Growers plant Sonoma County’s first legal hemp crop
Lee Martinelli Jr.’s great-grandfather started growing grapes and making wine in the Russian River Valley in the 1880s. These days, the Martinelli clan farms about 500 acres of grapes with a tasting room in a landmark red barn on River Road.
What’s brand new this year are the 1,200 hemp plants, close cousins of marijuana, sprouting from a carefully tilled acre of soil, where they displaced some apple trees.
They’re about a foot tall now, protected by deer fencing and plastic sheeting to stifle weeds. They should hit five feet when harvest time arrives in the fall, accompanied by the same distinctive aroma as cannabis.
Martinelli, a fourth-generation rancher, said he’s comfortable being in the vanguard of nine growers — Santa Rosa Junior College and eight private parties — registered to raise hemp commercially for the first time in Sonoma County.
“Hopefully it’ll be a niche market that works out,” Martinelli said, having calculated, as others have, that hemp will likely prove more valuable than wine grapes and could financially invigorate other farmers, as well.
Cultivating hemp is “in my comfort zone,” he said, because both it and marijuana — both varieties of cannabis sativa — are legal.
In hemp’s case, the liberation granted by the Farm Act of 2018 at Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell’s behest is nationwide and makes hemp, which looks and smells like marijuana, a mainstream crop.
What sets the two apart is the female hemp plant’s store of cannabidiol, or CBD, a therapeutic compound that has spawned a multibillion-dollar industry as a nonprescription remedy for chronic pain, anxiety, acne, insomnia and other conditions.
The retail market for hemp-derived CBD is estimated at up to $2.3 billion this year, soaring to as much as $11.3 billion in 2024, according to the Hemp Industry Daily, a Denver-based news website.
Hemp, one of the first crops cultivated by humans and dating back as far as 8000 B.C., may contain no more than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the compound that gives marijuana its mind-altering impact.
In fact, a mandatory preharvest chemical analysis provides the proof that hemp, with elongated, spiky leaves that make it a dead ringer for pot, is plain old hemp.
“People are dipping their feet in the water of (hemp) cultivation,” said Andrew Smith, the county agricultural commissioner.
County supervisors slapped a moratorium on hemp that prevented a crop last year, but ultimately decided on a liberal policy that allows hemp in five zoning districts — all either rural or agriculture related — covering more than 774,000 acres, about two-thirds of the county.
But the response this year was about one-third of what he expected, Smith said, with only nine registered growers.
The hesitancy, he and others said, is due to a nascent market that has missing links, including the absence of a hemp processing facility in Sonoma County and a federal Food and Drug Administration prohibition on selling CBD-infused food or dietary supplements in interstate commerce.
In a measure of the overblown anticipation of a marketing breakthrough, Coca-Cola in December refuted rumors that it was planning to sell CBD-bearing beverages.
But some entrepreneurs are forging ahead here.
Nick Stromberg, the founder of Beacon Hemp, a breeding and seed production company, is tending 14,000 hemp plants on a 2.5-acre Sebastopol area plot that also includes a 10,000-square-foot greenhouse.
Just three weeks in the ground, his plants are a foot to 18 inches tall and doing well. “Battling west county gophers right now,” he said. Corn and sunflowers ringing the hemp will ultimately hide them from view.
Stromberg, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in horticulture from UC Davis, started large-scale hemp breeding in Oregon in 2016. He said he “jumped at the chance” to grow it in Sonoma County.
Smoking hemp flowers, which are dried and trimmed just like cannabis, induces a feeling of relaxation and relief from anxiety, he said. Cigarette smokers sometimes turn to CBD as an alternative to tobacco, Stromberg said.
Hemp marketing is constrained now, but when it clears up there will be “tremendous demand” for hemp products intended for human consumption, he said.
Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry’s proposals to establish a market framework, including sales of hemp-derived food, beverages and cosmetics within the state, have been stymied in 2019 and again this year as her bills stalled in committee.
“It’s infuriating to us,” said Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, who helps run her family’s 80-acre walnut and almond ranch in her home town.