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Jackson County on a hemp high

Jackson County has the second-most acres registered for hemp production of the 36 counties in the state, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

At 462 acres, Jackson is behind only Polk County, to the west of Salem, with 639 acres. In third place is Clackamas County with 370 acres of hemp.

Josephine County, well known for its marijuana production, is the eighth-largest hemp producer with 120 acres.

The agriculture department has registered 3,476 acres throughout the state, though not all of it is under cultivation.

The latest statistics from ODA show an almost 300 percent increase in hemp registrations statewide from last year's 1,219 acres.

"At this point, hemp continues to outstrip marijuana production, and that will continue into the future," said Pete Gendron, president of the Sungrown Grower's Guild.

Gendron, who is involved in a small hemp farm with 12,000 plants south of Medford and expects to increase it five-fold next year, said that because Jackson County has thrown up roadblocks to regular marijuana production, it's not surprising more local growers are turning to hemp, which looks similar to marijuana but doesn't induce the high.

Gendron said it would be difficult to calculate the number of acres statewide under marijuana production because there are so many small backyard gardens.

Larger commercial operations probably have close to 500 acres of production statewide, he said.

According to the Oregon Health Authority, there are 25,130 medical marijuana grow sites in Oregon, with 3,349 in Jackson County. This county has the highest number of medical marijuana patients in the state at 9,243.

The dramatic increase in hemp production statewide doesn't surprise agriculture department officials.

"Other states have seen their rates double or triple," said Ron Pence, operations manager for ODA.

After a 70-year prohibition, the hemp industry is on the rebound, with 14 states passing laws that allow growing, processing and seed production.

Kentucky, for instance, has 12,800 acres of hemp.

A 2014 federal farm bill removed hemp grown for research purposes from the Controlled Substances Act. Oregon passed a bill in 2010 that opened the doors for hemp, which is considered an agricultural crop and doesn't have the same fencing or security requirements as recreational marijuana.

Topping the list of the 76 hemp farms in Jackson County, MediSun in Talent has 60 acres licensed for hemp production, though only 45 acres are currently under cultivation.

MediSun, which is a cooperative of about 10 hemp grow sites in the area, has 90,000 hemp plants at the flagship operation in Talent that are visible from Interstate 5 near Paschal Winery.

While hemp has historically been grown for its fiber, most of the hemp being grown in Oregon is for cannabidioil, an oil that advocates say helps reduce pain and seizures.

"It's all for CBDs," said Pence.

The state considers hemp an experimental crop that has some risks attached to it, particularly regarding the quality of seeds in the U.S. Many growers run the risk that the plants may not produce the desired crop.

In 2016, eight industrial hemp growers had portions of their crop detained and later destroyed because THC levels were too high. However, there is no evidence that any grower grew plants intentionally that had excessive THC levels. 

"It is not pleasant news to give to someone," Pence said.

For every 1,000 plants, the state tests 30 to make sure none of the plants contain THC in excess of the 0.3-percent threshold.

Also, ODA is on the lookout for hemp growers who may be sneaking regular marijuana plants into their hemp fields.

"We feel like we're making a good effort to minimize that," Pence said. "Sooner or later, they are going to get caught."

— Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.