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Local growers cash in on hemp

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Photo by Pat Sunderland Richard Muñoz views hemp as a "green" alternative to synthetic textiles and building materials. In addition to providing useful fibers, hemp seed also has high nutritional value and is touted for its therapeutic benefits.

Richard and Shirley Muñoz have been cooking with hemp oil and eating the nutrient-rich hemp seeds for their own health benefits -- Shirley to avoid blood pressure medication, and Richard to relieve pain and inflammation in his knees. The products are readily available at health food stores, imported from Canada or China.

So when the longtime farmers learned the cultivation of hemp would be allowed under state statutes, they began the registration process required through the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Richard tilled the ground and had it ready for planting in early spring. Then came the tough part -- finding hemp seeds to plant on their Peach Valley acreage. Because it's from the genus cannabis, importation of viable industrial hemp seed across state lines and country boundaries is illegal under the Federal Controlled Substances Act. After extensive research, they located half a pound of seed grown in Colorado.

Industrial hemp looks exactly like marijuana, but it has a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of no more than three-tenths of one percent on a dry weight basis.

The Industrial Hemp Program administered by the Colorado Department of Agriculture registers growers of industrial hemp and samples the crop to verify that the THC concentration does not exceed 0.3 percent. Before harvesting, the Muñozes sent off a dried sample that tested 0.1 percent. With notification to the ag department, they began harvesting their crop last week.

According to hemp.com, hemp fiber and seeds are incredibly valuable; hemp is often called a "cash crop." Hefting a bag of seed labeled Peach Valley Hemp, Shirley Muñoz pointed to her "bag of gold."

Hemp is a hearty plant and grows very quickly in very diverse soil conditions. With little information to guide him, Richard decided to plant and water his hemp seeds just like corn. Once the plants sprouted, they grew quickly. Because of the federal nature of pesticide regulations, few pesticides can be used on hemp. The Muñozes elected to forego spraying, but encountered few problems with pests -- until the birds started raiding the seeds just before harvest.

The Muñozes harvested their small crop by hand, lopping off the stalks and stacking them to dry. Once dry, they'll be cut, baled and sold. The leaves and seeds were separated out and will be sold separately, although Richard plans to use some of the seed to expand from his 1/3-acre experiment to five acres. The remaining seeds can be sold only to registered hemp growers in the state of Colorado.

The cultivation of hemp was once legal in Colorado, Shirley says, but an influential capitalist had it outlawed when his company began using synethetics as a replacement for hemp rope.

In addition to rope, hemp fiber is used in clothing, food and even building materials. Richard would love to see plastic baling twine replaced with biodegradable hemp. "You can feed your cows twine and all, because it goes back into the ground."

"You can make cereal out of hemp, and you can make the cereal box out of hemp ... all parts of the plant can be used," Shirley said.

The Muñozes are sold on the amazing hemp plant, and hope more farmers will begin growing crops.

"Talk about going green ... this could save our planet."

Another local grower, Jan VanDenBerg, says most of the state's hemp growers are concentrated in the Loveland, Greeley and Fort Collins areas, but last year more hemp permits were issued in Delta County than any county in Colorado. While commercial marijuana grow operations are not allowed in Delta County, there are no restrictions on hemp.

VanDenBerg grows hemp plants both indoors and out, breeding the plants carefully to maximize CBD, or cannabidiol, which is a naturally occurring constituent of agricultural/industrial hemp that's being touted for its therapeutic benefits. VanDenBerg said she uses medicinal hemp to boost her immune system, but those suffering from serious diseases such as cancer, epilepsy, Parkinson's and have also found medicinal hemp beneficial.

The product is not intended to be smoked, like marijuana, but is injested via oils or capsules. Extracting the oil from hemp plants typically involves butane, VanDenBerg said, but that process has become highly regulated and virtually impractical. The other alternative is CO2 extraction, which requires expensive equipment. Until she can afford to invest in that equipment, VanDenBerg said she will dry the flowers, then grind them and fill capsules. The leaves can also be ground up and eaten. She is in the process of setting up a website to distribute the final product under the business name Mountain Flower Botanicals.

The CBD levels will be tested in each batch, so buyers will know the potency of each capsule.

In addition to closely monitoring the CBD levels of her plants, VanDenBerg says she also keeps male plants in tents, to contain the pollen. That pollen, if set adrift on the wind, can destroy marijuana crops in the area. VanDenBerg said that scenario has created a great deal of conflict in Oregon, so she's doing her best to avoid that situation.

She also had difficulty locating seed, but said as more hemp is produced in Colorado, the seed supply will multiply. She has one final word of advice for potential hemp growers: Test the seeds before you plant. "Due to all the restrictions, there's a lot of bogus seed floating around," she said.

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