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Hemp in Colorado: A Seed and Fiber Frenzy


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If you are looking for an article about the highs and lows of marijuana, you may be in the wrong location. Though intricately intertwined with the marijuana industry, the hemp industry has its own regulatory system and laws regarding sale and consumption. The only individuals getting high in this article are possibly cows. 

Seeds are the main focus of hemp crops, with misconceptions from all sides clouding the industry. The modern variations of cannabis from hemp delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), and delta8-tetrahydrocannabinol all range in their properties and uses. Cannabis and its many forms are not fully understood by the general public, leading to discrimination and blurred legal lines when it comes to the cannabis industry. Many people mistakenly believe that all cannabis produces a psychoactive high.

Uses of hemp

The Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA) Hemp Program Manager Brian Koontz has been working within the regulatory side of cannabis for 13 years, switching to head of the Industrial Hemp Program in 2019.

“For several years, I tested plants to make sure they didn’t have any harmful or dangerous pesticide residues on them, trying to educate marijuana cultivators on best practices for pest control… safe pesticide use. In 2019, I took over the program; now, I’m involved in rule-making, policymaking, and directing the whole hemp department which is the crux of what the department is for. The hemp program is to assure that legal hemp is being cultivated, not something else.”

Though the crop is not as heavily regulated as its cousin marijuana, this cannabinoid is dealing with its own agricultural problems and accomplishments with crop fads, dropping rates in industry participants and growth in the fiber industry. Many early hemp industry members focused only on the CBD element of the plant/crop, leaving a hole in the industry. 

“In 2018-2019, the majority, well over 70 percent of growers, were cultivating for CBD extraction, the market got flooded immediately. You don’t need 50,000 acres of hemp production or hemp harvest to support that much CBD.”

According to Koontz, Colorado has supported businesses and green projects to provide high-quality hemp fiber goods to a broader audience. They are attempting to close the current gaps in the cannabis industry. “Colorado has been involved in projects like the Patagonia Project, where Patagonia wants to cultivate domestic, organically grown hemp for clothing which began in 2019.”

Kim Kovaks, CEO of Element6 Dynamics, speaking to Governor Polis. Photo: Element6

With the acts of war unfolding in Ukraine, it was truly by chance that the Ukrainian hemp fiber equipment purchased by Element6 Dynamics made its way to Longmont, CO, just two weeks before the war broke out. Equipment from eastern Europe, has been helping to open more fiber mill operations throughout the state. As the machinery becomes more available companies such as Element6 Dynamics are able to use those fibers to create plastic from the plant.

“There are facilities like the one in Longmont and others opening in another part of the state in April. They’re looking for multi-use hemp fiber for packing materials, hemp board for construction and furniture. Hempcrete is another big commodity. They mix the fiber with lime and make formed walls for buildings or cinder blocks for construction, which are supposed to be long-lasting, weather-resistant, mold-resistant building materials.”

The Industrial Hemp Program has its very own lab for THC and a biochemistry lab, ensuring that all hemp is within the legal 0.3 percent limit of THC. The Industrial Hemp Program launching further research thanks to the United States Department of Agriculture. “One of our most significant achievements, which we started in January, is to fulfill our state plan. Last year, the USDA approved it to manage hemp and to utilize other authorized labs; the state has 15 other labs to do regulatory testing.”

Though Colorado’s industry is running relatively smoothly with approvals for research and testing as well as locations for fiber processing opening up throughout the state, the industries in other states are a bit more complicated. According to Koontz, the hemp seed industry is like any other crop, with certain larger companies always having an advantage over the individual producer.

“Some states are very strict; you can only plant hemp if you use this seed. That’s when well-known seed companies limit that market. These more prominent companies, like New West genetics and Charlotte’s Web, do their own research and seed trials. The little guy, the person collecting feral hemp and trying to cultivate it on a smaller level, will always be a challenge to the smaller producer.”

Equity and equality in the cannabis industry may still be lacking. The state, according to Koontz, is trying its best to provide opportunities to those who know how to grow the crop and open a door for individuals from all walks of life to join the industry. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a backlash from particular communities in Colorado.

“We don’t deny hemp registrations based on where it’s grown or who’s growing it. If they’re willing to meet the criteria we have for hemp registration, which includes straightforward things like agreeing to regulation, inspection, and paying their fees to do it in the first place. Many geographical regions have asked us not to supply or grant or issue registrations because they don’t want it in their areas. In Pueblo several years ago, they particularly didn’t like outdoor hemp and outdoor marijuana growing in the same place.”

Like any crop, you have to research how it grows, the best environments to cultivate it, and protect it and other crops from disease and cross-pollination. “House Bill 21-1301 mandated that the Department of Revenue and CDA work collaboratively. Holding heavy workgroup sessions discussing how to prevent feral hemp, how to prevent cross-pollination, how to do a feasibility study on how, how far hemp pollinates, and how it pollinates. Four different workgroups are involved. There’s a lot of work to ensure that hemp and marijuana crops aren’t compromised due to cross-pollination.”

