Rianna Meyer doesn’t like talking about herself. When prompted, she ticks off a list of milestones: joining the Air Force, becoming a firefighting captain, finding her way to the Antarctic by way of Thailand. Her words tumble out with quick cadence, ready to talk about her latest adventure: hemp farming.
If she was a record, you would probably want to pick the needle up and play that first part over a few times. Yes, she lived in Antarctica and worked as a firefighter in one of the coldest places on Earth for five years.
Now, she is the vice president of operations for SanSal Wellness’ Veritas Farm in Pueblo. SanSal is an agribusiness wellness company that operates the Veritas Farm from their headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The farm grows and processes on-site hemp products that include medicinal oils, lip balm and gummies.
Like with marijuana, Colorado entrepreneurs have been at the forefront of building up hemp as a viable undertaking.
The state cultivates the most hemp out of any state with 30,825 registered acres, according to the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Historically, between 60-70 percent of the registered acres are cultivated.
The state’s mix of a robust agricultural economy, hemp-friendly technology and scientific research on the plant are the key factors for Colorado’s success, said Hunter Buffington, executive director of the Colorado Hemp Industries Association.
“We are leading the country,” she said.
Cannabis’ lesser-known cousin
The cousin of cannabis that has negligible amounts of the high-inducing THC is projected to experience billion-dollar growth over the next few years. But a potential roadblock to the industry growth is the latest Farm Bill that is stalled in the legislative process in Washington, D.C.
The bill would fully legalize hemp farming, a practice that became a causality of cannabis prohibition. By Colorado law, hemp must contain less than 0.3 percent THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol), cannabis’ high-inducing compound.
The hemp industry saw its re-birth in 2014 when that year’s Farm Bill opened the door for its legal growth. The bill allowed cultivation for research purposes and allowed states to institute “pilot programs.” But hemp stayed, and as for now remains, a Schedule 1 drug along with heroin and ecstasy, the DEA’s highest classification.
In Colorado, 2014 was the year that Amendment 64 legalized cannabis and hemp, giving the state’s farmers a head start to grow the crop.
Hemp has more than 20,000 industrial applications, Buffington said. The plant’s by-products can be found in everything from veggie burgers to computer chips; one Colorado company even makes artisanal soaps infused with hemp extracts. But the biggest potential for growth is in medicinal applications. Cannabidiol (CBD) oil, extracted from hemp seeds, has been fashioned into pills, infused lotions and other over-the-counter products.
CBD has become the latest “wonder drug” to hit the market. Companies have touted the oil’s ability to ail a range of symptoms. But science has yet to back up many of the industry’s boldest claims, Derek Thomas, vice president of business development at SanSal Wellness, said.
“There is a lot of disinformation and misinformation out there,” Thomas said.
SanSal produces “full-spectrum” products, meaning they use more non-high inducing compounds than just CBD.
Since research on hemp has only been legal since 2014, much of the science is still being conducted. Thomas has heard everything from hemp being a cure for cancer to Alzheimer’s, unproven claims he feels could pigeonhole hemp oil products into being the next snake oil.
“There needs to be governing bodies that make sure the testing is standardized and efficacious,” Thomas said.
To grow hemp, farmers need to be a registered grower with the Colorado Department of Agriculture. The CDA only regulates the cultivation of the plant, with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment regulating the production and sale of hemp products.
Last summer, the the health department released new policy that hemp grown by registered farmers in Colorado can sell their plants for food consumption provided that it is labeled correctly and under 0.3 percent THC.
Federal law still bans hemp from being in food products, creating blind spots in the regulation of hemp’s growth.
Changing legal landscape
Passed on Election Day, Amendment X added a new regulation the state’s books that the legislature will have control over. The 0.3 percent limit of THC originally enshrined in the state constitution and will be moved to a legislative matter, giving lawmakers more leeway to shift the bar. The move was launched in anticipation of the federal government legalizing hemp and potentially setting different THC level requirements.
“Having the definition of hemp set in stone by the state’s constitution is inflexible,” Dr. Jon Vaught, founder and CEO of Front Range Biosciences, said.
But giving more control to legislatures could mean stricter regulations if opinion flips.
“Thus far (legislators) earned some credit for the work they’ve done to date, but healthy paranoia is good,” Vaught said.
While cultivation of hemp is spread out all across the state, some old mining towns on the Western Slope are finding new life with hemp.
“Boulder, Larimer, Delta County and Mesa County are four other counties that have a significant number of registrations,” Duane Sinning, director of the Division of Plant Industry at the state agriculture department said.
Joe Trenkle is a busy man these days. He operates 750 acres of bushy green plants in three farms across Colorado, two on the Western Slope in Rifle and New Castle and one south of Colorado Springs in Hanover.
Trenkle is the president and CEO of the All American Hemp Company, a hemp farm and soon-to-be processing company. He found farming late in life and has joined a growing scene of businesses leaders flocking to the new market.
His grandparents were wheat and corn farmers in Akron in northeast Colorado, but the farming gene skipped a generation over his parents, who worked in suburban Denver.
“It is a great time to be a hemp farmer,” he said.
For instance: Nucla farmers dry out their hemp in an old gymnasium, hemp farms are springing up around between wineries in Mesa County, and Montrose recently received a grant to grow their hemp industry.
“There are lots of economic opportunities in rural and agricultural areas,” Buffington, of the Colorado Hemp Industries Association, said.
Hemp is history
Hemp has been a part of the U.S. economy before the first drops of ink were put to the Declaration of Independence. In those days, hemp was one of the main sources of textile fiber, used mainly for rope, burlap and ship sail manufacturing, said Les Stark, a board member of Pennsylvania hemp industry council and hemp historian.
British imperial desires gave farms a wealthy and consistent consumer for hemp products. Farms near port towns continued to blanket swaths of the East Coast well past independence, Stark said.
There remained an “enormous and insatiable demand for hemp” throughout the country’s first 100 years, Stark said. Eventually, market forces and cheap cotton in the late 1800s pumped the breaks on hemp profitability. By 1937, the federal and state governments had lumped hemp in with the ban on cannabis.
But similarly to how hemp was lumped in with the prohibition of cannabis, it has seen a resurgence as popular opinion turns. Despite the added boost from the rise of cannabis, the history of the pro-hemp movement has been driven by farmers and entrepreneurs, Stark said.
“(Hemp) could be grown from one end of the country to the other,” He said.
With the latest Farm Bill, hemp advocates see a turning point for the industry. That turning point is personal for Meyer.
Her father was “consumed” by opioids and died before she started working in hemp. She wishes that she could have tried to help him with the products she now oversees the production of. With her father gone, she carries his memory on through the work she does.
“My whole family uses our product,” Meyer said.