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Four generations of the Murdoch family are growing hemp and loving it

Remember the good old days of the family farm, where kin of all generations showed up each day to plow, plant, weed, water and harvest crops and share in the fruits (biological and financial) of their labors — and the sense of security and community that brought?

We’ve lost most of that to urbanized living and corporate ag — but, say the Murdochs of Jacksonville, hemp is helping their family bring it back.

It’s a crop with the potential to do a lot of good in the world, so demand is high, and the long labors on their 15 acres have brought together a family that might have followed careers elsewhere, says Paul Murdoch.

On a recent Saturday, his family was taking time off from their “day jobs” to tend their plants, strolling the fields and culling the males, which produce pollen that causes female plants to make seed and stop flowering.

The family includes his dad (a retired physician), wife, Whitney, their son and two daughters and their partners, along with a fourth generation of toddlers and babes in backpacks.

“This is farming, so it’s hard,” says Paul. “It’s a huge focal point for our family. We’re all psychologically invested, and we all share in the profit. It’s really been a unifying experience, and we’ve all grown a lot closer.”

With a chuckle, he notes everyone adores the big Sunday brunches and joyful, group-created dinners on the farm, but it’s far from the top-down business model with workers who obey the manager’s plans.

“We’re all very opinionated and love to argue about how to do it.”

Whitney chimes in, “Big fights! But we work through everything, because the plants don’t care. They need work right now — and there is no roadmap for hemp farming. This is new, and we’ve been figuring it out for three years. And at the end of the day, hey, we wander up to have beer on the patio, like ranch hands coming up to the ranch house for dinner. It’s great!”

The historical family farm of old had lots of kids, also known as free labor, but, says Paul, that got so “it didn’t pencil out” and the offspring migrated to city jobs. However, “hemp is a good revenue producer. Still, I fear this will go the same way as so many crops, with thousands of acres. What gives us (small family operations) a seat at the table is that people care about the source, how it’s grown, cultivated, treated. I’m touched there are a fair number of 10- to 40-acre farms who care how they treat plants.”

The Murdochs own Gary West Meats in Jacksonville, purchased from family members from the previous generation, themselves descended from pioneer ranching, farming and logging folk of the Applegate. Their love of family-on-the-land is literally in their blood, and they got savvy about how to trod carefully in the present “green rush” of hemp.

In the world of hemp, three successful years have made the Murdochs seasoned authorities on the specialized art of this crop — and they claim a deeply ingrained ethic from old-style family farming, that you have a duty to share information and help neighbors and community, not compete with them.

To this end, Paul has posted how-to videos and mentors visitors who come to see how the family does it — weed control, drying room, water-stingy drip tape, biodegradable mulch, pests. It’s a work in progress, and “we’re always testing” in search of what works and is affordable.

The family named its operation Horn Creek Hemp Co. “Located just outside Jacksonville, Horn Creek flows from John’s Peak through what was once an ancient lake,” according to the farm’s website, www.horncreekhemp.com. “The sandy loam of that lake bed is ideal for cultivation of organic high-CBD hemp plants. Healthy soil and healthy ecosystems support healthy crops. Natural predatory insect populations ride herd on others that might harm our plants. We maintain untouched enclaves where good bugs can thrive and do their work by night.”

Having heard many stories of struggle from neophyte hemp farmers, the Murdochs shake their heads, with Whitney saying, “I ask them how many kids they have. If it’s five kids, I say get five acres. A lot of people are investing big money, but it’s such a challenge because they don’t have the skill or experience.”

Paul adds, “People look at this opportunity and think, well, more acres is better. They get it in the ground, but getting it out of the ground is another story. They run out of money, labor, resources and luck with Mother Nature.”

Whitney adds, “100,000 acres? That’s not real for people. That’s why we see them with all this debt hanging over you. Not to discourage people — you’re just not going to cut it all down and sell in on the corner the next day.”

“It’s a harsh lesson,” notes Paul. “We have a lot of visitors, and they fall in two categories: savvy farmers who want to share information with each other and, second, people overwhelmed by the plants. They want to see the equipment, the drying room, and their eyes glaze over and they say holy smoke.”

Whitney says, “The lesson is: work your way up. Start with a small, manageable plot and learn the plants and procedures. Any one of those procedures, if done wrong, can destroy you. Disaster happens fast in large-scale farming.”

Her rule number one is: get your soil tested first. If it was sprayed with DDT in the prime days of pear orchards, that chemical in degraded form is probably going to show up, making the soil tainted for hemp.

The couple say they have to deal with cannabis prejudice, that it “brings in the riff-raff,” — as well as viable complaints about smell and plastic mulch — but the Murdochs believe in the overall good of the plant, including the vast amount of carbon dioxide it sucks from the atmosphere.

Paul displays a long gash on his leg, now healed, noting he was prescribed opioids, which just masked the pain. CBD ointment was another story.

“I rubbed it on the first time and a half-hour later, y’know how it’s hard to notice the absence of pain. Well, that’s what happened. I realized it didn’t hurt.”

The family planned to begin selling hemp salve — made right on the farm — through its website this fall.

“We have been selling salve to friends and family,” Murdoch said. “We had to get an ODA hemp handlers license and refine the recipe in order to be able to sell processed products commercially.”

The salve sells for $15 per ounce and comes in 1-, 2- and 4-ounce bottles, with 2,000 mg of CBD per ounce.

As the crop gets a name in our society, more and more people, notes Whitney, are turning to CBD for serious ailments, including anxiety, depression, inflammation.

“It’s allowing us to create a farm economy,” she adds. “If it weren’t under production with hemp, it would be dry, dead and fallow, full of stickers, waiting for more houses to be built on it.

“I got to grow up on a farm in the Applegate, with pigs, cows, wheat, and dad had Gary West Meats. It skipped a generation, and the kids now in their 20s and 30s, the millennials, don’t have the farm experience, but they’re diving right in and learning the farm life.”

Paul Murdoch checks out the growth of hemp plants on his family’s farm. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
Four generations of the Murdoch family show up on work days at the farm. Courtesy photo