Governor Polis (right) visiting a hemp farm

As the landscape of the industry changes, veterans of the industry can take more of a breath than they might have in the past. The state, at one point, made growers burn all crops that tested above the 0.03 percent levels of THC. “If your crop tested hot, you had to bury it, burn it, and incur a significant financial loss, and now they can take the crop and blend it all, the seeds and stems… everything which would dilute the flower material and retest it and have it still as a viable crop.”

As mentioned previously, the only individuals in this article possibly getting “high” are cows from the prospect of using trimmings and fibers that cannot be used for other purposes as sustainable food for livestock. More research is required regarding humans consuming the meat or milk from these animals whether they may then ingest levels of THC. Though getting toasted off of your steak or coffee creamer is enticing to some, it is not generally a good business practice to potentially drug your consumer. Koontz stated, “I would like to see it further expanded to feed and food — hemp proved as animal feed, for example. You know, there needs to be more research done. To ensure that you know that the beef we eat, we won’t get high off the meat. If you raise big agricultural animals, you’re going to eat their meat or drink their milk, and you have to get that approved by the FDA.”

Most people know about the benefits of hemp, CBD, and THC for cancer patients and children with epilepsy. Charlotte’s Web, a prominent strain, is almost a household name. Dr. Jeremy Widdmann, the co-founder, botanist, scientist, farmer, and grower at Boulder Hemp out of Longmont, began his interest in cannabis by helping sick people. “You’d have a hard time finding somebody that doesn’t know somebody with cancer. I’ve been cultivating cannabis and hemp and extracting. So I provided different formats, tinctures, etc., to family members suffering, which helped quite a bit. The hobby turned into the passion turned into the business.”

Though most people don’t see hemp-based food in the supermarket and ultimately think, “This will get me high,” or has marijuana in it, the difference between the two compounds isn’t that big. Dr. Widdmann helped us understand that the devil is really in the details of these two compounds. 

“The difference between marijuana and hemp is a number chosen based on research. What we’d consider hemp may be more of the fiber green variety decades ago. It’s hemp if it’s less than 0.3% THC, and it’s marijuana if it’s more, and depending on where you go, that number changes. So it’s kind of silly. I focused on the hemp side because there’s less regulation around it. We can grow acres and acres of it outdoors, reducing the cost to folks who need it.”

To have reliability among strains and seeds is a long process of growth and testing. The plants go through multiple growth cycles until the final seeds are produced. 

“You take a plant through the cycle of growing into flowering, and you have these beautiful buds you can’t tell by looking at it. You send it into the lab, and we identify the individual plants that produce very low THC and higher CBD, and we take those to the next generation of breeding. And then, at each cycle of breeding, we do the same thing. We grow plants, determine the ones that are high CBD; anything that goes above that 0.3 percent THC, we don’t take that to the next generation, and then after some time, we have a stable population of seeds that produce high CBD and low THC that we can reliably sell to the farmer.”

After the long seed selection process, growth, and harvest, it is time to use the crop to produce CBD and food goods. The process being a little bit sticky, Dr. Widdmann explained as the crop is processed:

“Once it’s harvested and dried and the stems and stalks are separated from the flower, we have it extracted; we use different extraction techniques. We use supercritical CO2, so that’s just high pressure, high-temperature CO2. That extracts the cannabinoids and the terpenes. You’re left with this thick oil, kind of molasses-looking oil, and it goes into the tinctures and topicals and whatnot. And most of it goes into our products and our partner brands products; we do sell some wholesale so other folks that have a brand that can do all their own formulations, but they don’t have a farm, so we can provide that good organic product to them.”

Like any other crop, certain portions of the plant are used for different purposes, with the thicker stock portion of the hemp plant being used mostly for making items as clothing. “Hemp that looks more like bamboo, where it is planted densely, it’s these tall 12-foot plants. The outside base is the fiber; it’s thick, and the density between nodes is your branches, so it produces these long fibers, and there are quite a few of them. So that’s the sort of hemp that is better for fibers and textiles.”

Laura Pottorff from the CSU Seed Lab tests hemp seeds from two groups. Though the lab does not test for compounds such as THC or cannabinoid levels due to the school’s federal funding, the university is dedicated to research that helps the state, industry, and environment. “The testing that our lab does is for germination and purity. We have these two buckets of seed; we have common seed and seed that has been selected and bred, chosen for specific traits.”

All of the tests add value to the crop, letting the farmers know the capability of their seeds and harvest, with most farmers opting for more expensive seeds in order to guarantee more consistent results.

“We require the seed lab to do the germination and purity test because it must meet minimum standards, separating it from a common seed. And so all of this, these layers, these steps add value in terms of decreased risk so that if I am the farmer, and I want a crop that is better for fiber, there is a fiber variety, if I want this variety, then I would probably spend more money to buy Byala Paretsky? Because it has been verified by a third party, the certification agency, unfortunately, on the side of the common seeds, there is no guarantee.”

Pottorff explained that the CSU Seed Lab tests for certain levels of germination and other traits determined by the grower to reach a satisfactory seed commercially; once the lab determines the seeds with the selected characteristics, a grower can choose the best strain or seed for their needs.

