TANGENT, Ore. — Large bales of tightly wrapped hemp sit in a barn outside Tangent, Ore., in the Mid-Willamette Valley, where brothers Justin and Jake Bordessa store this year’s crop until it can be dried and sold to one of a growing number of processors around the state.
Hemp production is on the rise in Oregon, with 584 growers and 212 handlers currently registered under the state’s Industrial Hemp Program. The program started in 2016, with 70 licensed growers and 53 handlers by the end of the year.
Now with the 2018 Farm Bill legalizing hemp at the federal level — opening farms to crop insurance, banking and interstate commerce — Justin Bordessa expects even greater demand that will require farms grow on a much bigger scale.
“Most people who are farming hemp right now, they’re doing it on 20-, 30-, 40- or 50-acre plots. There’s very few people doing 100- and 200-acre plots,” he said.
Realizing the challenges of growing hemp at scale, Justin and Jake together formed Hemp Ag Solutions in early 2017, providing farm services tailored to the young and still undeveloped industry.
For example, hemp is traditionally harvested by hand, taking days — if not weeks — to work through larger fields. At the same time, the crop must be hung and dried right away to ensure quality, limiting how much farms can capably grow without risking losses.
Hemp Ag Solutions combines mechanical harvesting and baling to efficiently manage large acreages. The company harvested 280 acres at nine farms this year in the Willamette Valley and Southern Oregon, along with 25 acres at the brothers’ own farm, where they test agricultural practices and plant genetics.
If farmers wanted to grow 100 acres of hemp on their own, Jake Bordessa estimates it would take an up-front investment of $750,000. Hemp Ag Solutions can greatly reduce the cost, he said, offering knowledge and resources to open the door for expansion.
“We’re trying to create structure among the Wild West within the industry,” Jake Bordessa said.
Justin and Jake Bordessa came to Oregon from California, where they grew up in Petaluma, an agricultural community surrounded by dairies, vegetable farms and vineyards in Sonoma County.
Working with their father at his construction company, Justin learned how how to build farm structures and later received his own contractor’s license. After California’s medical marijuana program started, the demand to build indoor growing systems peaked and became a good source of business after the housing crash.
Justin Bordessa said he became familiar with the process of growing cannabis through that experience. He was especially interested in the potential of hemp — a close cousin of marijuana, but with no more than 0.3 percent of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive component in cannabis that gets users high.
Hemp can be used to make materials like paper, fiber and plastic, though the bulk of demand now is driven by cannabinoid, or CBD, extract, which can be used to make a variety of hemp-infused products such as mints, drinks and oils. According to research from New Frontier Data, the U.S. CBD industry grew nearly 40 percent in 2017, reaching $367 million in sales.
Health claims for CBD include pain relief, lowering anxiety and depression and helping to reduce seizures.
“Right now, everybody is just growing for CBD,” Justin said. “But down the line, once that market is saturated and filled up, it’s going to open up people to be farming for the fibers. ... That’s what excites me, is getting to the building materials where they start building planks and boards out of hemp fibers and resins.”
Jake Bordessa went on to earn a degree in business economics from the University of California-Santa Barbara. He stayed in touch with Justin, and the brothers saw a business opportunity with hemp as a sustainable commodity with multiple uses that was quickly gaining federal support.
“As we saw the industry develop, we saw opportunity to bring our resources together,” Jake said.
House Bill 4060 created the Oregon Industrial Hemp Program in 2016, and one year later the state passed a law allowing processors to make CBD products. Around the same time, Justin and Jake were looking for land with the right combination of fertility, climate and water, landing on 178 acres in the Mid-Willamette Valley.
“Obviously the law was influential, but we considered all aspects,” Justin said. “Hemp likes the environment here.”
As Justin and Jake grew their first hemp crop in 2017, they quickly began to realize where the bottlenecks were to scaling up production.
The first year, Justin said it took them 40 days to harvest 13-14 acres by hand. Most of the region’s industrial dryers were also tied up during the fall with other crops, forcing them to leave 7 acres in the field.
“Now you’re panicking, because you spent all this money to grow this hemp and there’s nowhere to put it,” he said.
The solution, they determined, was in mechanization. This year, the brothers switched to using a forage harvester, which allowed them to cut down 25 acres in just 12 hours — a fraction of the time it took to hand-harvest. They also purchased an imported compactor, which compressed the crop into 700-pound bales without oxygen to prevent molding and decomposition.
Justin Bordessa said the equipment has been a “game changer,” allowing the crop to be quickly harvested, stored and available to dry 24/7.
“If you’re growing a hemp field and you walk through your acreage and you’re looking at it as hand-harvesting, you know there’s a limit to what you can grow,” Justin said. “Now you watch the machine go through the field and chop it, watching your harvest go down in hours, you realize this can be taken to the thousands of acres, where before there was no possible way for that to happen.”
Hemp Ag Solutions has also partnered with American Hemp Seed Genetics, of Salem, Ore., to perfect strains of hemp best suited to the environment and farming practices. Of 33,000 seed starts, they have since whittled it down to the four best plants and began growing clones this year.
Jerry Norton, the hemp breeder who founded American Hemp Seed Genetics, said he is excited about the partnership, and believes they are well-positioned to help grow the industry.
“It’s going to blow up,” Norton said. “And we’re positioned in Oregon pretty doggone good right now.”