Torrance growers lead the way on hemp

A Torrance County hemp crop at Roadrunner CBD in 2019. Photo by Leota Harriman.

Leadership in New Mexico’s hemp industry is coming from Torrance County growers, as a business called Leaf & Tackle and the N.M. Hemp Association look to the future of the industry in the state.

MJ Balizan is one of the owners of Campo de Oro, a Torrance County farm group; the four managing partners of Leaf & Tackle are some of those Torrance County hemp farmers.

Jill Browning is chair of the N.M. Hemp Association, which is holding a press conference at the Capitol Rotunda Jan. 23 as the legislative session gets underway.

Both organizations are looking to educate prospective farmers in growing hemp and taking it to market.

“Leaf & Tackle started out of a need,” Balizan said. After the 2019 growing season—the first time it was legal to grow hemp in the United States in more than 80 years—the company is expanding from connecting growers to buyers for hemp biomass into a broader educational effort.

A statewide tour, duplicating the success of its Moriarty hemp forum, will bring an educational program to different regions of the state in 2020, using the hashtag #nmtruehemp. Leaf & Tackle offered a booth and time to address participants to the N.M. Hemp Association, which also has an educational focus.

Leaf & Tackle plans to focus on education of farmers in a statewide outreach designed to let prospective growers know what is involved with cultivating hemp, what the up-front costs are, how to avoid bad genetics and how to take that product to market once produced.

At its October forum in Moriarty, attendees heard from Brad Lewis, Division Director for Agriculture and Environmental Services for the state’s Department of Agriculture. “We conversed [with Lewis] on the need of outreach events in rural New Mexico, to address the needs for farmers to have access to true hemp facts, straight from regulators and reliable vetted professional sources, to include current experiences from NM hemp farmers,” Balizan wrote in an email to The Independent. “For the budding industry to flourish in New Mexico, the standards needed to be raised. Leaf & Tackle LLC has already been in the hemp space consulting on marketing channels, and hemp supply chains for several years in network with hemp farm cooperatives in Oregon, Colorado, South Carolina, North Carolina, Wisconsin and several other states who had entered the space prior to New Mexico’s entrance in 2019.”

The #NMtruehemp 2020 Education Tour will also feature presentations by Browning on the initiatives and benefits the Hemp Association will offer to hemp farmers in 2020.

The tour will start soon, Balizan said, with events in Santa Fe, Moriarty, Las Cruces, Roswell, Deming, Taos, Santa Rosa, T or C, Hobbs, Carlsbad, Farmington, Raton, Clayton, Gallup and Albuquerque. For more information on the tour and upcoming dates, visit leafandtackle.com.

The tour builds on Leaf & Tackle’s “root to harvest farm plan,” a consulting service that takes growers from a “pre-farm plan” through planting, crop management, harvesting, marketing, and other aspects of the industry.

“It’s really important to us that, not just that we are successful, but that the whole state is successful, Balizan said.

“You start with farmers,” Browning said, adding that regulations are “changing every day” and with seeds running around a dollar each, the cost to get started can be substantial.

The Hemp Association is working with the state’s Department of Agriculture. “We’re aligned with their initiatives,” Browning said. “One of the focuses they have is education and due diligence.”

She said there is a lot of misinformation, and that new growers can learn from mistakes made in last year’s growing season.

“The primary thing is that you can make a lot of money growing hemp,” Browning said.

Browning said she doesn’t consider herself a farmer but a grower of hemp, and said she sees a lot of potential for the crop in Torrance County and in New Mexico.

She said water usage for growing hemp is less than that required for growing alfalfa; the biomass that is the product varies in price, but currently averages about $10 a pound.

Browning said she sees a lot of potential for Torrance County in growing hemp, but said the up-front costs are considerable, and infrastructure and farming systems are needed for a successful crop.

One goal shared by the Department of Agriculture, the Hemp Association and Leaf & Tackle is sharing of information, and educating farmers who want to get into growing hemp.

Laws governing hemp production say that the plant may contain not more than 3 percent THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Plants exceeding 3 percent THC are destroyed.

With the rush to grow hemp in 2019, Browning said finding good “genetics,” meaning seeds, seedlings and clones, is paramount, especially because seeds can cost $1 each and seedlings or clones could cost $3 each.

Bringing “seasoned, established farmers,” together with people with expertise in hemp is part of the goal. “Bad genetics really hurt a lot of farmers [in 2019],” Browning said, adding, “There were several that had to plow their field in.”

Beyond that, the groups all share a goal of helping growers bring the product to market. “We want to give more realistic ideas of what it costs to get into hemp and what the payout is,” Browning said.

Currently, hemp grown for CBD is being grown. Industry standard in growing hemp for CBD is organic, Browning said.

Browning is also looking forward to the day when industrial hemp is grown for use in products from fuel to plastic to fiber. “That part of the industry is yet to come,” Browning said.

Other initiatives of the Hemp Association include looking at water usage and the effect of growing hemp on the watershed and looking at soil health.

Developing the hemp industry in New Mexico “will take pioneers like us,” Browning said.

To learn more, visit leafandtackle.com. The N.M. Hemp Association’s website is under development.