Autumnal equinox ushers in a relatively new harvest season in the Willamette Valley

INDEPENDENT PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - Crews use a forage harvester, flanked by a harvest truck, to deliver hemp for processing at Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm.

It takes just a few minutes for Brian Iverson to knock out a couple of rows of hemp.

That's an early autumn task he tends to at the versatile family operation near Woodburn, Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm, as he did on a sunny October afternoon. He hopped up on the forage harvester, fired it up while his cohort Antonio Leon flanked him in a side-boarded flatbed dump truck that caught the hemp foliage as the harvester auger spit it out into the bed.

"It doesn't take long at all," Iverson commented as Leon hauled the harvest off to a drying kiln.

Quick as that process is, Iverson said they can still only harvest roughly eight acres per day, limited by the capacity of the drying operation.

Wooden Shoe is an old hand in the Willamette Valley's embryonic industrial hemp production business. Relaxed federal laws of recent years rendered the crop a viable option for many farmers for the first time since the 1930s, when federal laws were established to limit its production.

Owner Barb Iverson said the family began looking at hemp when the farm's patriarch, the late Ross Iverson, was battling a terminal illness in 2016 and found substantial relief via cannabidiol (CBD) supplements. CBD is the active ingredient that hemp is primarily grown to produce.

Barb Iverson said the farm planted 18 acres at a time several years ago when the infrastructure for hemp production was virtually nonexistent.

"There was no market and no drying system in place," she said.

The resourceful agribusiness learned to process it, extract the CBD oil and create some of their products that are marketed at the Red Barn Hemp on-premises.

Production and procedures have changed considerably. In Wooden Shoe's second year, they bumped the hemp crop to 70 acres, then 100 acres and they have 200 acres planted this year. They also did the first harvesting by hand, using loppers and hanging the plants upside down to dry.

Quickly, they learned to be more efficient.

Those lessons could serve several farmers today as the crop has become markedly more popular by tenfold.

"When we first did it there were about 150 growers and maybe 1,750 acres planted (in Oregon)," Barb Iverson recalled.

"It's a new crop that's been highly, highly monetized in the last few years," Jerry Norton, Oregon Industrial Hemp Farmers Association co-founder, told Oregon Public Broadcasting last summer. "We have 1,500 registered growers planting 50,000 acres this year."

That ballooned from just 7,000 acres the previous year.

Oregon is ideal for hemp

Jay Noller, Oregon State University's College of Agricultural Sciences Hemp Innovation Center director, is overseeing a busy department as a consequence of this emergent crop; research and development opportunities could potentially sprout as prolifically as the plant itself.

"Hemp is an opportunistic plant, which, by any other definition, is a weed. It grows particularly well around the 45th parallel," he said.

His interactive map, depicting where the plant is grown in the state, illustrates the sprouting phenomenon.

"When you look across the state, there are about 1,700 dots (on the map); anyplace where we have agriculture, you have hemp — the Willamette Valley, central Oregon, southern Oregon, Grand Ronde, Malheur County and across the desert," Noller observed.

The business mushroomed quickly. While some limited permits were afforded earlier, the significant change came in 2018 when the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 removed hemp from the Schedule I controlled substance list, rendering it an agricultural commodity. The stipulation is that this commodity must have no more than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the element that produces the high that users of marijuana experience.

Hemp is not marijuana; it will not provide a psychoactive effect.

"The key thing is the farm bill instructs and provides authority of USDA to come up with rules that are consistent with a list of requirements under the American hemp (industry)," Noller said.

Developing the appropriate (and legal) strains to optimize the medicinal CBD and diminish THC content is one of the challenges with this new crop. Another is expanding and developing the uses for it, which Norton said are tremendous.

Developing markets

"Typically, like any crop, it's the chicken and the egg (analogy); you can't have an egg farm without chickens," Noller said, stressing the importance of co-developing the crop and its processing along with commercial uses.

"There are a lot of uses for this plant, but right now the money is in the CBD oil," Barb Iverson said.

The Wood Shoe concentrates on producing the oil and its uses in helping people with pain, like Ross Iverson. However, the farm has explored other possibilities that could emerge should the research, development and federal laws align. Among those are using it as livestock feed and making paper products.

"It's new to farmers and it's a nuanced crop that will develop at scale," Noller said. "We are going to be working for many years to bring good research to the producers and provide them with other modes of crop production."

Northwest-based HempLogic is among the advocates facilitating successful hemp production and usage. The vertically integrated hemp company offers a variety of services, ranging from formulating genetically sound seeds and clones to growing and harvesting consulting.

"Right now, what everybody is growing it for is CBD," said Georgie Smith, a media relations spokeswoman for HempLogic. "I think we will see a lot of new science and information about CBD being useful (medicinally) in different tinctures, lotions and chews, but there is still a legal limbo as far as being medicine."

Smith said the legal changes should yield more university research, which in turn will develop more uses, including manufacturing paper, building materials and fiber products.

"Now that it's legal, we need to develop the right infrastructure to bring this crop in and process it," Smith said. "(With that), it could become one of the top commodity crops in the U.S."

Among the many products Norton discussed being made from the plant is "hempcrete," which is a mixture of the coarse part of the hemp plant, water and lime and can be used as sustainable construction material or insulation.

"There are literally thousands of ways to use this product," he told OPB. "There is everything from hempcrete to bio-plastics to grain for your farming needs, building homes, energy — I mean it's literally limitless," Norton said.

"Imagine how long it takes to grow a tree when you can grow a hemp plant to six-feet to seven-feet in 90 days," he added. "It's really, really sustainable — it's all about sustainability with this plant."

You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.