Jackson County retains its crown as the king of hemp in Oregon this year, but that crown has lost a lot of its luster.
Last year, the county had 8,579 acres of hemp, and this year it dropped by 26% to 6,327, according to statistics from the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
Still, Jackson County continues to lead all other counties in the state for hemp cultivation, with Josephine County in second place at 3,017 acres.
Jackson County has a whopping 25% of the state’s 25,273 acres registered for hemp production. Jackson and Josephine counties combined have 9,044 acres, or more than a third of Oregon’s total.
Statewide hemp production has declined by more than half, from 63,883 acres last year. Grow sites in the state have dropped by about two-thirds, from 6,040 last year to 1,891 this year.
Jackson County also leads the state in the number of fields of hemp with 578, and Josephine County is second with 400.
Deschutes County has the third-most acres at 2,189, with 180 fields.
Umatilla County is fourth at 1,992 acres and 31 fields, followed by Malheur County at 1,568 and 91 fields.
To provide some idea of the scale of hemp, Jackson County last year had 2,850 acres of grapes and 3,800 acres of pears.
In 2019, the hemp grows started out with a boom, but by harvest time it ended with a whimper.
Throughout Jackson County, there were acres and acres of abandoned and rotting fields of hemp. In some cases, growers converted old barns into makeshift drying sheds only to see their crops go up in flames.
Other problems encountered by hemp farmers last season included lack of supplies, shortage of drying facilities, a lack of processing facilities as well as bug infestations.
There were reports of suicide as some growers lost their entire harvest to mold. Also, the bottom seemed to drop out of the market and many growers are still sitting on biomass from last year.
Many in the hemp industry believe the number of acres with crops on them in Jackson County is actually much lower than the latest statistics would indicate.
“I’m surprised it’s not less,” said Ajit Singh, who scaled back his hemp production near Talent from 500 acres last year to 50 acres this year.
Singh said he lost $3 million last year, and if this year’s crop doesn’t work out, he’ll be done with the hemp business.
Singh said he wouldn’t be surprised if many of the acres being cited in the ODA’s statistics are not in production.
Singh said hemp is an expensive crop to cultivate and is labor intensive. With seeds costing about $1 each, it also requires a lot of cash.
“Hemp is a capital-intensive business,” he said.
Last week, he had five workers scouring the fields west of Talent for male plants that could contaminate the thousands of female plants on his fields. At least one male plant was found by the workers and was pulled out.
The remaining plants looked healthy and were 2- to 4-feet tall.
Like many local residents, Singh isn’t a fan of the plastic that covers his and other hemp fields, and he said he understands why many locals don’t appreciate the grows.
“I don’t like the smell either,” he said.
With a background in soil science, Singh has another business, COSCON LLC, which provides grow products.
Hemp is generally grown for cannabidiol, or CBD, which is used for insomnia, anxiety, inflammation, pain, seizures and other conditions. It has only an insignificant amount of the ingredient in regular cannabis that gets you high.
Singh is also growing a different strain of hemp that has cannabigerol, or CBG, which is believed to have anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties.
Gordon Jones, assistant professor for Oregon State University Extension Service, said last year’s stampede to grow hemp was something of a “gold-rush mentality.”
He said he suspects that the acres registered to hemp grows may not be reflective of what’s actually occurring on the ground.
“Basically, everybody that I talked to last year, if they’re growing again this year, they’re growing a smaller acreage,” Jones said.
He said the emphasis this year appears to be growing well rather than growing a lot.
The cost to register a field is $750, but the cost for a single seed is around $1, so a hemp field is a significant investment, he said.
At the Extension Service next to Hanley Farm, there is an experimental hemp grow where horticulturists are trying to determine the best varieties and best methods of growing in this valley.
Jones said he’s spent about 80% of his time in August fielding questions from hemp growers.
“Generally, they say, “I think there is something wrong with my plants,” he said.
Many growers have heard that they shouldn’t over water their plants.
“All fields I’ve been too, they have not been watering enough,” he said.
Watering plants has to take into account soil conditions as well as the size of the plants. Generally the bigger the plant, the more water it needs.
Another topic that growers raise is insects and how to control them.
In general, hemp grows follow organic practices, Jones said.
The ODA publishes a list of hundreds of products suitable for organic growing, including citric acid, vinegar, cinnamon oil and clove oil.
One problem he’s seen is that the hemp plants are started in little pots and have become root bound, so they don’t take off after they’ve been planted in the ground.
“They’re just struggling to grow,” he said.
Last year, Jones said he saw a number of novice gardeners who were having a hard time with their crops.
He also receives many questions about fertilizers, with some growers complaining the leaves don’t look right or have funny colored leaves.
Another issue has to do with the “sexing” of the plants.
While those expensive seeds are generally female, there is always the possibility of a hermaphrodite, or plant that has both male and female parts.
The male pollen can contaminate a field, producing seeds in the female plants and potentially reducing the value of the crop considerably.
Hemp growers can call the Extension Service at 541-776-7371 if they have questions.
Jones has been hosting Zoom meetings to help educate hemp growers by bringing in experts to speak about various topics.
From 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on the first Tuesday of every month, the online hemp forum tries to respond to the questions that many hemp growers have.
On Sept. 1, a hemp market analysis will bring growers up to speed on pricing and demand for hemp biomass and also will feature an expert from the National Weather Service discussing the likelihood of getting a significant rainfall before harvest. Early rains can lead to mold on hemp plants.
To sign up for the Southern Oregon Hemp Growers Forum, go to extension.oregonstate.edu/sorec/events/southern-oregon-hemp-growers-forum-september-2020.
The event is free, but registration is required.