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Despite growing pains in 2019 that saw harvesting and production setbacks for many hemp growers, the industry in Oregon continues to soar in the number of operations registered for 2020 with the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the amount of farm acreage set aside for hemp crops.

Meanwhile, hemp growers in Southern Oregon say they are applying lessons they learned last year to the upcoming growing season.

As of early March, ODA had already processed more than four times the number of growers who had registered by the same time in 2019.

“We’ve got about 1,200 people in the queue right now waiting to be processed,” said Shannon Lane of the ODA’s Hemp Program. “There’s a huge growth spurt from last year,” Lane said.

In Oregon, the number of registered hemp farmers in 2019 totaled 1,960, up from just 13 registered growers in 2015 when ODA began keeping records. The number of outdoor grow sites for hemp rose to 6,040 in 2019, with nearly 64,000 acres. Indoor space for growing hemp in 2019 exploded to 11.3 million square feet — almost 10 million more square feet of greenhouse space than the year before.

More data for 2020 will be available once all applications from farmers who plan to grow commercial hemp this year are processed by ODA.

The continued growth of Oregon’s hemp industry in 2020 falls in line with U.S. projections over the next several years. According to some market analysts, the total U.S. hemp market is expected to grow from $4.6 billion in 2019 to $26.6 billion by 2025 — a 34% increase over the five-year period. Oregon is one of the leading hemp producers in the U.S., along with Montana, Colorado and Kentucky.

Since the federal Farm Bill of 2018 legalized hemp production and transport, the demand for hemp products has been growing exponentially. Hemp can be used to make a variety of protein-rich foods, and its fiber can be made into clothing, paper, bioplastics, biofuels and many other products, although most of the demand is for hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) oil, which can be made into tinctures, capsules, sublinguals, edibles/beverages and vape oils, as well as rubbed into the skin in topical ointments, soaps, shampoos and other products.

Studies have shown several health benefits of CBD oil, including pain relief, as an anti-inflammatory and for treating anxiety. An increasingly broad range of products with CBD oil is available for humans and their pets.

Bruce Perlowin, CEO of Hemp Inc., has hemp fields and a production facility in the Rogue Valley, as well as Las Vegas, North Carolina and Florida. Perlowin’s King of Hemp pre-rolls are made from hemp flowers instead of high-THC cannabis strains, and his company also offers CBD buds.

“Smoking hemp is now on a par with smoking marijuana,” Perlowin said, “and it will soon bypass it.”

Last year, his growers in Southern Oregon harvested more than 100,000 pounds of hemp, after drying and trimming, which Perlowin said equates to 40 million pre-rolls. He’s not a bit worried about selling all of them.

“The demand is insatiable. We have a product that people take home, burn it all up, and come back for more,” Perlowin said.

Dubbed the “King of Pot” for his youthful escapades as a marijuana smuggler in South Florida and California (for which he was imprisoned for nine years), Perlowin is well known in the cannabis industry. He was featured in a CNBC documentary called “Marijuana Inc.,” and an unreleased film called “The King of Pot” tells the story of Perlowin’s life.

His company, Hemp Inc., has been visible in the Rogue Valley since he began working with hemp growers here in 2018. Last year, he presented his Hemp University model at Southern Oregon University, and he hosted the New Leaf Symposium held in Jacksonville this past January.

With decades of experience in cannabis business and marketing, Perlowin considers himself “a city slicker transitioning into a farmer.” He relies on the expertise of his growers, such as Paul Kodydek of Rattlesnake Hemp, to produce crops of high-quality CBD flower.

Perlowin, for one, was ecstatic about the 2019 harvests from 42 acres of hemp grown in the Rogue Valley. “I compared what they did to hitting a grand slam in the World Series,” Perlowin said of his growers. “It was a combination of incredible skill and some luck.”

He said the region is ideal for growing high-quality hemp. “I did not believe that Southern Oregon is the best place to grow hemp, but I was 100 percent wrong,” Perlowin said. “The Rogue Valley is the Napa Valley of hemp.”

Kodydek agreed that Southern Oregon is a mecca for hemp farmers, but said new growers have to “pay their dues” by gaining experience over time. “Over the last 20 years, I made a lot of mistakes and learned what not to do,” he said.

After growing cannabis and hemp in seven states, Kodydek has developed tried-and-true methods, which include growing top-rated hemp strains and using “the best” organic nutrients. Perlowin went all out for his King of Hemp line of pre-rolls and buds, paying $1.50 per seed to a provider in Spain for an elite CBD cultivar called Pre-1998 OG (for Ocean Grown) Bubba Kush. He said the average cost for hemp is around $1 per seed.

“We picked the No. 1 best-tasting cultivar there is, and went for being at the top of the marketplace,” Perlowin said.

Deep pockets and extensive growing experience contributed to a successful 2019 season, but Kodydek said good fortune also played a part. Unlike some other hemp farmers in the area, he said, his crops weren’t significantly affected by a hail storm and early rains in September. However, that’s not to say there weren’t any problems for them last year.

