Societal Acceptance + Entrepreneurs Are Growing Western Slope Hemp

 Photography by  Margaret MacKenzie  

Photography by Margaret MacKenzie 

A plant with a long history of medicinal, food, and industrial uses is helping Western Slope agricultural growers survive economically, but it’s hardly an easy road to success.

    Hemp — also called “industrial hemp” — is a low-THC variety of marijuana. (THC is tetrahydrocannabinol, a crystalline compound which is the main active ingredient of cannabis.) Hemp’s THC levels were capped at 0.3 percent in the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill, which legalized hemp production. In contrast, marijuana flowers can contain 15 percent or more THC.

    Colorado, for its part, approved legal hemp production four years ago and currently has nearly 10,000 acres dedicated to its growth, according to the advocacy group Vote Hemp. Various pro-hemp organizations say Colorado grows nearly 40 percent of all hemp nationwide — much of it here on the Western Slope — and more than twice as much as any of the 37 other states allowing hemp production.

    Vote Hemp notes that more than 1,400 state licenses have been issued, so far, to Colorado researchers and cultivators. Not all are active growers, however. For example, after a year trying to grow hemp himself, David Cox of Palisade now works for other hemp farmers. “I don’t think I knew what I needed to know about the hemp plant and about soil conditions,” he says. “I tried to plant 150 acres but had good success on only about five of them. It’s easier to work for others [at this stage] and learn all I can. I’m understanding things a little better now.”

    As with entrepreneurs of legal marijuana, it was tough for Cox to get a bank loan to start planting hemp. He approached “every large bank I could think of” before getting a loan from Alpine Bank. Cox had planned to extract CBD (cannabidiol) from his hemp, which is marketed worldwide for natural wellness products. His effort, he says, led Palisade to change its land development rules to allow CBD extraction from hemp.

 
I get calls and emails daily from people wanting to know how they can grow hemp on the Western Slope. It’s not easy; it’s science. There’s a lot of things to know, and there’s the farming side to it.
— Margaret MacKenzie
 
   Margaret and Aaron MacKenzie, owners of Salt Creek Hemp Company

Margaret and Aaron MacKenzie, owners of Salt Creek Hemp Company

    Margaret MacKenzie and her family own and operate the Salt Creek Hemp Company in Collbran. Starting from only one acre in 2015, they now grow hemp for CBD on 15 acres. MacKenzie also helps promote hemp, and her company will host the second annual Hemp on the Slope day on July 21. “I think this is starting to be such a popular crop because traditional agriculture is such a mess financially,” says MacKenzie. “I get calls and emails daily from people wanting to know how they can grow hemp on the Western Slope. It’s not easy; it’s science. There’s a lot of things to know, and there’s the farming side to it. It takes a lot of work. It’s not just a case of growing it and they will come.”

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    MacKenzie says fortunately her family works with a processor in Grand Junction to help get their CBD to market. But Rick Trojan, a Colorado hemp entrepreneur and vice president of the Hemp Industries Association, thinks processing is a bottleneck for Western Slope hemp growers. “Though there are things happening,” he adds. “By the fall, I think we’ll have enough material, seeds, and CBD facilities to take care of the acreage we expect.”

    Meanwhile, a certain stigma in dealing in such enterprises apparently still lingers in 2018. In Palisade, Cox says many hemp growers want to remain anonymous because they fear federal regulators will punish them for growing a plant considered illegal by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), despite the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill.

    According to Trojan, the DEA was sued several times last year over hemp-related incidents and arrests. “They use an illegal marijuana-extract rule to classify hemp as a top plant in the controlled substances list, and they advise local law enforcement agencies incorrectly,” he says. “This is why we need to remove the plant from the Controlled Substances Act once and for all. Industrial hemp is not cannabis, and it’s not a demon.”

    To that end, numerous Industrial Hemp Farming Act bills have been introduced in Washington in recent years, but all stalled in House or Senate committees. The most recent House bill (H.R. 3530) is supported by nearly all of Colorado’s congressional delegation — backed up by what Trojan says are some public-opinion polls showing 86 percent approval of legalizing hemp. And in a major nod of approval from Washington, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently voiced his support for removing hemp from the act.

   Industrial hemp is found in a wide array of products, but is not easy to grow.

Industrial hemp is found in a wide array of products, but is not easy to grow.

    The North American Industrial Hemp Council notes that hemp can be used in about 25,000 products — including food, clothing, medicines, fuel, plastics, and building materials.

    “There are so many industries affected by hemp products, there is much pushback,” Trojan says. “But this new act needs a lot of work, I admit.”

    MacKenzie calls hemp “a great crop” for the Western Slope. “We have 400,000 acres of agricultural land and we’re seeing places like Mesa, Delta, and Montrose counties start to see economic benefits, and they’re offering start-up help. I think it’s only going to grow.”