CORTEZ - Montezuma County planners entertained a vision of rolling waves of hemp fields as a way to bolster the local economy.
A roundtable discussion on the potential of a local hemp market struck an optimistic tone during a special planning and zoning meeting on Thursday.
"The opportunities are there for a commodity crop, and our arid climate and soils of this region are pretty ideal," hemp advocate Sharon Stewart said during a presentation. "I'm selling my coffee shop to become a hemp farmer in Mancos."
The industry won't develop overnight, she warned, but Colorado is well positioned to corner the U.S. industrial hemp market since it is one of a few states that have legalized it.
Hemp is a form of cannabis but does not have the psychoactive ingredients (THC) of its genetic cousin, marijuana.
The hemp flowers, seeds, oils, leaves and fibrous stems are used for a variety of products - soaps, lotions, clothing, paper, fuel, food, medicine, an alternative to plastics and the building material hempcrete.
"Right now, the medicinal market is very strong for hemp," Stewart said. "It comes from oil processed from seeds" and is known as CBD, or cannabidiol.
Hemp is regulated by the state, and Colorado farmers may apply for a permit to grow hemp from the state Department of Agriculture. Random testing is done to ensure it's the hemp variety.
So far, 330 farmers, including several in Montezuma County, have obtained permits. About 3,700 acres have been planted and harvested statewide.
"Right now, it is a lot of experimentation; it grows fast, and could be good for dry land," said Merle Root, a Pleasant View hemp farmer. "My research shows it is a good rotation crop and adds nitrogen to the soil."
Hemp does not require herbicides because it chokes out weeds, and contends with no major pests, the presenters said.
Industrial hemp can grow 14 feet high. Side roll irrigation works early on, and center-pivot irrigation later on. Water demands are estimated at 10-12 inches per acre. It is possible to retrofit combines for hemp harvest or use a silage cutter.
The goal is to develop a local hemp cooperative and build a local processing plant.
"With enough growers, the demand for a processing plant will develop on its own and become an economic opportunity for an entrepreneur," said planning commissioner Mike Gaddy.
Right now, a licensed hemp processing plant is operating in Fort Lupton, a potential option for local growers.
Access to seeds is getting better, Stewart said. Certified seed providers are sprouting up in Colorado, such as Centennial Seeds.
It was noted that it takes at least three seasons for a seed variety to acclimate to the local climate, though the science of local cultivars is imperfect.
CSU's agricultural research station at Yellow Jacket is permitted to grow hemp under a provision of the U.S. Farm Bill. They plan to conduct a second year of experimental grows this spring.
A single hemp crop can produce several products - medicine from flowers and leaves, oil and food from seeds, and industrial products from its stem.
"Processing the stem is a complicated process," Stewart said. "Educational seminars and outreach are needed, and that is part of our plan."
Cross pollination of hemp and marijuana is a potential problem, but is less of a local issue because Montezuma County has banned commercial marijuana farms. Federal laws ban hemp production, and they typically trump state laws. Farm loans with a federal nexus could present problems, as could federal farm assistance programs, or even water sources funded by the federal sources such as the Bureau of Reclamation.
Congressional bills have tried to legalize hemp by taking it off the Controlled Substances Act, and one may finally get passed this year, Stewart said.
"You could be the pioneers of a new hemp market here," said planning commissioner Mike Rosso.
"It would be foolish not to give it a try," said commissioner Bob Clayton.