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Industrial hemp grows on a farm south of Montrose. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Entrepreneur Joey Coleman is enthusiastically prepping for a 40-acre “farm-to-doorstep” crop of hemp he plans to grow near Grand Junction this spring. In Monte Vista, Corbett Hefner has added an industrial hemp harvester to his heavy-equipment product line.

Colorado State University-Pueblo chemistry professor Chad Kinney is preparing to host around 500 researchers from around the globe at a hemp conference in March. And in Golden, David Gumner is devising ways to apply the marketing strategies of food giants like Kraft and Procter & Gamble to the promotion of hemp products.

The passage of the federal Farm Bill late in December is ratcheting up a green rush in Colorado that those in the industry say will shake up, better regulate and expand the burgeoning market for hemp.

The enthusiasm is already beginning to show in the numbers of planned new hemp crops registered with the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Already this year, there has been a doubling of registrations compared to January 2018. Registrations for more than 1,200 new acres are currently waiting to be approved with the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

By the end of this year, department projections anticipate Colorado could have around 50,000 acres of hemp. Currently there are 31,670 acres dedicated to hemp in the state. That’s up from 1,811 acres cultivated in 2014, when the first modern hemp was grown.

Because of this early Farm Bill-sparked enthusiasm, “the numbers are sure to climb soon,” said Duane Sinning, director for the state ag department’s Division of Plant Industry.

Farm Bill opened up nationwide market

The Farm Bill blew open the doors to a hemp rally because it removed the non-psychoactive hemp plant from the controlled drug category where its cousin marijuana resides. Hemp is now legally acknowledged as a farm commodity like corn, wheat and soybeans. That means hemp growers are newly eligible for farm loans and crop insurance just like other farmers. They can market hemp across state lines.

Colorado was well poised to take advantage of the new hemp status. It was already recognized as a hemp-industry leader with five years of state-monitored-crop experience and being the only state with a hemp breeding program.

The igniting of new growth from the Farm Bill passage is expected to be somewhat tempered this year by the fact that some new growers are in wait-and-see mode. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has yet to issue standards for hemp. With the federal government shutdown, those new regulations may be slow in coming.

Given the lack of federal guidelines, Sinning said he foresees the real explosion in hemp to come next year. Even with that growth, the Farm Bill passage is anticipated to change the tenor of what had been a kind of rush to make a buck from humankind’s oldest domesticated crop. Hemp growing is expected to settle into a more mainstream endeavor.

“I think the Wild West aspect will fall away a little bit,” said Gumner, who recently moved from 35 years working in the realm of “big food” to become chief marketing officer for the Boulder Botanical & Bioscience Laboratory, a company positioning itself to be a major player in the research and development of products derived from hemp.

CBD boom isn’t slowing, but isn’t only industry for hemp

The demand for CBD oil – the non-psychoactive derivative of hemp that has become a go-to supplement for everyone and their dogs (yes, it is quite popular in the pet-care world), is the biggest driver of the demand for hemp in Colorado and across the country. The State of Hemp 2018 Industry Outlook report shows national CBD sales climbing to an estimated $1.2 billion in the coming year.

Over the next three years, a third of CBD profits are expected to come from the first CBD pharmaceutical drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration – Epidiolex. Epidiolex is a highly concentrated CBD drug that is used to treat seizure disorders. The approval of that one drug is expected to crack open the development and approval of more CBD-based prescription drugs.

The Hemp Business Journal predicts other large-scale hemp uses will be in the field of “bioplastics.” The journal last year forecast sales of bioplastic and biodegradable hemp materials would grow to $7 million to $10 million by 2022. The journal just revised that figure up to $28 million.

Hemp bioplastic materials hold new promise. But they are really nothing new. In 1941, Henry Ford designed a car made of hemp-based materials. Today, car companies, including Porsche, are picking that up by designing new hemp-composite cars. The aeronautics industry is also experimenting with hemp composites.

Hemp industry sources estimate there are more than 25,000 current product uses for hemp, ranging from health foods to biofuels.

With that kind of potential, there are other predictions for Farm Bill-wrought changes to the hemp industry beginning this year – predictions that experts think will come into play in Colorado and spread as more states jump in to the hemp commodity market in a big way:

  • Marketing and manufacturing will become more professional. There will be more transparency in labeling as consumers demand to know where their hemp-derived products like CBD come from and how they were processed.
  • Big pharma and big food will make moves into the hemp market as CBD becomes a popular additive in everything from coffee to wine and shows up in new delivery formats like capsules and tinctures.
  • The regulatory side will expand. The FDA will begin regulating CBD as a food product, or under the supplement category.
  • Bioplastics won’t be the only buzzword in hempworld. Expect to hear more and more about “phytoremediation,” which is the use of hemp to help clean heavy metals from soils.
  • Hemp will show up in materials used in 3D printers.
  • Big chain stores like Walgreens and Target will begin making moves that will likely have CBD products on their shelves in 2020.
  • There will be a shift in where hemp is grown and who is growing it. Hemp will migrate to more traditional agriculture areas. In Colorado, Western Slope agricultural areas had been leading in the numbers of hemp crops. But Weld County on the Eastern Plains has now jumped into the lead with 91 hemp crop areas. Crop registrations are also climbing in the farmlands of El Paso, Otero and Larimer counties.

Colorado pioneers of hemp worry they’ll be crushed in the rush

The anticipated expansion in the world of hemp does not have all sectors of the Colorado hemp industry cheering. Some of the smaller, pioneering players fear they will be crushed in the stampede. Some are already giving up on their dream of hemp riches.

“I may not put hemp in this year,” said Eban Abshire, who grew hemp near Palisade last year. “I don’t think the Farm Bill is so good for us small growers. I think it is going to open it up so that if you don’t have thousands of acres, you can get left out.”

Gumner agrees with that assessment. He predicts that those he calls “garage entrepreneurs” will not be able to compete once new regulations and demands for better standardization are in place.

“I don’t think a lot of smaller players will survive,” Gumner said.

Coleman, not surprisingly, disagrees. He has been growing smaller acreages of hemp for three years at his Desert Flower Farms and he likens what he is doing to the craft-beer industry.

“We look at what we’re doing like it was before the craft brewers became big. No one thought there was room for them. But there was,” Coleman said. “We don’t want to be like a Budweiser. We want to be one of the cool hemp crafters.”

Coleman said he thinks the farm-to-table trend in foods will keep the smaller hemp enterprises alive because there will still be a market for quality products harvested by hand and produced locally; there will still be demand for the grown-in-Colorado cachet.

Kinney, the chemist who directs the Institute of Cannabis Research for CSU Pueblo, said he also sees the dawning of industrial-sized hemp farms. If his institute research finds hemp can be used to clean up contaminated soils and has as many applications as expected in the manufacture of composite materials, large crops will be in demand.

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Hefner’s tractor-mounted hemp harvester, that he developed at his Power Zone/Formation-Ag business in the San Luis Valley, will have a busy market and competition from others devising way to pick a crop that is so fibrously tough that it jams traditional harvesters.

Kinney said state-funded research at the Pueblo institute could also have an effect on pharmacological and supplement uses of CBD. Research projects currently are focused on determining whether cannabinoids affect learning and memory and how their use affects K-12 students. One research project is tracking data for patients using CBD to treat epilepsy.

Farm Bill hasn’t solved all legal problems

Colorado may be positioned well to take advantage of all this. But there are still some problems looming as the rest of the country catches up. Local police in a small Oklahoma town on Jan. 15 confiscated a truckload of hemp bound for Colorado from Kentucky.

Even though the load of hemp reportedly had been pre-screened to determine the THC content was below the 0.3 percent legal limit that separates marijuana from hemp, the two men helping ferry the load were arrested on suspicion of drug trafficking and spent six days in jail. Two drivers also were arrested and remained in jail as of Jan. 31.

Sinning said he has been working by phone to help Oklahoma authorities sort out the complications of hemp vs marijuana in a state that hasn’t dealt with hemp.

But it doesn’t bode well for the early days of hemp’s new national farm-crop status. Gumner predicts that these types of problems, along with companies making false health claims for hemp products and not adhering to quality-control standards, will work themselves out. A more professional hemp industry will emerge on the other side of the shakeout., he said.  

“Overall,” Gumner said, “hemp is great for Colorado. I see so many upsides.”

Special to The Colorado Sun Email: Twitter: @nlofholm