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A different angle on straw and plastic

Leave it to enterprising Southern Oregon growers to look for a better way to mulch their hemp fields.

Concerned about the environmental effects of using plastic sheeting as a weed and moisture barrier, a local grower who also runs a hemp consulting outfit is blowing straw onto a hemp field in the Applegate Valley as a test. The technique uses a blower he rented in Portland that grinds up straw and shoots it out 60 feet, moving seven tons an hour.

This growing season has seen a huge increase in acres planted in industrial hemp — a variety of cannabis low in the psychoactive chemical THC but high in fiber and cannabidiol (CBD), a substance widely believed to have medicinal properties. The 2018 U.S. farm bill enacted last December legalized the production of hemp as an agricultural commodity.

Jackson County has seen more acres planted in hemp this year than in pears and wine grapes combined, and leads all counties with more than 8,500 acres. Almost 56,000 acres are planted statewide.

Initial public reaction was critical of hemp farmers for putting down plastic sheeting to control weeds and reduce water use. Some growers are using a biodegradable, plant-based material that can be tilled into the soil after harvest, but it costs more than plastic. So does the straw alternative.

Eventually, some growers are interested in seeing a product made from hemp itself, which would be a particularly elegant solution. Oregon State University Extension Service researchers have yet to make a recommendation, waiting to see how well the biodegradable material breaks down.

Until then, the plastic now in use will end up in the landfill at the end of the season.

Where the hemp crop will wind up is less certain. Just as the recreational marijuana industry is struggling with growing pains, the hemp industry has its own set of complications.

Federal legalization of hemp moved oversight from the Drug Enforcement Agency to the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates food safety, dietary supplements and over-the-counter drugs, all relevant to the hemp industry. The FDA has warned producers of CBD products not to make medical or therapeutic claims about their products without obtaining FDA certification.

At the same time, law enforcement has seized shipments from truckers transporting hemp, charging them with drug trafficking because police believed the cargo was marijuana.

All that will be sorted out in due time. Meanwhile, one data analytics firm predicts U.S. hemp sales will hit $2.6 billion by 2022, half of it generated from CBD products.

Local growers are hoping to cash in on that trend. Rogue Valley residents hope they can do it without clogging landfills with plastic.