Cream of the crops

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Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune David Hower walks through a hemp farm south of Ashland on Thursday.

Hemp has exploded into an agricultural colossus in Jackson County in just the past year, with more acres planted in this cousin of cannabis than pears and grapes combined.

“There hasn’t been such a changed use in agriculture in Jackson County in recent memory,” said Gordon Jones, assistant professor for Oregon State University Extension Service. “You’d probably have to go back to the start of the pear industry to see this kind of change.”

With hemp fields popping up seemingly everywhere, Jackson County has the most hemp grows of the 36 counties in Oregon at 8,578.9 acres. Josephine County is a distant second at 4,328 acres, followed by Harney County at 4,200 acres, based on statistics from the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Jackson County has the largest number of hemp growers in the state, as well, at 337. In total, 55,911 acres of hemp are planted in the state, with 1,712 registered growers.

Hemp production has been ramping up at breakneck speed. In 2015, the state had 13 registered growers and 105 acres of hemp.

To provide some idea of the scale of hemp, Jackson County has 2,850 acres of grapes and 3,800 acres of pears.

Jones said hemp’s massive footprint in Southern Oregon dominates local conversations in the agriculture industry, with some people concerned about the highly visible sheets of plastic used by growers to prevent weeds and retain moisture. All that plastic and plastic tubing will eventually end up in the landfill, though some growers are trying to use biodegradable plastic that breaks down in the soil.

Just a few years ago, local residents complained about the new fences that are required by law around cannabis crops, but now the fields of plastic are the getting all the attention.

Across the valley, cattle ranchers, hay growers, farmers and those with pasture land that has lain fallow for years have followed the money to hemp, leasing their properties to growers.

Jones said he’s heard property owners are getting $1,000 to $5,000 an acre to lease their land to hemp growers.

Those in the industry say an acre of hemp can yield net profits of $40,000 to $50,000, but the upfront costs to get the field ready can run to $20,000 an acre.

A rough calculation based on the number of acres times $40,000 an acre add up to a crop that has boosted the Jackson County agricultural economy by more than $300 million this year.

While hemp appears to be providing a financial boon for growers and landowners, Jones and local farmers say there has been a lot of talk about how long hemp’s financial bubble will expand, particularly if vast tracts of farmland in the Midwest turn from corn and soybeans to hemp.

For now, CBD oil — which is made from hemp — commands a hefty price in stores, costing from $40 to $50 for a small bottle, though many in the industry expect that price will go down because of increased production.

Hemp is getting a lot of buzz because CBD, an acronym for cannabidiol, is widely touted to help with seizures, depression, anxiety, pain, sleep and other maladies, although research on the many health claims is still lacking. On the plus side for many, CBD won’t get you high like regular cannabis.

Jones said the Extension Service has planted a small test crop of hemp outside Central Point — one of 10 university experiment stations in Oregon where hemp is being grown for research — but he said it’s a strain used for fiber, not for CBD. He said the university system wants to approach the study of CBD hemp cautiously because federal law still isn’t clear on it.

As a result, Jones hasn’t been able to gear up to do testing and provide help to the hemp industry.

Use of plastic mulch is common in other agricultural operations in the U.S., such as strawberry fields, tomatoes and squash. Jones said plastic is often used to grow organic crops because it’s an alternative to using herbicides.

Even cannabis growers don’t like seeing plastic fields everywhere.

“It sucks, I hate seeing it,” said Jamie Syken, owner of Dirty Arm Farm in Ashland, who rents out neighboring property on Eagle Mill Road to a hemp grower.

While the plastic looks bad temporarily on that property, it’s part of a long-range effort to improve the soil damaged by years of cattle roaming over it, he said.

“The impact of the plastic on the environment is minuscule compared to the herbicides in vineyards,” Syken said.

Some growers are turning to biodegradable “bio-plastics” made from corn, potato starch or thistle.

Standing in the middle of 40,000 plants on 20 acres south of Ashland, David Hower is using a sheeting material that begins to decompose after four or five months and can be plowed back into the soil.

Hower said this is his first year using the material, which is thinner than regular plastic, and he said that despite the increased cost, he thinks it will be better in the long run.

“A lot of us want to adopt the philosophy of being environmentally sound,” he said.

His hemp crop near Ashland, as well as another one near Medford, is affiliated with a new hemp business that will open in Ashland sometime in September. “Anything Hemp” will be located in the old Ashland Outdoor Store at 37 N. Third St.

While Hower is trying to be as environmentally conscious as possible, he said the average person going by a hemp field would find it difficult to distinguish between the material he uses and the plastic that most other people use.

“Even I would have a hard time telling the difference,” he said.

At the end of the season, most of the plastic mulch will end up in the landfill.

Hay and straw can also be used as a weed barrier and to retain soil moisture, but it’s more labor intensive to put down than plastic, which can be installed with a machine that also places drip lines underneath.

Hower said he tries to salvage as much of the drip line as he can, but it often gets damaged through the season.

David Pierce, a local representative for Dubois Agrinovation of Quebec, has been providing a bio-mulch known as Bio360 from his company to local landowners, though he said only a small fraction of hemp farmers are using it.

He said he’s been trying to get the word out after seeing hemp fields proliferate in Jackson County.

“I was shocked and dismayed last year,” he said. “I’m flabbergasted this year.”

Pierce said the biodegradable plastic is made from organically grown thistle, though it costs more than regular plastic sheeting.

“It is more expensive, maybe 50% more,” he said.

A 4,000-foot roll costs $225 compared to about $115 for regular plastic, he said. A 50-acre farm would be investing $22,000 for the bio-sheeting, he said.

Besides being more ecologically friendly than petroleum-based plastic, the product is easier to deal with at the end of the season, because it is tilled into the soil. The regular plastic sheeting is more labor intensive to dispose of and is generally caked with dirt, making it more difficult to gather up and take to the landfill.

Pierce said he would like to one day see the sheeting made out of hemp, so that the entire plant can be recycled.

At the Extension Service, Jones said he’s hesitant to recommend biodegradable plastics without more research to determine how they break down in the soil.

He said he hopes there will be more of an effort made to find a replacement for the plastic sheeting, noting he’d prefer an herbicide that breaks down in a couple of years compared to plastic that will take lifetimes to decompose.

But while hemp farming is still in its infancy, and farming techniques are still being developed, the hemp revolution already is providing a financial boost to local farmers who’ve scraped by over the years.

“From what I understand, we’re going to harvest more hemp this year than the U.S. has ever seen,” he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

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