Last year's federal Farm Bill relaxed restrictions on growing hemp, a non-psychoactive variety of the cannabis plant. That's big news for Oregon farmers, but there's still a lot to learn: both about the crop itself, and about how the changing regulations affect growers.
Earlier this month, Oregon State University launched the Global Hemp Innovation Center, the nation's largest hemp research effort, to answer some of these questions.
“It’s a new crop that's been highly, highly monetized in the last few years,” said Jerry Norton, the co-founder of the Oregon Industrial Hemp Farmers Association and a Salem-based hemp seed grower and processor. “We have 1,500 registered growers planting 50,000 acres this year.”
Norton said that provisions in the federal Farm Bill require farmers to use hemp seeds that are certified as being low in THC, containing less than 0.3 percent of the psychoactive chemical that gets cannabis users high. That’s difficult because there isn’t any national certification process in place yet.
“When we first started, years ago, OSU didn’t even want to know where we got our seed,” he said. “When they came out last year, we had to make special arrangements because the president had not signed the bill yet; it was not actually federally legal.”
Without access to certified seeds, farmers are in a legal gray zone and are at risk of accidentally growing hemp with THC levels above the legal limit.
“If that happens, the crop will have to be re-embargoed and/or go through indemnification through the Oregon Department of Agriculture,” Norton said. “That’s a tedious process.”
The most visible new hemp products on the market are CBD-infused: foods, drinks, tinctures, even lotions. But Norton says there are thousands of ways to use hemp: bioplastics, grain for animal feed, energy and even home-building.
"There's a product that’s called hempcrete,” Norton said. “You just mix the product with water and lime. It’s the most sustainable product out there for building. Imagine how long it takes to grow a tree when you can grow a hemp plant to 6 or 7 feet in 90 days.”
With all the hemp being grown this year, farmers are facing another bottleneck once it becomes time to convert the plant into a useable product.
“Once you dry it, you have to process it,” Norton said. “There will be a scramble and likely a shortage of processing – turning the product into a distillate or an isolate that goes into the secondary market for food or beverages or everything else out there.”
Still, he said, he’s working with OSU and his fellow farmers to figure out all these challenges together.
“We’re basically trying to build a co-op so everybody can get the best business practices available and network and learn together,” he said.