Hemp farming in Torrance County

The Torrance County commission held a discussion about hemp farming and recent changes to federal law.

At the July 10 meeting, commission chairman Ryan Schwebach asked Kathleen O’Dea to speak about hemp farming and recent changes to the federal government’s classification of the cannabis derivative, cannabidiol (CBD).

O’Dea is an Estancia hemp farmer and owner of one of two state-contracted cannabis testing labs.

According to the federal Food and Drug Administration, the 2018 Farm Bill was signed into law Dec. 20, 2018, making changes including removing hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, which means “cannabis plants and derivatives that contain no more than 0.3 percent THC on a dry weight basis are no longer controlled substances under federal law.”

Tetrahydrocannabinol, or TCH, is the psychoactive chemical compound in the plant.

O’Dea said resin is extracted from the female hemp flowers, which contains CBD, making it a high-value crop.

A hemp plant in Torrance County. Photo by Thomas Campbell.

O’Dea’s farming partner Jill Browning said the price of CBD oil is between $5,000 and $6,000 per kilo.

According to Browning, CBD can relieve inflammation, “aches and pains” and is a natural product, explaining its popularity.

Other varieties which produce fiber for rope “have very little value because there’s a lack of infrastructure,” O’Dea said. “As a country, we’ve lost our mechanical know-how in terms of how to grow and process these crops.”

Historical uses for hemp include textiles, rope, paper and related products, building materials, and more; additionally, hemp seeds are edible and the oil can be used to produce plastics.

Browning said she looks forward to a return to “industrial hemp,” citing a yearly harvest for paper production, contrasted with trees, which take 20 years of growth for a single harvest. “One acre of hemp is equal to four acres of trees,” according to Browning, yielding 80 times the paper per acre.

“The presence of male plants (which produce pollen) will significantly reduce the value of a crop because a plant will put its energy into producing seed rather than resin,” O’Dea told the commission, adding that “this is an issue” to hemp producers.

“Because of the value of the crop, small-scale farmers can make a modest living on just a few acres,” O’Dea said, adding, “Every agency, the legislature and the governor” want to encourage the introduction of small farmers to this developing market.

Presently, “Torrance County has 12 hemp farmers licensed by the Department of Agriculture for a total of 300 acres,” O’Dea said, adding, 10 of those are between ½ and 11 acres.

O’Dea said an unnamed, large hemp farm “is believed to have planted a mixed crop of male and female seed and pollen can travel up to 10 miles, which means it has the potential of harming most of the small-scale farmers in the valley.”

“This is something that we hope the county will address,” O’Dea said. “This industry is just trying to get off the ground and we can’t have one farm ruining it for everybody else.”

Socorro County passed an ordinance in April restricting pollen drift and requiring female-only hemp crops, according to O’Dea.

Torrance County planning and zoning coordinator Steve Guetschow told the commission he is preparing a draft resolution in conjunction with county manager Wayne Johnson and county attorney John Butrick, to be presented at the next commission meeting. It would require permitting of a hemp farm to stipulate that no male plants be grown.

Schwebach said he would seek public comment on the issue. “This is an industry we don’t understand and has potential for this valley, economically. I want to hear from the growers. It has to make common sense and I want the industry to weigh in on it,” he said.

Johnson said, “I’m not convinced we can do this by resolution. We need to have that discussion.” Schwebach agreed.

Browning, a member of the New Mexico Hemp Association who sits on a governor-appointed hemp committee, told the commission to consider the requirements of processing hemp at harvest time and manufacturing CBD products.

Schwebach invited both Browning and O’Dea to work with the county on the issue; both accepted.

A hemp farm near Estancia. Photo by Thomas Campbell.

Browning invited The Independent to the 240-acre hemp farm she and O’Dea operate near Estancia. She said while living in New Mexico, they have been farming hemp in Colorado for the past four seasons and are now moving their operation to Estancia.

She said during the summer they grow female flowers in the fields for resin production and in the winter, will grow hemp inside 11 greenhouses for seed production.

The “feminized” seeds they produce will be sold to other hemp farmers, Browning said. A special technique ensures they will only produce female plants.

Browning said they have been breeding strains of hemp for five years to bring the amount of CBD from 3 or 4 percent up to 12 to 15 percent, while lowering THC content, and at the same time selecting for adaptation of the plant to this climate.

She said the industry has been relying on cuttings for plant production, which is a relatively expensive procedure compared to planting seeds.

The pair have processing equipment in Colorado and want to bring it to New Mexico, but need to learn the county zoning requirements first, according to Browning. She said they also want to set up a manufacturing facility to make CBD products like tinctures, topicals and edibles.

She said the operation helps the local economy by employing five full-time employees and hiring eight more during planting season and the harvest. She also said a new irrigation system was purchased locally for $150,000.

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