Colo. is leader in industrial hemp growth

Despite gray areas with federal laws and dealing with those uncertainties, Colorado is a leader in the hemp industry and continues to see increased interest in the profitable crop, the director of the state’s industrial hemp program told attendees at Club 20 on Saturday.

Nationally, hemp is being grown on about 15,000 acres, Colorado Department of Agriculture Assistant Director of Plant Industries Duane Sinning told the group, with Colorado having around 7,500 acres of that total. The department has issued permits for growing hemp since 2014 and continues to see a growth in interest, Sinning said, noting that he’s seen a transition in the past three years from the initial participants in the program who are enthusiastic, underfunded hemp advocates, to experienced farmers, well-funded groups and business consultants who are investing more resources in the industry.

While there still are issues in limbo — such as whether hemp can be transported legally across state lines because the federal government considers it a controlled substance like marijuana — others have been resolved somewhat, including the recognition of industrial hemp as an agricultural product that can be irrigated with water that comes from federal water-storage projects.

Many issues still are uncertain and the state is negotiating that ambiguity carefully, Sinning said, while continuing to demonstrate to federal agencies that the hemp program is compliant.

He said so far, state officials have been able to negotiate with federal officials, mainly the Drug Enforcement Administration, to assure them they’re complying with laws and not just allowing folks to grow marijuana under the guise of hemp. This includes a rigorous application, monitoring and testing process that keeps tabs on the crops before they’re planted, as they grow and when they’re harvested.

A field of hemp and a field of marijuana are virtually indistinguishable, Sinning said, despite the difference in varieties grown for different purposes. However, hemp contains less than 0.3 percent THC, the substance in cannabis plants that gets consumers high, and this substance is measured with required testing. Hemp is grown for other purposes, and can be a profitable agricultural crop just like corn or wheat, when it’s processed for usable products including clothing, foods, cosmetics, animal feed and building materials.

Sourcing viable, reliable seed continues to be an issue for Colorado farmers, Sinning said, though he credited growers in the state for being at the forefront of developing their own strains of low-THC cannabis that qualifies as hemp. Three registered varieties of seed were approved by the state last year and Sinning said six more are being grown in trials this year.

Mesa County currently has about 30 registered growers of hemp, according to the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s registry directory.

“I would tell you right now there’s already more acres of industrial hemp than there are Rocky Ford cantaloupe and, don’t hang me, Palisade peaches,” he said. “Will it ever replace corn? I doubt it. But will it be a part of the agricultural landscape here? I think very likely it will always be part of our landscape.”


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