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Trimmed hemp clones are rubbed in a rooting gel and put in soil cells and eventually are planted in Shi Farms fields. The commercial grower cultivates about 300 acres of hemp. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

PUEBLO — In 2016, Steve Turetsky was looking to get into hemp, scouting around Colorado for the right place to build the farm he would use to feed the growing market for CBD. He needed cheap land, plenty of water and infrastructure for distribution. 

Pueblo had all of those things — and wanted his business.

Ever since the 2018 Farm Bill reclassified hemp as an ordinary agricultural commodity, cities and states across the country have been scrambling to hang the open-for-business sign for the new industry. With both consumer and manufacturing potential, everything from CBD sodas to construction materials, hemp has the potential to bring jobs and cash into communities. Pueblo Economic Development Corp. President Jeffrey Shaw says hemp’s many uses are what got his organization interested.

“The industrial side of hemp is what really got us intrigued and excited,” Shaw says. “All the 20,000 uses of it got us very excited about it. And so we started looking at and followed the market, the industry for the last four or five years, looking at what would be the best opportunities.”

Shaw says PEDCO is treating hemp just like other industry it courts, from aerospace to wind energy, but the crop’s nebulous federal status has slowed down the process. The organization works with taxpayer dollars, and didn’t want to fund anything in a legal gray area. 

Shi Farms workers use an old tractor to move some of the 2,000 hemp plants growing in research greenhouses in Pueblo in July. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

For a long time, it was unclear how the USDA and FDA would approve and monitor products manufactured from the crop, which was previously considered a controlled substance. Now Pueblo is moving ahead full steam, looking to bring jobs and cash into the county by offering incentives such as tax credits and cash grants. In exchange, businesses agree to meet job creation goals.

Focused on health rather than the high

Turetsky had worked in the cannabis industry for years before making the transition to hemp, drawn by what he saw as an opportunity to provide a product that might make people healthier, rather than just get them high. He was familiar with Pueblo as a city friendly to the cannabis industry, and thought it would be a good fit for Shi Farms, which cultivates about 300 acres of hemp and runs 40,000 square feet of research greenhouses.

“Pueblo’s cannabis community has been really welcoming and friendly. We’ve worked with the economic development corporation and we’ve worked with their zoning and planning to build extraction facilities,” Turetsky says. “They’ve always been willing to hear out the industry, work together with us to grow the hemp industry.”

Since 1985, Pueblo has had a tax that directly funds grants to bring in job-creating companies. PEDCO uses the cash, which Shaw describes as a “slush fund,” to get companies that are on the fence into the city, helping them get started building the infrastructure they’ll need. Beyond grants and tax incentives, Turetsky says the city is willing to listen to industry concerns in a way other places don’t. 

One example stands out to Turetsky as especially significant. Typically, the hemp and cannabis industries only grow female plants to avoid cross pollination. If male and female plants are grown in the same area, hemp can be pollinated by marijuana plants and develop THC, making it unsuitable for harvest, while cannabis can become less potent. 

Shi Farms manager David Quintanar ducks between 6-month-old mother hemp plants. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Pueblo’s zoning regulations require male hemp plants to be grown separate from female plants, inside a building with special filtration systems.

Turetsky, however, didn’t want to keep paying for seeds to grow new plants, hoping to save cash by keeping everything in-house. He approached the city and asked if they could make an exception, presenting a plan to create seed stock indoors, with safety measures to keep pollen contained. 

“Ultimately they gave us the OK to do that indoors, which was great because we were able to scale our business a little more effectively. We were able to save money by growing seeds,”  Turetsky says.

MORE: Colorado beer makers are expanding to cannabis beverages: “Down the road it could be as big as beer.”

PEDCO is focused on creating manufacturing jobs, hoping they will in turn stimulate the service industry. With hemp specifically, one job can create several more, as companies expand beyond production. Shi Farms currently grows hemp in Pueblo and ships it to Loveland for refinement, but is in the process of creating a CBD refinement center closer to the farm.

“We’re building a co-branded extraction facility on the farm. That way we can be closer to the agriculture. So instead of moving plants away up to Loveland, we’re gonna aggregate hemp across the entire Arkansas Valley and San Luis Valley and bring it to Pueblo for processing,” Turetsky says. “We’re scaling up our business. A lot of our competitors are in Pueblo growing and extracting. There’s also retail brands that are based out of Pueblo for manufacturing.”

“Right now, we’re giving the plants 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark so they flower faster. We’re trying to create our own strain to see if we can increase the amount of CBD in each flower,” explained Shi Farms manager David Quintanar about the strange colored light. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Shaw says hemp has the rare potential to work with every one of Pueblo’s strengths, from fertile soil and a rich agricultural tradition to a workforce able to quickly learn new manufacturing skills. 

“We’re a manufacturing community. We have been for over a hundred years,” Shaw says. “Back in the late seventies, we had to train 6,000 steel workers into other manufacturing opportunities.”

Hemp is just another “very big opportunity for Pueblo,” he says.

“Very rarely, if ever, does an economic development group get the opportunity to take a look at a product that has so many potential manufacturing opportunities that are going to surface because it was finally legalized again.”

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @joseph_purtell