Hemp Being Explored as a New Farm Crop in Sonoma County

Written By: Brytann Busick
Published: April 1, 2020

Some farmers are looking at hemp as potential cash crop to bolster revenues on their family land 

Dr. George Sellu is an agriculture instructor who led the Santa Rosa Junior College’s effort to become the first community college in California to develop a hemp agriculture program. The hemp program brings together courses from the horticulture, sustainable agriculture and plant science programs at SRJC. Sellu said that the hemp program provides hands-on opportunities and training for students and provides knowledge and skills for Sonoma County Farmers to diversify their farming operations and increase their revenue with hemp cultivation. 

The hemp program at Santa Rosa Junior College is exploring several research questions related to best agronomic practices for hemp cultivation in Sonoma County. Sellu collaborates with other hemp researchers from universities across the country to examine research questions that address the knowledge gap for farmers and future employees in this emerging industry in Sonoma County. 

On January 6, 2020, Sonoma County Supervisors unanimously agreed that the County should treat hemp, which, is a federally legal agricultural crop, and lifted the ban on commercial hemp cultivation. Hence, hemp can now be cultivated in agricultural zones in Sonoma County. 

Sellu said that there are two main types of hemp (flower/CBD Hemp and fiber/industrial hemp) and it is important for people to know the differences. In the midwestern US, a lot of farmers are experimenting with dual and tri hemp crops. Farmers growing a dual crop can harvest hemp flower, extract the oil and harvest the seeds for livestock feed.

“The majority of hemp farmers in California are currently growing hemp for CBD,” Sellu said. “The largest total hemp acreage in the United States will be planted with fiber hemp.” 

However, in Sonoma County, because real estate is so expensive, Sellu said that many people are trying to grow hemp for CDB oil because it yields the highest revenue per acre compared to fiber hemp.

According to Sellu, California farmers do not have enough hemp processing facilities and therefore, a lot of farmers shipped their hemp out of state for processing in 2019 and this decreased their overall farm revenue. He also stated that CBD hemp is a lot more difficult and expensive to cultivate compared to fiber hemp. 

That is why Sellu thinks that although the dollar value for fiber hemp is much lower than hemp for CDB oil, grain or hay farmers are better suited for fiber hemp cultivation and the learning curve is not as steep as cultivating CBD hemp. Fiber hemp can be harvested and baled using similar implements used in grain or hay cultivation. He suggests that dairy farmers could convert some of their hayfields into fiber hemp as a means to supplement their income.

To drive this point home, Sellu explained that a typical wheat farmer earns approximately  $500 per acre and fiber hemp earns between $1,000-1,500 per acre, and for some farmers, this makes the difference between staying in business or selling their ranch. 

Another benefit of fiber hemp is that it can be baled and stored for a long time like hay in a barn. Fiber hemp has less risk of spoilage associated with it compared to CBD hemp. However, Sellu said that farmers need to grow at least 10 acres to break-even. However, in Sonoma County the Hemp Ordinance requires that farmers can only plant feminized seeds or clones to control the potential pollination of other hemp farms. Unfortunately, most of the fiber seeds on the market are not feminized. 

Growing hemp for CDB, however, is much more profitable on a small scale but also more challenging. Sellu said farmers who are thinking about jumping into the CBD arena need to secure a buyer and to start with good genetics. Today, most of the hemp genetics used in the U.S. came from Canada or Europe. Now that hemp is federally legal the industry will develop new breeding programs. 

According to Sellu, Europe and Canada have been breeding and growing fiber hemp for decades, while hemp hasn’t been grown on a large scale in the U.S. since the 1930s. As such, there is a lack of stable genetics and knowledge about hemp cultivation. 

Sellu explained that CBD hemp and Cannabis physically look the same and have the same odor. However, CBD hemp is distinguished from Cannabis by the percent of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The Federal guideline requires that the THC content in CBD hemp should be no more than three-tenths of a percent (0.3%). If your CBD hemp is non-compliant, it will be destroyed.  This is why Sellu said that it is crucial for any farmer interested in growing hemp to purchase seed or clones from a credible source.

