responsible for producing euphoric highs.
“It’s absurd,” said Perez. “You could smoke a whole bale of this stuff, and all you’re going to get is a headache and a cough.”
“We grew hemp from the 16th century past World War II and all the way up to 1970,” Perez said. “I don’t understand why we have to reinvent the wheel.”
Congress has declined to pass legislation that would remove hemp from the federal list of banned substances or provide farmers greater access to secure seed, yet Perez remains optimistic.
“If you believe in industrial hemp, then contact Congress and lobby,” he said.
Legalized in Colorado last year for the first time in more than 50 years, industrial hemp still faces hurdles. U.S. officials have approved academic-based research efforts in states that have revised hemp laws, but Perez said Colorado State University officials have not provided seed stock for test plots like his. And some seed suppliers are charging more than $2,500 per pound, he said.
“Seed is still definitely an issue,” Perez said.
Because hemp is included in the Controlled Substances Act, farmers face a loss of federal subsides, or worse, their farms, said Perez. He cautioned farmers not to “jump in” without “jumping through” protocols.
“A lot of farmers are waiting to see if I’m going to get marched off in handcuffs,” he said.
Seeds of change
Perez planted a half-pound of seed that he received from a friend last year. He then saved a half-pound of seed harvested from his crop, and relied on the generosity of other farmers.
Last week, he planted three hemp varieties, sowing them between rows of sunflowers and corn to combat cross-pollination as the nation celebrated Hemp History Week.
“The seed I got last year tested with a 10 percent viability and a 5 percent viability in the field,” Perez said. “This year, it tested at 80 percent.”
Perez has relied on irrigation water, saying dry land farming puts his small supply of seeds at risk. Though hemp is drought-resistant, it requires about 12 inches of water during its 90- to 100-day growing season.
“I’d love to be able to make some money growing hemp, but this year, I just want to find a strain that will work in our climate,” said Perez.
Perez, 63, grew up in a Midwest farm community. After receiving a graduate degree in natural resources from Cornell University a few years ago, he settled in Mancos.
“Hemp is really good for soil restoration,” he said. “So I became interested from the conservancy end of things.”
In 2015, Colorado has licensed 2,637 acres for hemp production.
An earlier version of this story erred in identifying Scott Ottersberg as a Fort Lewis College chemistry professor.