Growing industrial hemp
Mike Cowan and a buddy were checking for elk around his ranch in Sisters in a brand new side-by-side ATV when it happened.
"We all of a sudden caught, and we went over, and my arm got caught between a door and a rock just perfectly – smashed it," Cowan recalls of that fateful wreck in November of 2014.
His left arm was severely broken, and he endured several surgeries to repair his arm and shoulder.
"I was looking for different alternatives versus the opioids for pain relief, and so that's what started the journey," he says.
He turned to cannabidiol, known as CBD, which is a cannabis compound that he says relieved his pain and inflammation.
Cowan, who now splits his time between homes in Powell Butte and Sherwood, had semi-retired in 2000 from a long career in the aluminum industry. But he began looking into a second career as an industrial hemp farmer. By February of 2017, he had started financing industrial hemp grows in Sisters and had his first harvest in the fall of that year.
Industrial hemp is a cannabis plant, the same one that produces marijuana, with one key difference: Hemp does not contain more than 0.3 percent of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is a crystalline compound commonly associated with getting a person high.
Cowan points out that hemp products are not addictive and do not create delusional effects.
"They have relief without dependency, and there's nothing (in it) that hurts the body," he said.
Looking to grow his MC Farmer LLC business, he found the perfect spot to put down some roots.
The Central Oregon Agriculture Research Center Powell Butte site, located on "Waibel Corner" in Powell Butte, was up for sale.
The site had been quarantined 10 years ago because of a parasite that had arrived on a lot of potatoes, explained Mylen Bohle, the Central Oregon area Extension agronomist with OSU Extension Service.
"I walked in, and I went, 'I'll take it.' And I bought it," Cowan recalls of his first visit to the former experiment station. "It had a lab here, but the biggest thing is it had an air exchange system in here for running our process."
Bohle said the climate-controlled section of the large building was used for potato storage when the station was used as a potato research center.
The 79-acre station was perfect for Cowan's plans.
He sealed the deal last July and quickly planted 40,000 hemp plants.
"It was a mild to low-quality grow because of the time of year we put the plants in. We were very late," he said, noting that they were only in the ground for about two months.
But Cowan was required to use the water and grow a certain amount of plants that first season in order to keep the water rights and meet the requirements for their extraction equipment.
"We wanted to make sure that we fit within those rules and regulations for Crook County," he said, noting that he must also follow state laws. "Crook County has worked well with us."
He and a crew of contract workers harvested their first Powell Butte crop in late September and early October.
Meanwhile, he has been purchasing equipment from pharmaceutical companies and setting up his extraction facility. He has distillation machines, chillers, industrial water heaters and vacuums. The highly purified clinical medical grade butane comes next week.
"We're going to produce CBD, and we'll take the plant and extract it through the machines," Cowan explained.
They will have two different extraction machines. One is ethanol based and the other is butane based.
"Then, we'll take that crude oil it produces, and we take it to another level to refine it," he said.
From there, they will make CBD products such as tinctures, salves and hemp oil.
"We control the whole process. We control the strains that we grow all the way to the finished products," he said. "We know exactly what we're putting in each bottle."
Cowan says he has a multitude of testimonials from CBD users who claim that it helps with pain, inflammation, migraines, epilepsy, anxiety and headaches. Additionally, the industry is developing solutions for Parkinson's disease and even prostate and breast cancer.
His two employees are in charge of marketing the products, which they mostly sell online, through dispensaries and through a dealer network.
Although the extraction process has not yet begun at the Powell Butte site, he plans for it to be well underway by early spring.
By then, a new building should be up and running, which will be an accelerated drying facility.
"We'll be drying about 42,000 pounds every 48 hours, and then we'll be bagging the material with basically an oxygen-free atmosphere. We'll put nitrogen in the bags to be able to stabilize it," Cowan explained.
By spring, they will have introduced a new brand name for their products with MC Farmer as the sub-brand and will be preparing to plant a second Powell Butte crop in late May.
He's run into a few folks who are concerned about his hemp operations.
To help alleviate some of the misunderstandings, Cowan and an employee will be on the industrial hemp panel during the Central Oregon Forage Seminar that Bohle is organizing with Crook County OSU Extension on Jan. 30 at the 4-H Clover building in Prineville. The public is welcome to attend the free seminar.
"The problem is in these rural communities, people aren't really up to date on things like this," he said. "You can't get upset and blame anybody."
MC Farmer may have an easier go at his new business since the 2018 Farm Bill that became law Dec. 20, making industrial hemp legal nationwide.
"It's taken some of the regulations off, which is great," Cowan said. "It has eased up the banking solutions for us so banks are now easier to work with."
They still have to get through some of the Crook County requirements to make sure that everything they're doing is safe and within government guidelines.
"The idea is to make good medicine here for people to use," he said.
Central Oregon Forage Seminar
Registration starts at 8:15 a.m., and seminar runs from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 30.
Location: 4-H Clover Building, 502 SE Lynn Blvd., Prineville