To identify reliable sources of plant materials, contact your local the Ag Commissioner or local Cooperative Extension Office and they can help you find credible places to buy seeds or clones. Sellu suggests that it is important to ensure that farmers receive a Certificate of Analysis (CoA) for CBD hemp plant material. The CoA should provide among others the percentage of CBD and THC in the seed or clone. 

Joey Archer is the Director of Agricultural Sales for Hemp Depot and owner of the Hemp General Store, which is a retail store in downtown Petaluma. He served on Sonoma County Ag Commissioner Tony Linegar’s Hemp Advisory Group and sells seedlings, clones, and feminized seed and regular seeds directly to farmers.

He said that the hemp industry as a whole is still in its infancy but that he is excited about its potential for growth in Sonoma County largely because of the strength of the Sonoma County brand in the marketplace.

“The Sonoma County brand is valuable when it comes to hemp, whether for flower, oil or biomass,” Archer said. “Whether it is food, wine, specialty products, or hemp products, if Sonoma County is on the label, then it is perceived as a premium product by consumers and has an advantage on the shelf.”

Archer said that he thinks the Sonoma County brand, which is known for premium products in many including the cannabis industry, will translate well into the hemp market. Biomass will be another opportunity.

“In the short term, people farm hemp for oil, which will make a high profit,” Archer said. “However, as time goes on I think there will be a market for everybody, we just need the infrastructure to catch up.”

He said that growing hemp for flower is more challenging than growing for fiber so he recommends starting small with just an acre. Sellu expressed a similar sentiment.

“If you have thousands of acres, you don’t have time to check on every single plant, which is necessary when growing hemp for flower,” Sellu said. “However, growing one acre of CDB hemp, which is easier to manage and process on a small scale, would be more fitting.”

Archer said that there has been an over-farming of CBD hemp for CBD isolate, which is used by manufacturers to make consumer goods. Archer stated that the price of CBD isolate dropped from $15,000 in 2015 to $5,000 last year. Now, it is down to $800 to $900 per kilo. Still, Archer said that growing hemp would be more profitable than other crops on similar ground.

Archer is also excited about hemp’s other uses. 

“You can monetize the entire plant,” Archer explained. “Although the flower has the highest value, the stalk of the plant also has tremendous value and is often being left in the field after harvest.” 

Sellu said that in the long term, he predicts that secondary uses of hemp will grow and this will lead to an increased demand for fiber hemp cultivation. He stated that fiber hemp is currently being used for textile, construction material, rope, packaging material, insulation, ceiling tiles, and so many more things, which is promising for fiber hemp farmers.

Sellu quipped, there is only so much CBD that you can sell. On the other hand, as long as we are building houses and packaging materials and wanting to become more environmentally sustainable as a society, alternative uses of hemp fiber will continue to emerge. He continued, by posing the question: What do you think would happen to the demand for fiber hemp if Amazon decides to make all their packaging from hemp? 

Sellu said that we wouldn’t have near enough hemp planted to supply the demand. 

He said that we currently lack the infrastructure needed, but that as long as we as a society keep building things, the demand for such products won’t go away.  

Overall, Sellu said that barriers including processing and converting acreage will take time to overcome as more join the industry and see potential for long term profit. The main barrier, he said, though is stigma and negative associations because hemp is often confused with cannabis because of its similar look and smell. Ultimately, Sellu said that more education is needed to increase public understanding and awareness.

One way Sellu is helping to usher hemp cultivation into the everyday agricultural arsenal is through his curriculum at Santa Rosa Junior College. When he is not traveling across the country as a hemp researcher or consultant he is bringing real-world examples into the classroom for his SRJC students. 

“I am gathering information from other research institutions doing cutting edge work with hemp across the country as well as collecting data here at SRJC,” Sellu said. “It is exciting to bring current information into the classroom for my students and valuable information to our local farmers.”

Sellu said he cares about this work because he wants to help keep farmers farming and is passionate about educating people about hemp.

“Hemp is a crop that can easily be added into most farmers’ cropping plan,” Sellu said. “I don’t see hemp as a get rich quick scheme, but as an opportunity for farmers who are already working 14 hours a day to make a bigger profit, to keep their land in agriculture, and to keep farmers farming for generations.”

