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Ag expo talk gives ray of hope for Southwest Colorado’s hemp dreams

Bushes of hemp for the CBD market grow on the Tibbits farm south of McPhee Reservoir in this file photo. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)
Strategic planning and infrastructure needed to tap into niche market

The wave of hemp popularity has come crashing down, but there is still potential to catch a smaller wave, according to a presentation Friday at the Four States Agricultural Exposition.

“In 2019, when I gave the hemp talk here, this room was packed; now, there are just a few,” said Abdel Berrada, a hemp researcher with Mesa Verde Ag Solutions. “What a difference a few years makes. A lot of growers went out of business.”

He said the hemp boom in Colorado turned to bust for many reasons, including inexperienced farmers hoping for a quick profit, a steep learning curve, a high supply that drove down the price, and insufficient processing infrastructure.

In 2014, Colorado growers registered for 1,000 acres of hemp with the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

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It jumped to 30,000 acres in 2018 and reached a peak of 85,000 acres in 2019 before dropping to 45,000 acres in 2020 and 10,000 acres in 2021.

Now, only five farmers are registered to grow hemp in Montezuma County, down from 22 registered in 2019.

In La Plata County, 10 farmers are registered to grow hemp, down from 40 in 2019. Dolores County has one hemp farmer, up from zero.

Interest in growing hemp has waned in Colorado and Montezuma County. In 2019, the hemp presentation at the Four States Agricultural Exposition was packed; this year, just a few attended. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)

As the hemp market moderates, there is still opportunity to make a profit, and some farmers have found a way, especially in the medicinal CBD market, Berrada said.

Processing facilities exist in the state and region to extract CBD oils from hemp flowers, and one is in the planning stages in Dove Creek, said Gus Westerman, Dolores County CSU agriculture extension director.

Last year, Berrada worked with farmers in the San Luis Valley to grow 300 irrigated acres of industrial hemp for the stalk fiber used in the textile market.

The pilot project was not successful in selling the crop to be processed for textiles, but it was a valuable learning experience, he said. The farmers plan to try again this year.

Major clothing retailers mainly buy hemp fiber from China, Berrada said.

“Why not produce it here and gain some of that market?” he said.

A major hurdle for Colorado hemp farmers’ entry into the fiber market is the lack of large industrial processing facilities in Colorado. The nearest major facilities are in Kansas and Montana.

In 2021, Berrada along with a consortium of organizations, including Colorado State University and the Colorado Department of Agriculture, applied for a $10 million grant from the USDA that could have been seed money for researching and developing a hemp fiber processing plant. However, it was awarded to Oregon State University.

Another hurdle is a lack of DEA testing labs in the state. Hemp crops are routinely tested by the state to enforce the 0.3% limit of THC content, the mind-altering component of marijuana.

But only three labs are authorized by the DEA to test hemp in Colorado – in Wheatridge, Fort Collins and at the Colorado Department of Agriculture in Denver.

The industry is seeing more support, Berrada said, including the USDA establishing a hemp seed bank, and the CSU Pueblo campus creating a cannabis research institute to study medical benefits of hemp cannabinoids.

“There is still a lot of potential for hemp as a niche market it Colorado, and some have found success. To expand it will require more processing infrastructure for fiber, and fine-tuning best crop management practices,” Berrada said.