Oregon officials eye hemp as a cash crop
By Eric Mortenson
PRINEVILLE, Ore. — With the federal government announcing it won’t crack down on states that legalized marijuana, it appears Oregon’s industrial hemp supporters will get approval to grow a crop they’ve long maintained can be used to make food, cosmetics, clothing and other items.
State agriculture Director Katy Coba said her department will establish a regulatory and certification process for those who want to grow and use hemp, which is low in THC, the material that makes marijuana smokers high.
It’s an ironic win for hemp supporters. They’ve long maintained hemp is different than its marijuana cousin, but the federal government classified them as the same thing — an illegal drug. In a late August memo, however, the U.S. Justice Department said it won’t prosecute marijuana cases in states that have legalized pot, such as Washington and Colorado. Because the Oregon Legislature legalized hemp in 2009, and the Justice Department views it as the same as pot, that means hemp is legal to cultivate and process in Oregon.
U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland, sent a letter to Coba and other state officials this week urging them to start the certification process.
Speaking to the Oregon Board of Agriculture, Coba said she’ll first double-check the feds’ position on hemp, but otherwise will propose a regulatory program to the 2014 Legislature.
In other business, the board heard an update on efforts in eastern Oregon to aid the recovery of sage grouse, which is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act, and to get rid of western juniper, which has greatly expanded its range at the expense of other vegetation.
Angela Sitz, with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, said government, ranchers and conservation groups are teaming up on programs to handle both problems. Cutting, burning or removing juniper, she said, will allow grouse habitat such as sage to regain territory.
Sage grouse habitat has been reduced to an estimated 56 percent of its historic range, Sitz said. Garth Fuller, eastern Oregon conservation director for the Nature Conservancy, said western juniper has spread to 6.5 million acres in the West, compared to 1.5 million acres about 130 years ago.
“That juniper got up and moved,” he said.
A panel of local farmers and ranchers spoke to the board about problems they encounter. Ray Sessler, a Prineville area rancher who is president-elect of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, urged the board to educate urban Oregonians about agriculture.
“They don’t understand what it takes to put a steak on a plate, or a loaf of bread,” he said.
Sessler said it’s crucial to inform the public.
“Rural economies depend upon agriculture,” he said. “If we don’t do everything we can to support those agricultural communities, they’re going to be gone.”
Board members also toured a water quality improvement project in the Dry Canyon area near Prineville.
t an Oregon Board of Agriculture meeting Wednesday,