“It’s all going to be based on the person purchasing it with their values. What do they want? Do they want something, a seed that was produced without any commercial herbicides? Did the herbicides used and other types of pesticides meet the definition of certified organic? Is that what they want? Or does it mean that the crop was grown using soil health? Values and protocols?”

Bethany Niebauer, is the vice president of the Industrial Hemp Research Foundation and a cannabis compliance consultant with Axial Compliance Consulting. She has been involved in the industry since 2015, focusing on licensing for both kinds of Cannabis. Niebauer helps individuals and businesses gain licensing for hemp and marijuana throughout the country.

“It depends on if you’re doing hemp or marijuana. For example, I’m working with a client in New Jersey who wants a dispensary license; they are a little behind the eight ball because they don’t have real estate. And the license requires that you have a deed or a lease. So they are frantically trying to find real estate. But that’s it. The New Jersey rules are written in such a way that there are very few real estate spots. So that’s, that’s a big part of the challenge. You know, background checks and resumes for every team member involved, I have to … part of my job is writing the different SOPs and procedures for how they’re going to operate. A hemp license is comparatively so much easier. The trickiest part of the application is you have to give GPS coordinates, which sometimes is hard for older generations. You have to usually make a map with precise boundaries about where you’re going to grow. You check some boxes and provide a background check; you typically get your license within about 30 days.”

Hemp isn’t just a crop that supplies food and medicine but leaves a significantly lesser footprint than its counterpart, the tree, regarding certain products such as paper and slower-growing cyclical crops. “Hemp has a much, much faster-growing cycle than trees. Trees, depending on the kind, have a 5- to 10-year growing cycle, and hemp has a growing cycle of less than a year; it might be one full year, depending on the kind of habit. If we made paper from hemp, we would be in a very different place. Anything you can make from petroleum, you can make from hemp.”

Though hemp is more accepted in 2022 than previously, it doesn’t mean that working in the cannabis industry is easy, with prejudices and misconceptions playing a significant role in how the company conducts business.

“There is an element of scorn. For example, a payment was denied last week; it came from my client’s brokerage firm. And what they told her was they were not willing to send funds. They used the phrase, ‘We’re not sending funds to someone so heavily involved in the drug trade.'”

Niebauer spoke to the more significant problem of the cannabis industry being heavy regulations; though the state is addressing this in ways Koontz mentioned, many in the industry don’t see these actions to be enough.

“There’s an enormous separation between capital, specifically startup capital, and the people who have been harmed or have specific industry knowledge, to grow the plant, how to process it, how to market it, access to banking services, if you wanted to start a cannabis business. You could walk down to Wells Fargo or whoever and get a small business loan; that would change so much. The fundamental problem is that the people the drug war has harmed have been entangled in our legal system, which is incredibly expensive and robs people of opportunities.”

According to Niebauer The Industrial Hemp Research Foundation, is a 501(c)(3) tax-deductible organization, is dedicated to funding research for industrial hemp. You can donate to the foundation via their website today.

“We want to fund graduate research for students involved in hemp agriculture. Research is incredibly expensive; the students usually have to take out loans. We are trying to talk to universities about easing that burden. If we can, I think that would make a big difference in the industry if people didn’t have student loans, the sort of job opportunities and things you could explore if you weren’t dependent on a very high-end lucrative career to pay back those loans.”

Morris Beegle is a partner with the NoCo Hemp Expo, an entrepreneur, and a musician with songs featuring the importance and celebration of hemp. Beagle is the CEO and founder of We Are For Better Alternatives (WAFBA). The NoCo Expo is in its eighth consecutive year. The Expo, according to Beegle, is a way to make connections among those in the industry and exhibit new growth, collection, and testing methods.

“The Expo is open to a broad spectrum of businesses that can and do participate in some area of the hemp supply chain. These can include farmers, breeders, processors, equipment manufacturers, laboratories, CPG brands, white-label manufacturers, and ancillary service providers from banking, insurance, accounting, and legal.”

According to Beegle, the hemp industry has been taking a lot of hits from the pandemic to climate change and laws put in place that were built to help both business owners and personal and medical patients stay within regulatory standards. Yet, the industry of hemp has prevailed, with the FDA still being the only wall to the overall legalization of cannabinoids.

“The 2018 Farm Bill has now cost the hemp industry billions of dollars in lost revenue and investment to build proper infrastructure throughout the supply chain. The FDA, along with a few other government agencies, in conjunction with outside influence, is the biggest obstacle standing in the way of the hemp industry maturing and becoming the most valuable addition to the U.S. agriculture system in the last 60-70 years.”

For Beegle, the most significant gap for cannabinoids is with the general public not having much knowledge of the substances that many of them are so staunchly against. He envisions a world where this crop is enjoyed and understood by all. “There is still much-needed education, particularly in non-cannabis-leaning states and countries. My work is focused on building the industry and promoting benefits of the industry—the plant for health, the planet, and the future.”

Graphic by Mollie McCoy

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