Can Industrial Hemp Save Rural Economies?

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may seem like an unlikely champion for an illegal substance, but the Kentucky Republican just added the legalization of marijuana’s non-psychoactive cousin, hemp, to the Senate farm bill. The industrial hemp business is increasingly seen as an economic savior and substitute for vulnerable industries like mining, especially in Colorado, one of the first states in the nation to make hemp legal at the state level.

For over a decade, Cory Colombo worked in farming and construction in the town of Nucla, Colorado. Now, he has a new job at Paradox Ventures.

I meet him inside a large greenhouse that’s chock full of baby hemp plants. Noisy, giant fans whir above to circulate the air.  He tells me they usually have rock music playing for the plants too. It makes them happier, he says.

Colombo’s family and community are steeped in the region’s older industries. His grandparents grew up in the town of Paradox and entered the mining industry in the nearby town of Nucla during the uranium boom. But the uranium and coal mining jobs that used to sustain the region have waned and the Tri-State power plant is set to close.

Cory Colombo
Credit Ali Budner / 91.5 KRCC
Cory Colombo

“That feeds a lot of families there in Nucla,” Colombo said, referring to the power plant and the mine. “My goal is that if I can get ten families in Nucla involved in hemp and save ten farms then I did my job.”

He says Paradox Ventures is making progress. Last year the operation started out with 50 hemp plants and this year they’re cloning and transplanting nearly 50,000.

Planting time is just around the corner.  Don Coram, the founder of Paradox Ventures, takes me out to one of their farms.

Coram is no ordinary farmer. He’s actually a Republican State Senator from Colorado. He represents mostly rural districts in the Western half of the state; communities like Columbo’s hometown of Nucla.

“I just saw what I thought was going to be an already devastated community and said, ‘You know I think if we can put this together, we can make it work,’” Coram said.

Coram actually sponsored the legislation that formally regulated industrial hemp in the state four years ago. Since then, Colorado has become the top producer of hemp in the country.

Senator Don Coram next to field ready for hemp planting
Credit Ali Budner / 91.5 KRCC
Senator Don Coram next to field ready for hemp planting

Thirty-five states have legalized it now and researchers have identified at least twenty-five thousand uses for hemp ranging from textiles to animal feed to medicine to something Coram hopes will become this area’s specialty: building materials.

Coram said you can make a shingle out of hemp that's 3/60ths of an inch thick, but has a 1,200 pound breaking point. “So the hail damage that you're getting on the roofs in Denver and northeast Colorado,” he said, “you could eliminate by putting that product on.”

For now, though, Coram is focused on cultivating plants that will yield cannabidiol --or CBD-- oil to get the business off the ground. CBD oil is used medicinally and has a higher market value than the fibrous material.

When I ask him how long he thinks it might take to establish the industry in the region so that it provides an actual economic opportunity for people losing those power plant jobs, he says maybe two years.

He acknowledges there have been obstacles. Water, for example. Hemp is a less thirsty crop than say, corn or wheat, but farmers have run into trouble with authorities for using federal water on a federally illegal crop. Coram fixed that last year with a law that says anyone with a legal water right here can use it anyway they want. But there are other obstacles to overcome.

For one, getting people on board to grow a plant related to marijuana.

Sandy Head is with the Economic Development Corporation in Montrose, Colorado. She grew up on a farm in this area and as part of her job here, she does promote the potentials of hemp. She even uses the CBD oil on her arthritic hands.  

“So I personally did not have a problem,” Head said laughing, “but I have wore myself out explaining it to a lot of people.”

Another very serious obstacle, said Head, is banking.

Since hemp is still considered a controlled substance on a federal level, Head said, “you can't get a bank loan to start up a company. And that's been a glitch.”

Industrial hemp plants also can’t legally surpass a .3% level of THC, the primary psychoactive component in marijuana. If it does, a farmer will have to destroy the crop. And there’s no insurance for that.

Paradox Ventures greenhouse
Credit Ali Budner / 91.5 KRCC
Paradox Ventures greenhouse

Finding workers can be problematic too. Hemp is still a very labor-intensive crop.

“One of our farmers that has sweet corn,” Head said, “checked to see if he could bring his migrant workers to work on the hemp and he can't. It will threaten his ability to have those visas to bring the workers in.”

Plus, Head said, in order to make the crop profitable, they have get processing facilities in place.

Right now, there are a handful of hemp processors in the state but only one in Montrose County. As it’s crop production grows exponentially, Paradox Ventures hopes to help open a processing facility in Nucla.

All in all, though, Sandy Head, has a measured view of what they can accomplish. “I don't think hemp is taking things by storm,” she said. “I think what it is is it's an option.”

It’s an option with quite a few strings attached. And the road to federal legalization of hemp could be a rocky one. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may have added hemp legalization to the senate’s version of the Farm Bill but that legislation has its own rocky path to navigate.   

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.