According to the Colorado Department of Agriculture, the regulatory agency for the cultivation of industrial hemp, nearly 1,200 acres have been registered for the growth of hemp in Delta County. An additional 104,282 square feet of indoor space is registered for hemp.
Ty Odle, Western Slope Extractions, reports that acreage might have been higher had growers not faced the uncertainty of water to irrigate their crops this year. "The drought kept quite a few people from growing, knowing they would likely run out of water early," Odle said.
Located on Rogers Mesa, Western Slope Extractions is one of several hemp processing facilities in Delta County.
Odle started his business a year and a half ago with the goal of providing a local option for growers looking for someone to extract CBD oil from their hemp. "There's a lot more hemp being grown this year ... a lot more than last year, and I think it's here to stay. The demand for CBD products is growing fast."
So fast, Odle says, he and his three employees could be selling more oil to clients who are looking for large quantities.
He explains there are two sides to hemp. The first is fiber, for which farmers need to grow hundreds of acres. Because hemp can be labor intensive, no one in Delta County is into that kind of volume yet, he said. Then there are the high CBD strains used to produce salves, tinctures and gel caps.
Harvest will be ramping up throughout the month of September, with the peak occurring in October. Odle explains the hemp is harvested by hand, after the grower has verified the delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration does not exceed three-tenths of one percent (0.3%) on a dry weight basis.
After the plants are harvested, they're dried and stripped of the buds and leaves, which are sent to a processing facility like Odle's. Some processors buy the product outright; others do a split, meaning they keep a portion of the oil in exchange for their services.
Most new growers -- meaning most of the folks Odle works with -- don't have the contacts to sell their oil once it's been extracted, so he helps with that aspect as well. He also provides a "white label" program, making retail products for the growers to sell themselves.
Mike Mason counts himself as one of the growers who is still learning and expects to keep learning as the hemp industry changes "before our very eyes."
"The demand for CBD oil is through the roof," Mason said. "The processors can't get enough."
He said he's been visited by a processor from the Front Range, and from California investors who would like to help him expand his operation. But he's content to grow his operation slowly, learning as he goes and keeping risk at a minimum.
"If you want to do this, do an acre," he recommends. "That's more than enough to get your feet wet. Learn with that before you commit to 40 acres."
Mason said five acres is as large as he's willing to go, due largely to the cost of plants but also taking into account how labor intensive hemp can be.
He said he wound up pulling weeds by hand, so next year he'll be looking for an easier option. Some growers lay down plastic in the rows between plants, but he's seen the wind pick up the plastic, along with the drip system, and whip it around through the plants.
While hemp can be very hardy, there are big risks. Seeds are hard to come by and may have unknown THC levels; clones can run $5 apiece. You can put too much nitrogen on your plants and wind up killing them. When it comes to finding someone to refine your product, you have to find a reputable handler. "There are definitely risks involved," Mason said, "but the biggest is keeping the right THC balance."
He and other growers would like to see the THC level raised to 1 percent. "Then almost all varieties would pass and we wouldn't have to harvest early," Mason said, explaining that the higher the THC, the higher the level of CBD oil.
There's currently a lot of research going into plant varieties, with the goal of keeping the THC low while maximizing the CBD levels. The latest thing from Oregon is a variety known as "cherry wine," a variety that Mason plans to start indoors over the winter. "There's a whole lot of energy going into hemp, and what you can do with it," he said.
So why is CBD oil in such high demand?
"It's growing by leaps and bounds because it's so effective," Mason said.
"My personal experience is having had stage four renal cell caricinoma. The oncologist prescribed narcotics for the intense pain. CBD oil allowed me to reduce the amount of narcotics to control the pain."
CBD oil is also touted as an effective treatment for anxiety and depression, inflammation from arthritis, sleep disorders ... even acne (healthline.com).
"There has to be something to it or the demand would not have skyrocketed," Mason said. "And all of this is without massive advertising campaigns, just word of mouth."