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A haunted hemp harvest

Hemp’s ascendancy as Southern Oregon’s top crop came crashing down for some this season with at least four suicides, acres wiped out by mold and other catastrophes that turned fields of dreams into nightmares.

“I think it’s a wakeup call, and that nothing is easy,” said Michael Monarch, a local pioneer in the industry who is owner and founder of Oregon Best Hemp LLC and co-owner of Epic Family Farms.

Monarch said he’s familiar with one Applegate grower who committed suicide after mold destroyed his 20-acre crop.

The grower baled up the wet hemp in plastic bags but didn’t compress it to 2,200 pounds of pressure per square inch to push out all the oxygen to prevent it from rotting. Monarch said bagging hemp under pressure is a relatively common practice with some growers, and if done properly can keep the biomass fresh and mold-free until it can be processed.

“When the buyer showed up, they cut open a bag and black goo oozed out,” Monarch said. “He thought he made millions, and here he was standing in front of a disaster.”

Throughout Jackson County, there are acres and acres of abandoned and rotting hemp, a stark testament to the growers who went bust. Other growers saw old barns they had converted into makeshift drying sheds for their crops go up in flames.

Other problems encountered by hemp farmers this past season included lack of supplies, shortage of drying facilities, a lack of processing facilities and bug infestations, a situation that can get out of hand for novice growers.

Monarch said he’s heard many sad stories over the season.

One local grower had harvested 8 acres of flower that he had drying, but it rained and he didn’t use dehumidifiers to control the moisture and lost 80% to mold.

“The whole barn turned to completely gray fuzz,” he said.

Another person, who moved here from the East Coast, leased 20 acres from a local grower who had his own 10 acres of hemp next door. “The East Coast guy ran out of money, and he just walked away from it,” Monarch said.

The owner of the property tried to salvage as much as he could of the 20-acre crop.

Monarch estimates that more than 50% of growers will likely call it quits this season.

“It was all about dreamers, and people who thought they could do it better,” he said.

While some hemp growers hit a really bad patch this season, Monarch said he thinks the market will settle down and recover. He said cannabis flower took a downturn a few years ago as the market got flooded, but now it’s recovered.

Monarch has a 3-acre hemp farm, which he said is manageable with 10 full-time employees. He grows mostly for prized smokable flower, rather than the biomass market that fetches $30 to $50 a pound. He also has one acre of recreational cannabis.

Hemp University, an educational support organization for the hemp industry, hasn’t been able to calculate how many acres were lost to mold or other issues this season.

Sophia Blanton, Southern Oregon project manager of Hemp University, said she’s heard of many farms hit hard by mold, including one 400-acre Southern Oregon farm.

She said growers scrambled for supplies and materials, then scrambled again to get workers and drying facilities at harvest time.

“I find it very telling how euphoria can turn into regret,” Blanton said.

Labor was a major bottleneck, she said. There weren’t enough migrant workers this season, as people came in from Jamaica and Puerto Rico. Migrant workers sometimes earned $25 to $30 an hour, though it was typically $15 or more an hour.

As it stands, growers sometimes make less money from the green rush than do the equipment suppliers, Blanton said.

She said the situation was similar to the 1849 Gold Rush, when miners often made less than the businesses supplying equipment such as picks and shovels.

Still, many growers managed to make profits this season as veterans of the industry realized the steps needed to scale up.

But just as growers reeled from a particularly rough season, the United States Department of Agriculture dropped a bomb of sorts, proposing new rules in October that would make it difficult for hemp farmers to grow existing strains.

The USDA wants to use a different testing method that would make it more difficult for hemp growers to stay within the 0.3% THC limit. Farmers could face fines and see their entire crops destroyed, Blanton said. Currently, 0.3% level is attained by taking samples from an entire crop. The proposed new rules would require testing buds on top of the plants close to harvest time, and the tests would have to be conducted at a DEA-approved lab.

Almost all of the hemp grown in Southern Oregon this year was raised for CBD, or cannabidiol, which doesn’t produce the “high” of regular cannabis, which can have 15% or more concentrations of THC.

The proposed new rule is partially an outgrowth of concern from federal officials that hemp fields are concealing recreational cannabis crops.

The USDA’s proposed rules spurred a rally in White City on Saturday sponsored by Hemp University.

Hemp industry leaders have banded together to make lawmakers aware that the proposed rules could potentially damage the fledgling hemp industry in Oregon and other states.

Matt Ochoa, owner of Jefferson Hemp Exchange and Jefferson Packing House, works closely with hemp and cannabis growers by providing drying and distribution services. He’s seen first hand the problems in the industry.

Ochoa said many growers thought they could scale up their production and weren’t aware of the hard costs of preparing fields for the grow season.

“Most people looked at a few numbers, thought they’d get rich quick, and jumped into it,” he said.

Instead of calculating $8,000 to $20,000 an acre to prepare a field, he said many growers thought they could do it for $2,000 an acre. While $20,000 is the number cited by many industry leaders to prepare a field, some say that it might require another $20,000 per acre to harvest the plants and process them.

Some farmers who had planted an acre or two in 2018 with help from friends and family thought they could jump to 100 acres, but didn’t adequately calculate the costs needed to ramp up, Ochoa said.

As growers reeled from escalating costs, mold hit crops hard this fall, with some farmers losing anywhere from 30% to 100% of their crop, he said.

Oregon went from 11,000 acres planted in hemp in 2018 to more than 60,000 acres in 2019. Jackson County was the largest producer of any county in the state at 8,500 acres.

Ochoa has 250,000 square feet of hemp drying space in White City for growers, and another 20,000 square feet of recreational cannabis drying space, so he has a lot of firsthand knowledge from growers.

“Sixty percent of the people who planted this year won’t plant next year,” Ochoa predicted. “A lot of people are broke.”

Even so, he expects a new crop of people to enter the market next year, hoping to get rich quick.

At the start of this growing season, Ochoa said he expected trouble.

“I knew this season was going to be rough,” he said. “You have all these people jumping in, thinking it would be easy money. It was way past what we expected.”

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Sophia Blanton, with Hemp University, says it been a tough year in the Rogue Valley for hemp growers. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune