A heightened emphasis on seed-free flowers in Oregon’s hemp industry, combined with booming crop acreage, is causing legal conflicts among growers over cross-pollination.
The industry’s focus on generating cannabidiol — a compound known as CBD touted for its healthful qualities — has fueled demand for female hemp flowers, which generate the substance in greater abundance.
Male flowers, meanwhile, not only contain less CBD but their presence can degrade the quality of female flowers if they become pollinated and prioritize growing seeds over producing the compound.
For that reason, inadvertent pollination of hemp crops between neighbors has spurred litigation alleging large financial losses from drifting pollen.
“You have the right to farm, but you don’t have the right to destroy your neighbor’s opportunities,” said Seth Crawford, whose Jack Hempicine seed company is pursuing a lawsuit accusing nearby hemp growers of negligence, nuisance and trespass for pollination from a mixed crop of male and female plants.
Such disputes are partly the result of the hemp industry’s surging growth in Oregon, where production has increased from 100 acres to more than 60,000 acres in five years. A huge spike in acreage corresponds with a rush to make seeds available.
“The number of seed vendors that have popped up because they see money is incredible,” said Crawford.
In some cases, people who aren’t actually hemp breeders have misrepresented their seeds as “feminized” — capable of only sprouting female plants — even though they weren’t grown with that technique, said Courtney Moran, an attorney and president of the Oregon Industrial Hemp Farmers Association.
“There are males popping up in fields that people weren’t prepared for,” she said.
Only non-feminized seed is available for some strains of hemp, but growers can then “rogue out,” or eliminate, the male plants from the females once they begin to flower, said Barry Cook, founder of the Boring Hemp Co. in Boring, Ore.
Growing seed traditionally, without the feminization technique, is easier for breeders, but some farmers plant the mixed seed without considering the impact on neighbors, he said.
However, if a market develops in Oregon for hemp fiber and oilseeds — used for crushing rather than planting — farmers will have to plant both males and females out of necessity, Cook said. “I think it could potentially complicate things.”
While growers can pay a great deal of attention to individual plants to maximize CBD in female flowers, it’s tough to apply the same level of scrutiny to large fields of hemp, said Jay Noller, hemp leader at Oregon State University.
“It’s a scale issue,” he said.
In Oregon, there is a valuable market for smokable hemp flower that’s completely seed-free and has made some growers particularly cautious about exposure to pollen in recent years, said Cook. “That’s where you’re probably seeing more of the pressure coming.”
Eventually, farmers in Oregon may decide that increasing efficiency and yields with mixed male-female fields is worthwhile, even if it does reduce the flower’s CBD content, said Jerry Norton, founder of American Hemp Seed Genetics, based in Portland, Ore.
“If you chop it all up anyway, what’s the difference?” he said.
For now, though, the industry’s focus on seed-free flower means that farmers should be careful to acquire their genetics from reputable dealers, Norton said. “It’s really buyer beware. Who are you getting your seed from, and what are they telling you?”
Even when growers are careful to use feminized seed, an occasional hemp plant will emerge with male flowers that generate pollen and result in unwanted seeds, said Crawford of Jack Hempicine.
The solution is for growers to walk their fields with a trained eye to weed out the males that may spring up, he said.
To protect against unscrupulous dealers, growers also want to eventually rely on OSU-certified seed to ensure they’re getting what they paid for, he said.
Crawford is also involved in a nonprofit organization, the Oregon Cannabis Pinning Association, that’s devising a pinning map to help maintain isolation distances between hemp fields and prevent cross-pollination.
“We’re trying to provide it as a way to initiate conversation between farmers, because that is the only way this is going to work,” Crawford said.
A new company, Willamette Valley Assured, is providing an inspection service to find and remove male flowers from within hemp fields.
“Seeing this rapid increase, we know there’s a need for a third-party quality control service,” said Mike Baker, the company’s founder and an executive at the Pennington grass seed company.
The company’s business model follows that of similar firms in the grass seed industry, which commonly relies on third party services to monitor and place acres, Baker said.
As the company becomes aware of hemp fields, it can also coordinate such information among farmers to ensure quality, he said.
“It’s all rapidly developing,” Baker said of the hemp industry. “These new opportunities don’t come around very often.”