He and his students are learning about the best practices for growing CBD hemp so that farmers know what the best planting distance is, how much water and nutrients are required, and how to manage diseases. 

Carlo “Carlito” Berg, whose family has 500 acres along Highway 37, worked with the Sonoma County Agriculture Commissioner to receive a research exemption, which Dr. Thomas Azwell at the UC Berkeley College of Environment Sciences utilized to study hemp’s productivity in Berg’s marginal soils during the hemp moratorium.

“I see hemp cultivation as a way to make our land more productive and sustainable long term,” Berg said. “The problem with our land is that it has clay soil and high salinity. There aren’t a lot of plants that will grow in those soil conditions. We can dry farm oat hay, but not a much else.”

Berg, who started the project in earnest about 9 months ago, said that he didn’t want to go in guns blazing, but wanted to do it in a measured way, adhere to Sonoma County regulations, and ensure he was doing things the right way to set us up for success in the future. 

Ultimately, he saw hemp cultivation as a great opportunity and as the beginning of a new era. 

“Now we have the opportunity to see what hemp is fully capable of,” Berg said. “You hear about all of its potential uses like hempcrete, paneling, installation, and more. Now we get to find out, which will be the fun part.”

Berg talked to Patagonia, several construction materials companies, food companies, and a Korean skincare conglomerate, all of which currently have a large need for hemp fiber and other hemp derivatives. 

Despite the many opportunities for industry growth, Berg stressed the importance of starting small and having a contract in place.

“Although Berkeley has proven hemp’s viability in our difficult soil, we aren’t going to go out and plant 100 acres at once,” Berg said. “We are going to start small, get best practices together, and then see about scaling up in the future.”

He said that unlike many crops, you can get multiple turns of hemp each year, which means that farmers can test the process and refine it over a short amount of time before making progressively larger investments. 

“So far we have done test plots and plan to do an acre this year,” Berg said. “We are still in the research and development phase and it’s important that we do it right before scaling up.”

He said that while there is still a lot to learn, that the future goal is to increase his land’s productivity and support the local agriculture industry. 

“I look at hemp as another way to bring prosperity to all the stakeholders of Sonoma County including the land, which we all want to remain in productive and sustainable agriculture for the long term,” Berg said. “So, if you can have a crop like hemp that, because of its demand profile for the foreseeable future, can be good for local industry, the economy, and environment over the long term, that is unequivocally a good thing.”

Perspectives from Sonoma County Ag Commissioner Andrew Smith

We want to do everything we can to ensure that industrial hemp is treated like any other legal agricultural commodity and that it offers agricultural practitioners a viable opportunity for diversification of their operations and a way to stabilize farm incomes. This crop presents vegetable farmers with an additional commodity to incorporate into their crop rotations and provides field crop producers with an opportunity to cultivate this crop in the place of a grain or hay crop or to rotate between these types of crops. While there is still research necessary in the area of dual-use hemp crops it has been hypothesized that hemp offers farmers an opportunity to produce a flower (cannabinoid oil) crop and a feed/fodder or alternate-use (fiber, bioplastics, animal bedding, etc.) crop. 

I think we could see somewhere around 200 acres countywide and that these crops would likely be planted in predominantly extensive agricultural zoning districts. Depending on processing and other supply chain build-out throughout the state we could see increases in planted acreage in subsequent years. The real bottleneck in the supply chain at this point in time is large scale processing facilities for drying and oil extraction in Northern California

The Sonoma County Department of Agriculture Weights and Measures will begin accepting registrations for hemp cultivation at the end of April, as the Ordinance will go live on May 1st, 2020. Anyone wishing to cultivate industrial hemp in the County of Sonoma must register with CDFA through the County Department of Agriculture and submit additional documentation to satisfy the requirements of the industrial hemp ordinance. 

Registration must be approved before planting any industrial hemp as required by state regulation and any planting before registration is approved could result in crop destruction. There are separate registration pathways for cultivators and for breeders of novel cultivars, and those wishing to grow and sell hemp nursery stock will be required to obtain a nursery license from CDFA.

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