Hemp is one of the earliest cultivated crops in the world, and throughout most of its history, it wasn’t grown for its oils, but for its fibers. Here in Western Colorado, where hemp farming is becoming more common, the emphasis is on the oil, specifically cannabidiol, or CBD, which is found in both hemp and marijuana.
When Colorado legalized marijuana in 2012, Colorado farmers got a jump start on hemp cultivation, since it was still illegal to grow hemp in other parts of the country. It made sense for Colorado growers to focus on hemp for CBD production rather than fiber production for several reasons, including the state’s encouragement of the industry, the lack of infrastructure for processing hemp fibers, and the public’s acceptance of cannabis. While some consumers weren’t interested in medical marijuana products because of the THC content, many of those same consumers were interested in products with CBD.
Those who began hemp farming early discovered another good reason to grow hemp in Western Colorado: it responds well to the climate and the soil.
“This is one of the most ideal longitude and latitude locations, and we have the irrigation infrastructure,” said Wacey Clark with Colorado Hemp Solutions, which has been growing hemp since 2016. Although hemp requires regular water, it requires less water than alfalfa or pasture, according to Clark.
Western Colorado is less than ideal for hemp grown for fibers, which need a longer growing season and less alkaline soil. Places like Kentucky, which used to be the country’s biggest hemp producer prior to its ban, and Texas are more ideal for industrial hemp for fiber.
“We can’t compete with them on industrial hemp,” Clark said.
Although hemp grown for CBD oil is still considered industrial hemp, it looks different out in the field than hemp grown for fiber. Hemp grown for oil is shorter and bushier, to encourage more buds for CBD production. Fiber hemp plants are planted more closely together, like corn, because the goal isn’t buds, but long stalks.
Farming is just one component of the hemp industry on the Western Slope, and it’s not even the starting point. The story of hemp grown for its oil starts before the seed or clone is planted, with the genetics of the plant itself.
“There is science behind it all,” said Doug Watson with Eco Gen, a Grand Junction company that’s involved in all aspects of hemp production, from genetics to farming, manufacturing, processing, distribution and marketing the end product. “We are doing select breeding to produce oil-yielding plants and feminized seed.”
Hemp oil is produced during the bud stage, so growers who are growing hemp for CBD oil don’t want their hemp plants to flower and produce seed. They also don’t want male plants nearby, pollinating random female plants.
Although it’s less expensive to plant hemp using seed, many growers prefer to use clones, which are identical copies of adult plants, usually propagated from a cutting rather than seed. Clones are more expensive, but they guarantee consistency.
Hemp farmers have to deal with all of the other challenges faced by any Western Slope agricultural producer, while also figuring out some issues, like the best methods for harvesting or drying and storing buds. It’s a new industry, so some of those best practices are still in the development stages.
In addition to operating its genetics laboratory, EcoGen also manufactures equipment that it uses and sells to other hemp producer to use in the extraction process.
EcoGen was started in 2016, and the goal of the company is nothing less than excellence.
“We’re trying to be the gold standard leader in CBD production,” Watson said.
Although EcoGen extracts and produces CBD oil, consumers won’t find Eco-Gen Laboratories-brand CBD on retail shelves. Instead, the company is focused on becoming the leader in white label CBD; i.e., high quality oil that other CBD companies can purchase and use in their CBD products.
“Think of it like the ‘Intel inside’ campaign,” said Andrei McQuillan. “We hope that every brand recognizes that our product is the best.”
EcoGen manufactures a full line of private label products for other companies, including CBD tinctures, dummies, gel caps, capsules, recovery creams, face creams and bath bombs.