Activists cheer the prospect of growing industrial hemp in Oregon, pointing out its numerous uses in food, fiber, oils and even building materials. But the state’s farmers like to inspect the bandwagon before jumping on, and it’s unlikely they’ll plant hemp anytime soon.
“I don’t think anyone’s even considering it at this point,” said Russ Karow, chair of the Crop and Soil Science Department at Oregon State University.
There doesn’t appear to be any lingering concern that industrial hemp will be confused with its illegal cousin, marijuana. Instead, Oregon farmers will be looking at the balance sheet, not the rap sheet. With wheat prices decent and grass seed on the rebound, large conventional operators aren’t interested. Other farmers would need answers to questions about irrigation, harvest equipment and market infrastructure.
At this point, the most likely hemp cultivation will be on small farms, perhaps as a high-value specialty crop, Karow said. Some farmers may try it as an experimental rotation with other crops.
Karow recently provided a hemp briefing paper to U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland, who is an outspoken advocate of industrial hemp’s legalization and potential uses. Although there is great enthusiasm for hemp among non-farmers, Karow and others point out some potential hurdles.
Karow said there was similar excitement a few years ago about growing flax for fiber or oil, but the market didn’t materialize as expected. Farmers are “going to want some assurance there is absolutely a market there” before growing hemp, he said.
Hemp grown for fiber could do well in the Willamette Valley, but it would need summer irrigation to produce a more valuable seed crop, Karow said. In addition, the valley’s cool nights and clay soils would hinder production. The best places in Oregon to grow hemp would be in the Hermiston and Treasure Valley areas of eastern Oregon, which have warmer growing days, Karow said.
Philip Hamm, director of OSU’s Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Hermiston, said he’s not heard of anyone interested in growing hemp.
“Given that nearly anything can grow in this area, it all comes down to likely a few issues,” Hamm said in an email. “How much profit is involved — can it be grown instead of what they are currently growing for a larger profit — how does it fit their rotation, and maybe if there has been test plots showing yield results.”
A 1998 study by OSU said hemp has never been commercially successful in Oregon. Some was grown in the 1890s, and field trials were done in the 1930s, but the latter did poorly and the program was transfered to Wisconsin in 1937. War Hemp Industries Inc. built fiber mills in the Midwest during World War II, but after the war they faded in favor of cotton.
The Oregon Legislature legalized hemp cultivation in 2009, but the law was never implemented because the U.S. Department of Justice classified hemp the same as marijuana. Industrial hemp is low in THC, the agent that makes pot smokers high.
The current revival of interest in hemp stems from a decision in August by the justice department, which said it will not prosecute cases in states such as Washington and Colorado that have legalized pot. The U.S. attorney for Oregon said that means hemp is legal as well, because it was classified the same as pot.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture is appointing a committee — Karow of OSU is a member — to draw up rules for hemp cultivation. The law passed by the Legislature requires all growers and handlers to get a license from the ag department, and said hemp fields have to be at least 2.5 acres. Ag inspectors would be allowed to take plant samples and test for THC levels. The cropwide average could not exceed .3 percent; pot has THC levels ranging from 5 percent to 20 percent, according to various sources.
On the other hand, hemp has done well in Canada, where growers took advantage of the U.S. drug policy prohibition and supplied makers of foods, lotions, makeup, clothing and other items. Hemp grows well in the prairie provinces of Canada, especially Manitoba. Although farther north than Oregon, the provinces and the upper U.S. Midwest have warmer growing seasons, especially nighttime temperatures.
A Canadian research paper said that nation’s hemp seed exports to the U.S. increased 300 percent from 2006 to 2007, and fiber exports increased 65 percent. Canadian growers are clearly concerned about losing business if the U.S. begins producing industrial hemp.
“Production at any scale could lead to significant potential losses of existing U.S. customers,” the paper concluded.