Oregon farmers planted the state’s first legal crops of industrial hemp a couple of years ago. Now the first Washington state farmer to plant the non-drug cousin of marijuana has harvested the crop.
Hemp entrepreneur Cory Sharp is fairly happy with Washington’s first legal crop in almost 90 years. His farmer partners harvested 105 acres earlier this month from irrigated fields near Moses Lake.
But the celebration is tempered because the crop is unsold.
"We're working on that,” Sharp said. “There are phone calls out and we're talking with people. But as it stands right now, we don't have an actual home for it."
The CEO of HempLogic said a buyer would most likely process the hemp seeds into food products. The seeds could be pressed to produce oil and the residues from that could be ground into protein powder.
Sharp also has big bales and bales of hemp fiber seeking a market.
"The hemp industry is just beginning,” he said. “Being a pioneer is sometimes very hard, you know.”
Sharp said part of the challenge of finding a buyer is because the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration forbids the shipment of unprocessed hemp seed to another state.
"I've got this grain sitting. I can't move it across state lines until it is processed," Sharp said in an interview Friday.
Seed mills exist inside of Washington state, but they have to be convinced to produce oil from an unusual new product that is strictly regulated to boot.
On the other side of the market, developing the infrastructure needed to turn hemp stalks into valuable fiber would be a "very long and intensive process."
"The capital investment to deal with the fiber side of this is enormous, absolutely enormous," Sharp added.
Sharp said he's not dissuaded from planting another hemp crop next year.
The Washington Legislature voted nearly unanimously last year to legalize hemp as a pilot project under state oversight. The Washington Department of Agriculture issued seven grower, processor and seed distributor licenses totaling 180 acres in the first growing season.
The Oregon Legislature first approved hemp farming in 2009, but it took until 2015 for the state to grant the first grower and handler permits. As of this month, the Oregon Department of Agriculture listed 233 active registrations of industrial hemp growers. Most of the interest is concentrated in the Willamette Valley and southern Oregon's Jackson County, with a smattering of licensees in central Oregon and beyond.
The local industrial hemp businesses appear to overwhelmingly small-scale. The overall size of Oregon's 2017 harvest could not be immediately determined.
Oregon’s nascent industrial hemp industry quickly came into conflict with marijuana growers. The related plant species can cross-pollinate if grown near each other, which can make the resulting crops unmarketable. In 2016, the Oregon Legislature loosened its strict hemp growing rules so that farmers could start plants in greenhouses or grow rooms to reduce the risk of cross pollination.
In Washington state, the rules promulgated by the state Department of Agriculture set a minimum distance of four miles between a hemp field and the nearest licensed indoor or outdoor marijuana grow operation.