Harvest season for hemp
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 Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 1. 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 said, as Leon hauled the harvest off to a drying kiln.
Quick as that process is, Iverson said that can still only harvest roughly 8 acres per day, limited by the capacity of the drying operation.
Comparably, 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 essentially ban it.
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 of several years ago, a time 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 CBD oil, and create some of their own 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 up to 70 acres, then 100 acres, and they have 200 acres planted this year. They also did the original harvesting by hand, using loppers and hanging to plants upside down to dry.
They learned to be more efficient quickly.
Those lessons could serve a number of 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," Oregon Industrial Hemp Farmers Association co-founder Jerry Norton 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's ideal for hemp
Oregon State University's College of Agricultural Sciences Global Hemp Innovation Center Director Jay Noller 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, it is a weed. It grows particularly well around the 45th parallel," Noller said.
His interactive map depicting where the plant is grown in the state illustrates the sprouting phenomenon.
"When you look across 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.
This all mushroomed quickly. While some limited permits were afforded earlier, the major change came in 2018. The Hemp Farming Act of 2018 removed hemp from the schedule I controlled substance, 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.
"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 marketable uses.
"There are a lot of uses for this plant, but right now the money is in the CBD oil," Barb Iverson said.
The oil and its uses in helping people with pain, just as it did Ross Iverson, is what Wooden Shoe concentrates on. But 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 to make 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."
Pacific Northwest based HempLogic is among the advocates facilitating successful hemp production and usage. The vertically integrated hemp company offers a variety of services, ranging 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, chews (etc.). 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 he 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's 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."
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