Legal disputes with a part-owner of his local processing center in Medford prevented Perlowin from using the state-of-the-art facility for drying his hemp harvests last year. He said the space would have been “wholly inadequate” to meet the 135,000 square feet of drying space he needed, anyway.

“Rather than battling over it, we just pivoted and went over to a couple of other people we work with,” including Matt Ochoa of Jefferson Packing House in Medford, he said.

Perlowin admits that his money and status in the cannabis industry open doors. Whereas he was able to pay top dollar to hire more than 300 laborers to hand-harvest last year, other hemp growers in the area scrambled unsuccessfully to find workers and drying facilities for their harvests.

Labor and processing facility shortages caused some hemp to be left in the fields last year; however, another problem was botrytis, or gray mold. The fungus hit many fields quickly after rains in September that were followed by warm temperatures, thus creating humid conditions for the disease to take hold and thrive.

Emily Gogol, owner of Infinite Tree, a hemp nursery and consulting business in Grants Pass, estimated that only 45% of the acres planted in hemp within the region were successfully harvested last year. Increased trim costs and crop losses from disease could add up to an average of 30% loss in profits for hemp farmers, although percentages vary widely among individual farms.

“Overall, farmers did not do as well as they hoped in Oregon because of the bud rot issue,” Gogol said.

Paul Murdoch and his family have successfully run Horn Creek Hemp Co. just outside of Jacksonville since 2017. Murdoch estimated last year he left about 15% of his crops that had been infected with botrytis in the field. Still, he was able to harvest about 25,000 pounds of hemp from 14 acres.

“The key to our success is to operate completely within our own means,” Murdoch said. His family does all of the hand-harvesting, and they have their own drying facilities so they don’t have to depend on outside entities.

Murdoch said they’ll make a couple of changes for 2020 based on last year’s lessons. He’ll try setting out hemp plants a bit later this year to prevent them from growing so much foliage, which reduces air circulation among the plants and makes them more susceptible to fungal diseases. Also, he’ll apply a beneficial bacterium called Bacillus subtilis earlier in the season, which will inoculate the soil and help ward off diseases.

Murdoch believes two factors will help make Oregon hemp-derived CBD products stand out in the fast-growing national marketplace. First is an investment in building healthy soil on farms through the use of regenerative growing practices, including using organic composts and mulches, growing cover crops, and maintaining insectary plants where beneficial predators can thrive. Second is the development of high-quality Oregon CBD cultivars.

Gogol agreed that planting high-quality hemp cultivars is key to producing top-rate crops. She trialed 17 different varieties in her fields in the Applegate Valley, and narrowed those down to 3-4 strains she’ll offer at her nursery for 2020. “Breeders make a lot of claims about their material, but until you test it side by side in research plots, you don’t know how it’s going to perform,” Gogol said.

She noted there is a lot of room for improvement in breeding cultivars with stable genetics. “I worked with reputable companies in Oregon last year who had terrible germination rates and a high number of hermaphrodites,” Gogol said. “I think this speaks to how new the hemp industry is, and how people are not quality controlling their seed lots.”

Although Gogol believes timing and spacing of plantings are important, she emphasized the need to gather site-based data in order to make informed decisions. For example, she hasn’t found claims of short-, middle- and long-season varieties to be reproducible across different clients. In addition, research in her test fields has not revealed any differences in the quality of hemp plants that were grown by staggering plantings.

Gogol said, “We tracked vigor, mold issues, yield and overall quality of bud structure. On our farm, with the varieties we tested, we did not see a dramatic difference between the material from the early planting in mid-June and the material from the late planting during the first week in July.”

She’ll repeat the assessment this year to see whether the results are consistent. In the meantime, she suggests using auto-flowering cultivars that will help make maturity rates among staggered plantings more consistent.

Gogol saw that farmers who were more successful last year projected some losses, but they had a contingency plan if things went off track. “There’s not a lot farmers can do to mitigate pests and diseases later in the season … but if they start off with 10%-20% transplant losses within the first few months, they’re never going to gain that back at harvest,” she said.

Not only did more successful farmers use high-quality cultivars; they had an effective site layout and they prepared the site properly, amended the soil before planting, checked consistently to make sure the irrigation system worked appropriately (and had a backup if it didn’t), and transplanted their starts earlier rather than later. These initial practices helped offset late-season losses, Gogol said.

However, even successful hemp farmers can’t afford to rest on their laurels in 2020. Oregon farmers are not the only ones growing hemp, and Gogol said other states are putting more effort into university research and building partnerships with government agencies.

“We need to continue to push best practices so we can capitalize on a Pacific Northwest boutique brand,” Gogol said. “We also need to have something like the Oregon Wine Board with stronger promotion of the Oregon hemp industry as a high-quality, cutting-edge product.”

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.

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