Alex Bizeau might have the perfect personality and work ethic for a hemp farmer.
He strolls the fields of his smartly named Victory Banner Farm in Talent, looking over the cover crop of winter — vetch, rye, clover — talking about how he’s in the first generation of farmers of a newly legalized crop, and all the growers are basically laying down the rules and strategies for doing it right and making it pay.
They’re still getting the bugs out of the system, literally. Cucumber beetles, russet mites and (the worst) aphids. They didn’t come the first couple years but, “If you plant it, they will come.”
His operation is all organic, so he fights bugs with bugs.
“Aphids do a lot of damage and then they just sit there and eat your plant,” says Alex. So, from a shop called Ladybug Indoor Gardens in Phoenix, he gets lacewings and microscopic nematodes, which love to feast on aphids.
A sensitive hempster, Bizeau shakes his head, noting it’s a brutal spectacle, watching bad bugs die, but “it’s nature.”
Bizeau’s dedication is paying off. He won first place in the 2020 Golden Grow competition for his CBD flower, “Hawaiian Haze.” It also won third in the categories of Judges’ Favorite and Top Terpenes, which involved blind lab testing by Green Leaf Labs.
What the judges look for, he notes, is “jar appeal,” that is, the bud structure, which should be thick and tight, not “larfy,” which means air can flow through it readily. That’s bad.
Secondly, you open the jar and smell the 30 different terpenes in Hawaiian Haze and that should set you back on your heels with rich nose bouquet.
Last, judges smoke it. Does it burn the throat or is it smooth, with a small body buzz lasting 10 minutes and bringing some anti-anxiety effects? Hawaiian Haze scored a victory banner, Bizeau says, on all these.
He sells only CBD flower, and only on the internet, where his brand got 300 orders the first year, he says. If you don’t deliver quality and stand behind your product, he says, there are communities on Reddit and other sites that will get the word out pronto. He’s shipped to every state where it’s legal. Some buyers repackage it with their own brand, many cook it down to oil in a crock pot, which may seem not fair but is legal, he notes. He uses genes bred by Oregon CBD (in Portland).
Bizeau speaks at length about the in’s and outs of the allowed percentage of THC, shifting USDA rules, the need for growers to stand up to some new federal rules, and the impact of the hemp rush, which brought in many new farmers who have had to learn the do’s and dont’s of hemp farming, forcing many of them out of business quickly.
“It’s a new industry, so no one knows how exactly to behave or how much to pay for what we need,” he says. “Sometimes you have to throw money at things and see if it works.”
How did Alex get into this complex and competitive, but rewarding business? It was a fluke, back in 2016. He sustained a hairline arm fracture. It swelled up. He was urged to apply CBD salve.
“You feel the effects in three minutes or so, if you have the right product. There’s a lot of it out there with nothing in it,” he adds. Today, his arm is good as new.
The Rogue Valley hemp growers are pioneers, like the early pear and timber growers, he notes, and it’s going through a sorting process.
“The market is struggling now. It’s flooded with flower, biomass … and driving prices down. A lot of farms are for sale. They can’t sell their product. They didn’t budget. A lot of people are still in the red or are going broke. You just have to keep at it.”
Bizeau lives in a trailer next to his hemp fields during the growing season, and goes through the ups and downs his plants experience, such as the summer night when it rained hard through the night. His worst fears were realized: all plants bent to the ground.
He spent days putting in bamboo stakes and tying the struggling plants to them with wire ties.
The life of a hemp farmer “is chaotic,” he says. “It’s up and down each season, but I’m happiest when I’m out in the field and I think how people love and use our medicine. I talk to the plants — or rather they talk to me. You know where stress is coming from if you listen. They tell you where to go. You walk over and there it is, an insect problem. You give them more defense, like maybe peppermint oil.”
At the end of the season, you get Hawaiian Haze winning a prize with its “citrusy smell that hits you in the face when you open the bag.” Bizeau demonstrates. For a moment, he seems lifted into another dimension.
“If you grow it right and treat it right, that’s what you get.”
John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at email@example.com.