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Some who gambled on hemp lost all

A very old saying has it that farming is another form of gambling. The farmer plants a crop not knowing what the weather will be, what pests or diseases might appear or what the market price will be at harvest time.

When the crop is brand-new, and closely related to another that remains illegal in much of the country, that just raises the stakes.

Many growers of hemp are facing those realities now. The “gold rush” that resulted after Congress legalized agricultural hemp production nationwide in 2018 led to a huge increase in the acreage planted and the number of growers. Oregon went from 11,000 acres planted in hemp to more than 60,000 this year.

Many growers saw their investments evaporate when mold destroyed their crops. Hemp farmers also had trouble finding workers, packaging materials and drying and processing facilities.

As in the real gold rush, when suppliers of picks and shovels made more money than the miners, those selling plastic row covers, baling materials and harvesting machines probably made out just fine.

Some growers who sank their life savings into the venture were wiped out. A few even committed suicide. Others simply walked away, abandoning fields of hemp when they ran out of money.

The massive expansion of the new industry that resulted in more acres in Jackson County planted in hemp than in pears and wine grapes combined also led to conflicts with local residents who objected to the odor of the flowering plants, noise from ventilation fans and unsightly rows of plastic used as a weed barrier.

Those growers who knew what they were doing and understood how much money was required to properly prepare fields will be around next year. But industry observers estimate 50% to 60% of those who started this season won’t be back.

How many new farmers show up remains to be seen.

The biggest obstacle to new growers going forward is likely to be new rules proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that could criminalize hemp that tests higher than 0.3% THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana. Federal regulators are concerned that hemp, grown for the non-intoxicating substance cannabidiol, is being used as a cover to conceal recreational cannabis crops.

That might actually be true in states where recreational marijuana is still illegal, but the concern makes no sense in Oregon, which has an established recreational cannabis industry.

Congress, which legalized hemp nationally as an agricultural crop, needs to step in and provide some guidance to regulators so growers have some assurance their crops won’t be destroyed unnecessarily.

Just as the fledgling market for legalized recreational marijuana has been seeking equilibrium, the hemp industry will suffer growing pains as well.

Anyone thinking about launching a hemp farm should make the effort to learn how to do it right before investing large sums of money.

As President Dwight Eisenhower said in 1956 in a speech in Peoria, Illinois, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.”