New state and federal laws that protect hemp farming have come on the heels of a rapid growth in the industry.

In the U.S., hemp sales topped $820 million in 2017 while the global market was estimated to be $3.9 billion. In Oregon, the number of hemp farming permits doubled from 2017 to 2018.

Tai Ma Oregon LLC, which has been developing an industrial hemp farm in Prairie City for the past two seasons, plans to grow hemp on a 10-acre hay field just south of the fire hall in Mt. Vernon. The narrow property extends along Beech Creek nearly all the way to the city’s sewage lagoons.

Mt. Vernon reaction

Mt. Vernon Mayor Kenny Delano said the city learned about the company’s plans in December when Tai Ma Oregon LLC presented the city with a land-use compatibility statement from the Oregon Department of Agriculture to show that they complied with local zoning regulations.

Hemp growing is regulated, but hemp farmers are no longer required to provide a compatibility statement to the state, ODA Director of Communications Andrea Cantu-Schomus told the Eagle. Only hemp handlers, who process hemp products from farmers, are required to provide the compatibility statement, she said.

The Mt. Vernon City Council took up the matter at their Jan. 8 meeting, where it encountered some vocal opposition. David Kilpatrick and Chauncey Groves, partners in the Tai Ma Oregon business, attended the meeting.

Kilpatrick assured the council that industrial hemp does not have a strong odor, like recreational or medical marijuana, and they had heard no complaints in Prairie City. He also said anyone who steals hemp and tries to smoke it will just get a headache. Signs posted along the perimeter will inform neighbors about the hemp crop, and security cameras will watch for trespassers.

Delano told the Eagle the 10-acre property is zoned residential, but while the city’s zoning regulations say farming is discouraged in residential districts, the regulations don’t stop agricultural uses. He noted that the property also has a farm deferral for property taxes.

Prairie City zoning

Tai Ma Oregon has been growing hemp in greenhouses and outdoors on property in Prairie City south of the cemetery for two seasons. The property is zoned R2, which allows farm uses under a conditional-use permit, which Tai Ma Oregon needs to apply for, Mayor Jim Hamsher said.

Prairie City’s zoning regulations allow agriculture in the R2 residential district for personal use. The intent is to support 4-H participants, City Recorder Bobbie Brown said. Hamsher said 4-H participants typically don’t get a conditional-use permit and are governed by the city’s nuisance ordinance.

Prairie City officials were not aware of Tai Ma Oregon’s past hemp operations in the city, but the city has heard no complaints, Brown said. The city’s attorney advised the city that they could update city ordinances to address complaints, but the city couldn’t prevent hemp farming.

Hamsher noted that the city council could request conditions if Tai Ma Oregon applies for a zoning permit, but the company might be protected by the Oregon Right to Farm law.

The law prevents local governments from declaring certain farm practices a nuisance, including noise, vibration, odors, smoke, dust, irrigation mist, pesticide use or use of crop production substances.

“The Oregon Department of Agriculture doesn’t see any difference between hemp and alfalfa,” Kilpatrick said.

Company origins

Kilpatrick filed the initiative petition in 2016 seeking to overturn Grant County’s ban on marijuana growing, processing and sales. When the initiative failed in the May 2016 election by 1,689-1,469, he turned his focus to hemp.

Getting started wasn’t easy, he said, because a seed exchange for hemp had not been started. The company’s name comes from a Chinese phrase meaning “the great fiber that connects us all,” Kilpatrick said.

Under state and federal law, industrial hemp must contain less than 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive ingredient found in marijuana. According to Cantu-Schomus, pre-harvest hemp grown by Tai Ma Oregon in Prairie City last year was tested and found to contain THC under the legal threshold.

In the U.S., hemp went from being an important fiber product promoted by President George Washington to an illegal substance under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. Over time, the value of hemp fiber for textiles, biofuel, paper and other materials and the value of hemp flowers and seed oil for medicinal, nutritional and beauty products were recognized.

The 2018 Hemp Farming Act, which is part of the 2018 Farm Bill signed by President Donald Trump in December, changed hemp from a controlled substance to an agricultural commodity. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced the Hemp Farming Act, which was co-sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley.

Passage of the act opened up a number of opportunities other farmers routinely benefit from, including water rights, agricultural grants, access to the banking system, marketing, agronomy research and crop insurance.

Company plans

Kilpatrick said alfalfa has been growing on the 10-acre property in Mt. Vernon since the 1970s. He spent his first 11 years living in the two-story house on the property, which was built in 1908.

“I learned how to drive a tractor there,” he said.

Water taken from ditches connected to Strawberry Creek in Prairie City and Beech Creek in Mt. Vernon will be used for the hemp fields, Kilpatrick said. A thousand hemp plants on a drip line use significantly less water than a flood-irrigated alfalfa field, he said.

Kilpatrick said they tried growing hemp outdoors on 2 1/2 acres in Prairie City but are still looking for a suitable hemp strain. The weather in Prairie City is slightly colder than in Mt. Vernon, he said.

The plan is to grow seedlings that are clones of successful female plants in a greenhouse and then manually plant about 1,000 seedlings per acre in the outdoor fields. Planting should be completed in June, and harvest of the 4- to 6-foot-high plants should be completed by mid-October, Kilpatrick said.

For now, the value in hemp farming comes from selling the flower tops to processors for medicinal, nutritional and beauty products, Kilpatrick said. Hemp flowers and seeds contain cannabidiol, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and other chemicals that may offer a wide range of health benefits.

A processing plant for fiber may come to Hermiston, at which time Tai Ma Oregon might harvest the hemp stalks for sale instead of tilling them into the ground. Looking forward, Tai Ma Oregon might register as a hemp handler and invest in equipment to process hemp flowers from their fields and others, Kilpatrick said. The result would be more jobs.

“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “It’s another tool in the toolbox for the local agricultural economy. There aren’t too many tools in the toolbox now.”

Richard Hanners is a reporter for the Blue Mountain Eagle. He can be contacted at rick@bmeagle.com or 541-575-0710.

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