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A fruitful hemp harvest, but for how long?

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Southern Oregon’s growing contingent of hemp growers are harvesting their fields and drying their crops. And with demand for hemp booming, the market looks promising.

But some farmers wonder what the future holds.

“This year, everybody got into it,” said Chris Bourne, an entrepreneur and familiar face on the Southern Oregon hemp scene. “Everybody and their mother was like, we’re going to grow hemp this year, because there’s a lot of money to be made.”

In years to come, however, that might be less certain.

Farmers anticipate that Congress’ impending passage of the 2018 Farm Bill will include a bipartisan provision pushed by both of Oregon’s senators and the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, declassifying hemp as a Schedule I drug.

Federal legalization of hemp would open up the nationwide market, which has some Southern Oregon hemp farmers bracing for increased competition.

Bourne, the founder of local hemp operation MediSun Farms, sees a few potentially negative forces for small farmers in particular. This year, he said, the demand for hemp exceeds the supply, and farmers should expect good prices for their crops.

“Once (legalization) happens, then yes, I think next year the value of the crop will commoditize to a lower value,” he said.

MediSun Farms has been one of the most recognizable local growers mostly due to its location: 30 acres on East Nevada Street, clearly visible to Interstate 5 travelers. But come next season, those hemp plants won’t be associated with his business anymore. He’s joined forces with three other hemp companies to form hemp wholesale company KlerSun. It will get its crop exclusively from big grows east of Portland.

Irrigation needs are one reason, he said. But another is the potential for recurring smoke-heavy summers.

The affect of smoke on hemp plants varies depending on the growth stage when it happens. Smoke that comes during the vegetative state can inhibit growth. Smoke during the critical flowering stage can affect how much of the product will be usable — especially for medicinal hemp. That’s what the majority of local hemp is grown for.

Even as Bourne withdraws from the area, he said Southern Oregon’s climate remains a desirable locale for cannabis farmers.

“I don’t know of anybody that’s not going to grow another hemp crop because of the smoke or irrigation issues,” he said.

In fact, the number of local growers is booming. With 138 licensed hemp growers, Jackson County leads the state in the number of hemp-growing operations by a significant margin. Josephine County comes in second with 62 hemp farms, according to data from the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Hemp differs from its intoxicating cousin marijuana in that it doesn’t get users high, and the hemp industry will likely progress differently than the marijuana industry.

Since Oregon legalized recreational marijuana in 2014, the price has plummeted as the market has become saturated with high-quality bud. Part of the reason is that recreational cannabis must be grown, processed and sold within Oregon.

Though hemp prices may also drop as more is grown, hemp’s versatility as a crop and an expanded nationwide market shows more promise for growers.

A Congressional Research Service report released in June said the global hemp market consists of more than 25,000 products, including paper, nutritional oil, protein powder, textiles, building materials, biofuel and medicines.

Cedar Grey, founder and CEO of Siskiyou Sungrown in Grants Pass, said he believes family-owned and other small operations can shine by growing craft hemp.

“I think there’s some opportunities there where there’s perhaps smaller business deals,” Grey said, “but those would match up with the smaller farms in this area.”

Bourne believes there could be a reliable living made by drying, curing and processing hemp.

Local Processing Center, Inc., a partnership between Tualatin-based JNV Farms and Hemp, Inc., based in Spring Hope, North Carolina, is in that business.

Its row of greenhouses at 4188 W. Main St. just outside west Medford are being used to dry and cure hemp the company grew this year, as well as hemp from a dozen or so other local farmers.

Bruce Perlowin, CEO of Hemp, Inc., said even if federal hemp legalization happens soon, Southern Oregon hemp farmers and processors have an advantage over states that don’t have a flourishing industry yet.

“Guys in Oregon are way, way more sophisticated than the rest of the nation,” Perlowin said. “They’ve been doing it for 45 years here. Everyone else around America, they don’t have a clue.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Barry Epling with Local Processing Center, Inc. walks through the processing facility in Medford on Monday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch