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Clifford Clift walks through the field of hemp plants on Saturday morning, Oct. 5, 2019, at Fern Farms outside of Greeley. (Joshua Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Five years ago, Clifford Clift would have been disgusted by the fragrant plants growing in his backyard. 

That’s the devil’s weed, he would have said through gritted teeth, probably with some dad joke about how the world was going to pot now that his state was legalizing marijuana. 

Now Clift, at 79, plants 7 acres of hemp on a farm where he and his wife, Sally, wanted to raise wholesome Christmas trees. Just before harvest, Clift’s yard smells like a Cheech and Chong movie festival. 

Much like Clift, Greeley wanted nothing to do with marijuana when Colorado legalized recreational pot in 2014, even while its tiny neighbor — Garden City, the Las Vegas of northern Colorado — raked in millions of dollars in tax revenue.

But now the conservative town is embracing hemp as one of its next big industries, one that is aimed at capitalizing on the growing popularity of non-psychoactive CBD to treat a variety of ailments. 

Philip McCready, Greeley’s economic development manager, compares the energy to the dot-com startups of the 1990s.

“You’re finding companies that are hundred-million-dollar industries right now,” McCready said. “Tell me other companies where you see that kind of new business formation? When you find something like that, you don’t reject it.” 

The city’s Economic Health and Housing panel now hosts a new meet-up group, the Colorado Hemp Industries Collective, which ballooned to 50 participants from nine in just three meetings.

And the state wants Greeley to help lead the way in discussions on how to manage or even create regulations. 

“The state hasn’t seen another municipal government take a leadership role like the city of Greeley,” said Ben Snow, the head of the city’s economic health department. “They aren’t seeing too many stepping out as aggressively as we have.”

That change of heart, or at least a wider acceptance of hemp, has already paid off: Vantage Hemp, a CBD processing start-up, will open a $30 million facility by the end of the year across from the Promontory business park off U.S. 34 near Noble Energy and the Pepsi plant. 

The city, much like Clift, still remains steadfast against allowing pot between its borders, but Greeley is willing to think of hemp as an agricultural product, and pot as its evil twin sister of sorts. Vantage chose Greeley partly because of the city’s welcoming attitude, said Brent Boisvert, one of its co-founders. 

“Before we made a commitment with the city, we explained to them what we were doing and how we would be doing it,” Boisvert said. “I think that really helped. Outside of that, I think the pot stigma would still be there, and I think we’d be looked at by the city council differently.”

Peeking in at the drying hemp, Clifford Clift smiles as he gets ready to go back to work helping with the harvest on Saturday morning, Oct. 5, 2019, at Fern Farms outside of Greeley. (Joshua Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

High on hemp

Clift proudly shows off his hemp crop these days as if it were his famous peppers, the kind he sold as a certified Master Gardener at the Farmer’s Market in Greeley.

Clift, in fact, sold all kinds of vegetables, as a hobby and a nice way to supplement his retirement from real estate 15 years ago. Tomatoes were his favorite, but he loved talking about the peppers.

He enjoyed being outdoors, in the dirt, since he was a boy growing up in Brush. He moved out to the rural property outside of Greeley in 1998 for the acreage and the chance to grow things. 

Paul, at 46 the youngest of Clift’s two sons, knew this about his father, and so he asked more than three years ago about a business proposition: Would his father grow hemp? Clift couldn’t believe what Paul asked. He did know that Clift voted against legalizing any kind of pot in Colorado, right? 

“I said, ‘No way in hell,’” Clift said. 

But Paul had an advantage over his father: He knew his dad became certified as a Master Gardener in 2005 because he wanted to raise plants scientifically, and that meant Paul could convince him, scientifically, that hemp, in fact, was an agricultural crop, a designation that became official late last year.

Well, yes, it smelled like pot and looked like pot, but any hoodlums who wanted to slink into Clift’s backyard one night for a free smoke would be sorely disappointed in the result: It is, essentially, a non-alcoholic beer. There’s not enough THC, the substance that makes us loopy, in those plants. In fact, Clift would have to destroy his crop if inspectors discovered more than a minuscule amount of the substance that makes pot, well, pot in his plants.

Instead, Paul wanted to make CBD.

Clift decided to try some of it himself, and his arthritis, something he’d just accepted as he got older, softened, just like his hard line against all kinds of marijuana. His hips, ankle and neck no longer felt as if someone hammered a rusty nail into them. 

“My pain was minimal after that,” Clift said. “I thought it was the placebo effect, so I stopped taking it, and I was hurting really bad, so I took it again. I’ve taken it ever since.”

Some believe marijuana offers relief from pain and nausea, such as the kind you get from chemotherapy. The state offered medical cards for the purchase of medicinal marijuana, which paved the way for the sale of recreational pot. 

But now hemp, perhaps more than pot, is the hot product, mostly because of CBD, a substance that offers those medicinal qualities without the spacey effects or even the need to smoke or chew an infused gummy. Many see CBD as the natural answer to painkillers that have caused a crisis of addiction and hooked people on them or heroin. 

Paul Clift, right, and Norman Clift walk through examining some of the hemp plants on Saturday morning, Oct. 5, 2019, at Fern Farms outside of Greeley. (Joshua Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado the leader in hemp production

Kirk Goble knows what some people think when they see him approach the front of the classroom: Here comes the pothead. 

Goble admits he looks the part. He has a long ponytail holding back his gray hair, and he looks a little like Willie Nelson without the bandana. Yes, he resembles an aging hippie, and he loves to speak about the virtues of marijuana, which may lead some to ask whether he’s a user.

“Let them wonder,” Goble said. 

Goble, however, has a vested interest in hemp: He teaches a class at Aims Community College, “The Evolving World of Industrial Hemp,” as part of the agricultural sciences department.  He also teaches seminars around the country on pot, and the interest in that one is higher than it’s ever been in his 35 years of leading it. 

“The efforts by people to legalize it are the only reason we have a viable hemp industry today,” he said, “and my prediction is hemp will be bigger than pot ever hoped to be.”

The main driver of that, he said, is CBD, because 70% of the hemp crop nationwide produces it. Colorado remains the leader in hemp production, he said, thanks to voters’ attitudes toward legalizing pot. But he doesn’t understand why all states with a penchant for agriculture aren’t embracing it.

“Depending on what state you’re in, you have the opportunity to be a millionaire, or you have the opportunity to go to prison for life,” Goble said. “The thing is, there are people against alcohol, but we have no problem licensing another liquor store, and we have peace with that.”

The city’s economic development would prefer to see some of those millions heading Greeley’s way. 

Snow, head of the Greeley’s Economic Health and Housing department, believes it could happen, comparing hemp to the gold rush of the 1800s. He said Greeley is simply responding to the signals and energy that’s out there about a product. 

The 2018 Farm Bill was a big part of why Greeley now welcomes Vantage and why Snow views hemp as gold, as it removed the non-psychoactive hemp plant from the controlled drug category, essentially turning it into a crop like soybeans, corn and wheat.

“That opened the floodgates as to what we can do with this plant,” Snow said. “It’s just a new crop now, and it’s a crop that hasn’t offered that kind of opportunity before. People just need to understand the differences.”

Silvia Sianez sweeps the last of the hemp into a bin to be dried on Saturday morning, Oct. 5, 2019, at Fern Farms outside of Greeley. (Joshua Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Growing pains

In fairness to Greeley, the hesitation that Vantage spoke of is understandable. As Clift’s backyard demonstrates, hemp smells and looks enough like pot enough to attract attention to the point where Snow said some farmers install signs that say it’s industrial hemp. 

“That’s part of the education curve to me,” Snow said. “In a state such as Colorado, lines are more likely to be blurred, but that’s two-edged. Colorado is seen as an industry leader because of the pot. But that’s also what makes it hard.”

Hemp doesn’t seem to have access to mainstream commercial financing right now, Snow said, even if the Farm Bill made it possible for growers to take out loans on the plant. Banks remain hesitant, and so Snow hopes to see a banking bill as what he calls a “chaser” to the farm bill. The farm bill may have opened things up, but it also didn’t provide enough guidance and security, Snow said.

It’s also hard to grow hemp because seeds are difficult to come by, and finding pure seeds can be even harder, as a crop with THC means destroying everything. Harvesting is also difficult, and processing the hemp into CBD is also difficult to learn. 

It’s especially hard to find a processor and a buyer, something Clift lamented as well: Clift does have the CBD extracted from his hemp plants, and then he and Paul process it. It would cost too much to extract it himself. It’s time-consuming and the equipment, he said, costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, a big investment for a two-man operation that charges $75 for a 2-ounce bottle of CBD. The company, which Paul named Nikkal Farms, named after the goddess of orchards.

Vantage could make money from processing and extracting CBD from hemp for third-party growers, but the company, perhaps wisely, would rather focus on its own CBD production. 

“There are opportunities to do extraction,” Boisvert said of Vantage. “If an opportunity arises, we will have to look at it. But our main focus is Vantage and our own production of CBD.”

The state is also still working on ways to encourage the hemp market as well as propose regulations to the federal government under the guidance of leaders tasked to form the Colorado Hemp Advancement and Management Plan.

Exactly what the state or feds will do, as well as those supply chain problems, leaves some things up in the air. 

“We will have some growing pains for a while,” Goble said. “It’s going to be a great crop in the mix of Colorado crops. But it will take some time to implement it.”

Boisvert, however, sees a world quickly approaching where Vantage will face some competition as well as have more opportunity. 

“I think you will see a lot of the larger companies slowly get into this space as the feds start putting rules in place,” he said.

All the uncertainty doesn’t seem to matter to Vantage or Clift or Greeley or anyone else who wants to take advantage while hemp is hot. Opportunities like this one, after all, don’t come often, McCready said. 

“In many ways, it’s found us,” he said. “We just want to nurture that.”

Dan England

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @DanEngland