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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.

The legislator, whose district includes a swath of Sacramento Valley farmland and a bit of Sonoma County, said she will try again next year.

“I’m like a dog with a bone,” Aguiar-Curry said.

California had 43,688 acres licensed to grow hemp last year, ranking fourth in the nation behind Colorado (80,225 acres), Kentucky (60,119) and Oregon (54,940), according to Vote Hemp, a nonprofit industry advocacy group.

Michael Harden at Sonoma Hills Farm is another registered hemp grower outside Petaluma. Another business on the Purvine Road property, Petaluma Hills Farm, won county approval last year to cultivate an acre of cannabis. Some neighbors protested the proposal, placing “No Pot on Purvine” signs in their yards.

The 40-acre farm has planted one-eighth of an acre of hemp, dwarfed by other crops including tomatoes, potatoes, kale, squash, polenta, corn, lettuce and more, said Carm Lyman, spokeswoman for the farm. Cattle, sheep, chickens and bees are on the property, described on its website as a “cultural and educational intersection of small farm cannabis and traditional agriculture.”

Hemp has already attracted venture capital investment, but there will be no “green rush” like the one that followed California’s legalization of marijuana in 2016 until the FDA permits CBD in food, said Jesse Hughes, co-owner of The Hemp General Store in Petaluma.

The store, opened last year after two years as an online business, sells more than 90 CBD-derived products, including tinctures, topicals, bath and skin care products for humans plus chews, tinctures and treats for pets. More than half the merchandise is manufactured in Colorado, with some made in California, most of it from hemp grown in other states, Hughes said.

Under state pilot programs authorized in 2014, industrial hemp acreage surged from zero in 2013 to more than 90,000 acres in 2018, the largest crop since the 146,200 acres planted in 1943, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report in February.

Freed from nearly a half-century of prohibition, the nationwide hemp crop expanded to 146,065 acres last year, essentially tying the level reached 76 years earlier.

Hemp’s history in North America dates back to the English settlers at Jamestown growing it to make ropes, sails and clothing. In the 1700s, farmers in several colonies were required by law to grow hemp and early drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper.

In 1938, Popular Mechanics said hemp could be used in 25,000 different products. But it was outlawed in 1970, when the Controlled Substances Act classified hemp as an illegal Schedule I drug.

In Sonoma County, hemp cultivation started last year at Santa Rosa Junior College’s 365-acre Shone Farm near Forestville, where it obtained an academic exemption allowing it to grow about 720 plants on third of an acre tucked between two rows of corn.

SRJC, which has trained students to grow wine grapes since the 1970s, sold the crop for hemp oil production for about $68,000, said George Sellu, the hemp program coordinator. Multiplied by three, that would equate to more than $200,000 an acre, 10 times more than a typical grape payoff of about $20,000 an acre. But, Sellu said, hemp prices are slumping and he would expect more like $40,000 per acre for hemp grown for CBD going forward.

Asked why grape growers wouldn’t be drawn heavily into hemp cultivation, Sellu said, “That’s a choice for them to make. You don’t want to flood the market with things you can’t sell.”

More likely, he said, farmers would plant a quarter-acre to an acre of hemp to bolster revenue from crops like lettuce and tomatoes. Growers focused on hemp will probably plant five acres or less, Sellu said.

The Shone Farm crop this year has expanded to almost a half-acre, he said.

Martinelli calculated that an acre of hemp could yield 1,000 pounds worth at least $100 a pound, totaling $100,000 an acre, compared with about $20,000 an acre for grapes.

Smith, the agricultural commissioner, said hemp could enable the county’s ranchers to diversify their production and “stabilize farm income.”

But given the hemp industry’s uncertain future, he declined to predict how many acres of hemp might be planted in the county that produced more than $777 million worth of wine grapes on 60,000 acres in 2018.

“Only time will tell,” Smith said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sonoma Hills Farm in Petaluma is one of the nine hemp growers registered to cultivate hemp this year. An earlier version of this story misidentified the grower.

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