Riding the green revolution
Rubberneckers along Interstate 5 might catch a glimpse of a new billboard announcing a big organic hemp farm just below Paschal Winery on Suncrest Road in Talent.
"I'm not ashamed of what we're doing," said Chris Bourne, chief executive officer of MediSun Farms, a co-op of about 10 farms on hundreds of acres in Southern Oregon. "I'm not trying to pull the wool over anybody's eyes."
The flagship Talent hemp farm, located on 45 acres of a 75-acre property, has about 90,000 plants, which contain barely detectable amounts of the active ingredient that gets marijuana users high. Since they are hemp, the plants are not subject to the same laws governing marijuana grows.
Instead, these plants, which will yield about one to two pounds each at harvest, are grown to extract cannabidiol, which is prized by some for its anti-inflammatory properties as well as for controlling seizures.
The rows of plants are visible from the freeway and stretch out over the gently rolling property, with the vibrant green hemp contrasting with the dull brown grasses on the surrounding hills.
Aga Paschal, one of the owners of Paschal Winery, said she likes looking at how fast the hemp plants grow and how green they are, saying she wishes her grapes grew as fast.
"I hope they will be successful, and they have many harvests to come," she said.
Paschal said she has her hands full growing grapes and making wine, and has no interest in growing hemp.
"I will let Chris grow hemp, and I'll grow grapes," she said.
Bourne said he plans to install more signs along Suncrest to let passersby know it's only hemp growing, but he also wants people to become more comfortable with his crop.
"There has been the demonization of this plant," he said. "Look at it. It's not attacking you."
Most people would think the plants look almost identical to their more popular cousin, marijuana. They are both in the cannabis family and have the same type of leaves, the same flowers and a similar odor.
Last year, Bourne grew 30 acres of hemp on a farm just outside Ashland, attracting the attention of many locals. MediSun grew 50,000 pounds of CBD hemp flower in 2016.
This year, Bourne said he's been busy expanding the operation and working with many landowners who want to join the green revolution. Many prominent locals, who have asked not to be identified, have become a part of the co-op Bourne has helped create.
"They don't want people to judge them about what they're currently doing," he said.
MediSun grows only female hemp plants, not the male hemp plants used to produce fiber. To be sure only female plants will sprout, Bourne buys his seeds from Oregon CBD in Corvallis.
Eric Crawford, who started Oregon CBD two years ago with his brother, Seth, produces about 700,000 seeds a year. His operation starts with female clone plants that are early flowering and are resistant to mold, a common problem in wet Oregon. Because of demand for CBD plants, Crawford's company ran out of seeds this year.
Silver thiosulfate is used to suppress ethylene production in the plants and seeds, which produces only females, Crawford said.
Testing is conducted to ensure the plants will have only .3 percent THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in drug-strain marijuana. Many marijuana flowers in stores have 20 percent or more THC.
Crawford said his company's goal is to produce CBD medicine way cheaper.
"We're helping people, and that's what we want to do," he said.
Even though the plants are females, about one out of 2,000 could be a hermaphrodite, which if left unchecked could pollinate surrounding plants, Crawford said.
Bourne said he's on the lookout for hermaphrodites, and next week he'll be flying a drone equipped with sensors that enable it to detect hermaphrodites as well as find plants that don't receive enough water or have a pest infestation.
The water for the plants, requiring about 8,000 gallons per acre every three days, is delivered through an underground irrigation system and is sourced from the Talent Irrigation District ditch. Bourne has built a pond next to the freeway that is filled with ditch water that is mixed with a nutrient-rich solution that feeds the plants.
While the flowers will be harvested for CBDs, the stalks and branches will be used to make building materials, Bourne said.
Next year, he's got even bigger plans.
MediSun is looking at growing on 1,000 acres on farms throughout Southern Oregon, which would translate into some 2 million plants. According to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, as many as 1,219 acres in the state are under hemp production.
Next year, Bourne plans to grow vegetables and hemp together on the same field in an effort to create a more sustainable crop.
Bourne said his billboard already has attracted the attention of other property owners.
"We've got more neighbors interested in growing hemp," he said.