Hemp, quinoa showing promise
as drought persists
by Mark Obmascik
for The Citizen
WHEN Dion Oakes wanted to start growing hemp in the San Luis Valley, he had to learn about irrigation, fertilizer, and growing seasons.
One unexpected thing on his to-do list: He had to convince his future father-in-law that he wasn’t a druggie.
“He said, “You’re a pothead and you want to marry my daughter?” Oakes said. “He laughed, but then he did a lot of research. This is totally different from growing marijuana.”
Today Oakes, 27, is happily married and one of the San Luis Valley’s largest growers of industrial hemp. Home life has been easier than hemp markets, which held much promise when Oakes started growing in 2014 but crashed in recent years. Still, Oakes believes the future is bright for hemp in the Valley.
“You can grow it as a main crop or a rotational crop – as a green or a fiber or a seed stock,” said Oakes, a Sargent High School graduate who now helps lead Wright-Oakes LLC near Center, which has grown between 1,000 and 3,000 acres of industrial hemp in recent years. “It can be an excellent tool for farmers to have in the toolbox.”
As the San Luis Valley faces significant water cutbacks because of drought, state court orders, and climate change, farmers increasingly are seeking alternative crops for a drier era of agriculture. Local growers have the expertise, but they need new ways to put it to use.
Thirsty crops in a dry land: The Valley has historically grown hay and potatoes. Quinoa requires 30 to 50 percent less water than traditional crops. Hemp can be grown with six inches of irrigation per season, while potatoes need up to 24 inches.
The traditional money crops of the San Luis Valley – potatoes and hay – are extremely thirsty. Farmers increasingly are looking for replacements that can keep them in business while still requiring less water.
Some farmers have turned to quinoa, a whole grain native to the Andes highlands of Bolivia and Chile, where the climate is similar to the San Luis Valley. Quinoa requires 30 to 50 percent less water than traditional crops. It also can’t tolerate much heat or humidity.
“The San Luis Valley is one of the few areas in North America that can produce quinoa,” said Center farmer Sheldon Rockey. “It’s a great crop, but COVID made a mess of that market – there just weren’t many new food products going into stores in the past year. The issue with quinoa is demand.”
By contrast, Colorado’s legalization of hemp and marijuana through Amendment 64 in 2014 launched an agricultural gold rush. Though legal under state law, hemp cultivation remained a gray area under federal law until the 2018 Farm Bill, which included the crop in national agricultural legislation for the first time.
Backers say industrial hemp can be used in thousands of consumer products, including rope, vegetarian hamburgers, clothing, insulation, and computer chips. When extracted and processed from seeds, cannabidiol (CBD) has been turned into pills and oils for both people and pets.
Hemp growers must register with the state and submit to tests proving that the industrial hemp contains less than .3 percent of THC, the high-inducing compound in marijuana.
Colorado now cultivates more industrial hemp than any state, with 40,000 licensed acres and 14.3 million square feet of licensed indoor space. Heralding Colorado as “the first state in the nation to bring back the cultivation of hemp after 75 years of prohibition,” Gov. Jared Polis declared the week of June 6 to be Colorado Hemp Week.
HOWEVER, making political proclamations has been easier than making money from hemp crops. After legalization of hemp, several outside businesses invested in Valley hemp operations, only to pull out unexpectedly amid a crash in market prices. Some Valley hemp growers remain bitter.
Oakes, however, said he believes the crop has a place on Valley farms.
While potatoes require up to 24 inches per season of irrigation, hemp can be grown in the Valley with just six inches, Oakes said. It grows six to 10 feet tall in the Valley.
The Agricultural Marketing and Resource Center, a coalition of U.S. Department of Agriculture research universities, says industrial hemp “may be an excellent rotation crop for traditional crops, because it suppresses weeds and decreases outbreaks of insect and disease problems. Hemp may also rebuild and condition soils by replacing organic matter and providing aeration through its extensive root system.”
Agricultural values may be excellent, but the crop still has been subject to a harsh economic boom-and-bust cycle.
For a time, prices soared, especially for CBD producers. Then the market flooded with new supplies from Colorado and other states. Prices plummeted 80 percent and more, and some producers and operators suffered or went bust.
Oakes said he’s focusing on the most pressing problem – a processing bottleneck – by working to increase capacity.
“We have great growing conditions for this crop, and it can be a huge piece of our future,” Oakes said. “My hope is that this crop will help revitalize the Valley.”
Buffeted by drought, court orders, climate change, and Front Range diversion plans, the water supply of the San Luis Valley faces pressure as never before. (link)
MONDAY: Part 2
Front Range executives behind Renewable Water Resources want to export water from the San Luis Valley to sell elsewhere. Where exactly would the project be built? Who are the investors? How much would it cost? What’s the project timetable? Who are the local supporters? Where are the customers? (link)
Mark Obmascik is a Pulitizer Prize-winning journalist and author of three bestselling nonfiction books. His latest is The Storm on Our Shores.