In Jackson County, Southern Oregon, a new agricultural product is suddenly growing everywhere. Hemp, a strain of the cannabis plant, has taken over as the most widely grown crop.
More acres of hemp are grown than agricultural land dedicated to what the region was once most famous for, pears and grapes, which are the second and third most prevalent agricultural commodities grown in the county.
Today more than 10,000 acres of hemp are grown in Jackson County, according to the most recent Oregon Department of Agriculture data. By comparison, acres of pears grown in the county amount to around 3,800 (2017 data) and grapes 2,850 (2017 data).
The explosive growth mirrors what is happening statewide. Today 62,000 acres of hemp are grown in Oregon overall, an astonishing 427% increase over acres grown in 2018.
“Hemp has taken over,” says Colleen Padilla, executive director of Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development, based in the county seat of Medford. The growth is not welcome by everyone. Padilla describes the crop as having a “polarizing” effect on the community.
A big concern of locals is that hemp is crowding out other agricultural products, such as pears and grapes. Members of the public are also bothered by the stench of the crop, as well as the large amount of water required to grow hemp. “There is concern about rights over water,” says Padilla.
Colleen Padilla, executive director of Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Photo: Jason E. Kaplan
Hemp is such a new crop that best practices for cultivating the product do not yet exist.
Hemp was effectively legalized nationally when the 2018 Farm Bill passed. The legislation removed hemp from a list of controlled drug substances. It also directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop a system in which states and Native American tribes submit plans to approve and administer hemp production in their areas.
The USDA aims to have regulations in place by the fall of 2019 to accommodate the 2020 planting system.
An environmental concern with hemp production is that growers use a lot of plastic on crops to suppress weeds and keep water in the soil. “Plastic is all you see until it grows,” says Padilla.
Best practices for growing hemp are under development. In June Oregon State University launched a hemp research center — the Global Hemp Innovation Center — which aims to meet the need for research-based understanding of how to efficiently and sustainably grow hemp and develop its use in new products.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture, which regulates industrial hemp, has no plans to restrict the number of applications it approves for growing the plant, despite concerns that it is crowding out other agricultural products.
“We have never told people what they can and can’t grow,” says Sunny Summers, cannabis policy coordinator for the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “This is the crop du jour.”
Most of the hemp grown in Oregon is used to for cannabidiol (CBD), the most common active ingredient in cannabis. Unlike marijuana, CBD by itself does not have a psychoactive effect.
While hemp can be used for a variety of products, such as textiles and as an alternative to gravel in concrete, its main use for CBD products “is where the money is now,” says Summers.
The strong growth in hemp is similar to that of marijuana shortly after the state legalized recreational use of the plant in 2015. Since legalization, the state has approved hundreds of licenses, which has ultimately led to oversupply of marijuana. This glut appears to be softening, and prices have started to go up.
The so-called Green Rush of cannabis production looks to remain a bone of contention in farming communities, which tend to skew socially conservative.
As hemp production continues to increase, rural communities will increasingly have to grapple with market forces that favor cannabis-derived products.