Uncharted territory – Colorado hashes out hemp for dryland farms | TheFencePost.com

Uncharted territory – Colorado hashes out hemp for dryland farms

Kayla Young
Fence Post Editor
Grain in the San Luis Valley
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

By the numbers

Total industrial hemp registrants: 131

Commercial registrants: 46

R&D registrants: 67

Dual registrants: 18

Top counties for registrants

Larimer: 21

Delta: 13

Boulder: 12

Source: Colorado Department of Agriculture

Difference between hemp and marijuana

Under Colorado’s Amendment 64, industrial hemp is defined as containing less than 0.3 percent of THC. Plants that surpass this level cannot be used commercially. Beyond 1 percent THC, the plant is then considered potentially intoxicating and considered marijuana.

Alfonzo Abeyta’s fields this summer in Antonito, Colo., looked much like they would any other season.

Despite the year’s low prices for feed and grain, the fifth-generation farmer and rancher planted 130 acres of sorghum, a reliable choice for the dry climate in Southern Colorado.

If Abeyta had his way, however, he would not have planted sorghum, alfalfa, wheat or any of the other expected crops for his region.

He had already planned his acreage for another option that he expected would require fewer inputs and produce greater profits: industrial hemp.

“In Colorado, we don’t have the support of the federal government, so a lot of what we are doing is trailblazing through this knowing there are limitations with the feds.”
-Chad Pfitzer, Hemp Committee

Unlike marijuana, hemp has no intoxicating effect, due to its minimal levels of THC. The plant is instead used for fibers, oils, bedding and even livestock feed.

With these uses in mind, Abeyta took a gamble on hemp this year, well aware that legalization by the state government would not guarantee smooth sailing on the federal level.

“One of the good things about hemp is that it takes about half as much water as alfalfa. Hemp doesn’t produce as much but it likes dry country. It could just grow on rain,” he said.

For a farmer from a consistently drought-stricken area, the idea of reducing dependence on irrigation water has been enticing for Abeyta and his neighbors.

“In Colorado, we could have had probably 100 farmers planting this year and if it went well, we could use it as a rotation crop for potato growers here in the (San Luis) Valley. It could also be a good rotation crop for alfalfa, vegetables or other things.”

In a pilot year of trials and errors, Abeyta, like many other entrepreneurs in Colorado, discovered early on that it would not be easy to get his new venture off the ground.

His attempts to import certified seed to his ranch have been blocked to date by the federal government.

Abeyta has been waiting since summer for the Drug Enforcement Agency to release 4,000 pounds of certified, tested hemp seed from the port in San Diego.

Seizures by the Drug Enforcement Agency have prevented registered operations from importing seed and forced growers to rely on non-authorized distributors.

“We didn’t have any seed to plant. What was planted has been seed that has really not been certified,” Abeyta said.

“If we planted 30 pounds to the acre on 130 acres, we would have had enough to plant and even have had a little left over for other people.”

Authorities from the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s (CDA) Hemp Committee admit they do not know where the seeds planted this year came from. With certified seed operators unable to enter the market, many growers were sold what could be described as “snake oil,” said Duane Sinning, assistant director of CDA’s Division of Plant Industry.

Identifying the correct hemp varieties to grow in Colorado is vital for the sustainability and legitimacy of the industry, Sinning explained.

Hemp producers are required to maintain THC levels below 0.3 percent. Planting the wrong variety puts growers at risk of higher THC levels, which then makes the product ineligible for commercial use.

While the state of Colorado has an approved Schedule 1 drug import permit for hemp seeds, individual farmers do not have such access.

Waiting on clear import directions from federal authorities has meant both confusion and delays, even for established institutions hoping to dive into the new industry.

At Colorado State University, following the rules meant forgoing a season of varietal research.

After months of waiting, the university now has verbal approval from DEA to proceed with testing, said Mark Wdowik, CSU’s vice president of research.

“We have sent letters to DEA to get written confirmation of parameters but we have made the decision that verbal approval is sufficient for our needs,” Wdowik said.

Although he said the university feels confident it can rely on DEA’s word, commercial growers do not yet have the same level of assurance.

Farmers who venture into the unknown world of hemp assume the risk of losing federal crop insurance or suffering legal implications.

“Farmers may have CRP land or crop insurance on their corn. By growing hemp, they could jeopardize their participation in the program,” Sinning said.

To avoid interference by the federal government, Colorado state authorities must take special precaution in managing the program appropriately.

“They could come in if we as a state didn’t regulate it. They could find a bad individual and say, ‘the state is not regulating you, so we’re going to come in,’” Sinning said.

As a result, the Division of Plant Industry is undertaking an overhaul of the program for next year.

Although many of the revisions will seek to eliminate illicit activity and avoid conflict with the federal government, the state will also seek to get a better handle on its own management of this budding industry.

Lack of reporting requirements means Colorado has no available statistics on how much hemp was planted or harvested in the state this year.

Growers were obligated to register their operations with the state ag department, but they were not asked to provide details on total acreage harvested.

If revisions submitted Dec. 1 are implemented, growers will need to report actual acreage planted, as well as varietal details beginning in March.

The state will also restrict research and development operations, with the goal of limiting such licensing to institutions of higher education, such as CSU.

The ease of registering as an R&D operation this year provoked private businesses to file as researchers rather than commercial growers.

“What we realized is that because it was written as loosely as it was, people called it development and for half the price got registration,” Sinning said.

R&D licensing cost $100 this year, in comparison to $200 for a commercial operation. As a result, the state ag department found many registered as researchers solely. Both R&D and commercial registration would now cost $500.

The state will also seek to clearly separate hemp growers from marijuana growers.

The department encountered registered hemp operations attempting to breed in-house by crossing the plants with marijuana, Sinning said.

New guidelines would prevent industrial hemp operations from growing marijuana within 1 mile of an outdoor registered area or within one-fourth of a mile of indoor operations.

With firmer regulations, Hemp Committee member Chad Pfitzer said he hopes the risk of entering the hemp industry will pay off for the state.

“In Colorado, we don’t have the support of the federal government, so a lot of what we are doing is trailblazing through this knowing there are limitations with the feds,” Pfitzer said.

While entrepreneurs such as Abeyta have taken a gamble on hemp, Pfitzer said it is operations like his that could set Colorado ahead of the game nationally.

“We need those players to take the risk because they are the trailblazers. They are the 1 percent of the 1 percent really out there pushing the envelope and we’ve got to have some practical experience on the ground in order to get over some of these hurtles for all Colorado farmers,” Pfitzer said. ❖

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