Growing hemp

From left, Rex Ruckert of PotentGrow, Salvatore Cucci of CK Harvest and Mike Leago of International Hemp Exchange, lead a panel discussion about growing hemp last year in Albany, Ore.

ALBANY, Ore. — Growing hemp is one thing, but making money in the industry poses an entirely different set of challenges for farmers.

Fortunately, Mike Leago, founder of the Colorado-based International Hemp Exchange, says there is plenty of support to help navigate a still-budding and unfamiliar marketplace.

Leago was part of a panel discussion April 12 at the Albany Regional Museum in Albany, Ore., covering a range of topics about hemp from best practices to marketing and selling biomass. About 30 people attended the presentation, organized by the International Hemp Exchange and PotentGrow, an organic fertilizer company in nearby Tangent.

"The hard part starts in six months," Leago told the room. "It's what do you do when it's ready to harvest."

Hemp is gaining significant ground in Oregon after it was legally defined as an agricultural commodity in the 2018 Farm Bill. House Bill 4060 established Oregon's industrial hemp program in 2016, and acreage more than doubled statewide between 2017 and 2018, from 3,400 to 7,800.

As of April 15, Oregon has 1,009 registered hemp growers and 295 registered handlers, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

In terms of climate and growing conditions, Leago said Oregon is the "clear-cut winner" for hemp. Oregon farmers are also in a unique situation, accustomed to managing a diverse range of specialty crops. Hemp especially has a close correlation to hops, Leago said, with similar harvesting, drying and extraction needs.

Most hemp is processed to derive cannabidiol, or CBD, from the plants, which boast a range of health benefits and can be used in products such as drinks, oils and cosmetics. But while the industry awaits larger customers to join the fray — Coca-Cola, for example, has reportedly been exploring the potential of CBD — Leago said the industry is currently dealing with a bottleneck of product.

Leago urged growers to plan ahead, lining up buyers in advance and consider options for storage to avoid paying outrageous premiums for drying, or settle for lower prices. The International Hemp Exchange is one such option, providing a network to connect growers with wholesale buyers and retailers across the country.

"Let's say everybody succeeds (growing) this season. there's going to be a lot of biomass on the market. Most of them are going to be first-time growers," Leago said. "You can get a leg up on them if you pay attention to what the buyer wants today."

CBD is expected to outpace all other cannabis markets. It is projected to hit $22 billion in value by 2022. Revenue potential could be between $15 and $30 per pound, with hemp yielding 1,500 to 2,500 pounds per acre, Leago said. 

The bottleneck will be shattered if and when major companies begin to embrace CBD. For example, Leago said if the shampoo industry added CBD to 3-5% of all products sold, it would require Oregon's entire hemp supply chain to feed the demand.

"We have just some whales that are lurking out there that are going to start showing their faces," he said.

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