Hemp: Weeds worth growing

Agricultural hemp in the Estancia Valley was the topic of a Hemp Forum last week hosted by Campo De Oro LLC and the City of Moriarty at the Civic Center. The forum was an educational platform created to help inform the public about hemp and the potential for the hemp industry. 

A panel was brought in to answer community questions about agricultural hemp in the Estancia Valley and East Mountain area after federal law legalized growing the cash crop for the first time in almost a century.

The panel comprised Brad Lewis from the NMDA Hemp Program; Chris Tyrolt Torrance County Undersheriff; attorney A. Blair Dunn Attorney of WARBA; Andrew Miller, hydrologist and environmental consultant; USDA Representative Andrew Flores; Jill Browning of NM Hemp Association; Torrance County farmer Jeremy Diaz, CEO of Campo De Oro; and Torrance County farmers Heath Grider and Robert Boylan.

The forum started off with a presentation by Campo De Oro’s MJ Balizan about the many uses of industrial hemp. There are three strains of hemp that are grown: medicinal CBD hemp, industrial fiber hemp, and industrial grain hemp.

The hemp forum included food like this hemp, quinoa and bean burrito, provided by Campo de Oro. Photo by Tamara Bicknell-Lombardi.

Balizan talked about hemp’s uses—which include food for both human and animal consumption; CBD to manage pain and health; hemp seed oil, which can be used in beauty products; hemp biomass, used to create animal bedding, textiles, clothes, shoes, rope and paper; bioplastic which is 100 percent biodegradable; biofuel; as well as hempwood, hempcrete and other “hemp-based composites” for other types of building, like automobile parts.

In addition to all of that, hemp was one of the original cash crops of America. Our founding fathers farmed hemp as a requirement by law, and both the Constitution and Declaration of Independence are written on hemp paper. “This is an iconic, ancient plant—it can feed you, house you, clothe you and heal you,” Balizan said during her introduction.

In terms of local agriculture, hemp has many practical applications for the area, and growing hemp can be a huge benefit to both the environment but also to the farm land directly, according to panelists.

Hemp growing doesn’t require pesticides or herbicides or very much water, and it can grow in all five of New Mexico’s climatic zones. Hemp can absorb toxic metals and more than one crop can be grown in a single season, panelists said.

Because growing hemp was so recently legalized, hemp farming is still in the beginning stages and is not cheap to get an operation going, Browning said.

A community member at the forum asked if she could grow a hemp plant in her home garden. The panel responded to her by saying that she could grow hemp at home but would have to go through the same licensing process and pay the same price for it as a farmer to grow a single plant.

“Hemp farmers probably won’t see any money coming in for a year or two,” Browning said. Most of the local hemp farmers are working “pilot fields” and are still in the experimental stages of growing hemp.

At the end of the harvesting season “an anonymous questionnaire will be sent to farmers that will ask specific questions,” said Lewis.

Harvest at Campo de Oro farm. Photo by Tamara Bicknell-Lombardi.

Another community member asked if known genetic problems with hemp seeds had any insurance coverage. Flores responded by saying that “if the chemistry goes too high [insurance] does not cover the loss.”

Both hemp and marijuana are cannabis, with the difference being the concentration of THC, the psychoactive ingredient that causes marijuana’s high. If the plants exceed 3 percent THC, it’s no longer hemp under the law, and is instead classified as marijuana.

Another audience member asked what the best course of action would be for someone who wanted to get into the hemp industry. The panel responded by saying those likely to be most successful have land with rights to the water, good legal representation, and a possible loan for first-timers who need farm equipment.

The panel also discussed the legal side of hemp regulation. Tyrolt described the test that will be administered to ascertain THC levels in a crop being transported within the state to make sure they are within the legal level.

Any plant or crop that tests above that percentage is destroyed and becomes a total loss to the farmer, even if the levels were contaminated by pollen drift, according to panelists. 

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