Santa Rosa Junior College is first college in state to offer hemp cultivation program
On a plateau above the Russian River Valley near Forestville, about ?1,000 bushy green plants that look exactly like marijuana are flourishing between two rows of corn about 6 feet tall.
Come mid-October, the mature plants will have doubled in height, matching the corn and yielding about 3,000 pounds of flowers and leaves worth up to $75,000.
A Santa Rosa Junior College agriculture instructor and two of his students worked on a sunny afternoon last week, trimming the spiky-leafed plants and spraying them with organic fertilizer in the midst of a sprawling garden, orchard and vineyard surrounded by a 6-foot fence under ?24-hour camera surveillance.
Nothing was amiss.
SRJC, which has trained students to grow wine grapes since the 1970s, said it is the first and only community college in California to establish a hemp cultivation curriculum and plant hemp. The college put seedlings in the heavily composted soil at its 365-acre Shone Farm on July 12.
At harvest, the bushy hemp plants will be worth up to $75 apiece, a value that would translate into a crop worth more than $100,000 for a full acre, said George Sellu, the instructor in charge of the program’s nearly 1-acre hemp patch.
“Somebody would be making a decent amount of money,” said Sellu, who has master’s and doctoral degrees in agricultural science from UC Davis. “They’re never gonna make that on vegetables - or wine grapes.”
The economics of the nascent hemp industry are “pretty fluid,” said Benjamin Goldstein, the college’s dean of agriculture, natural resources and culinary arts, but the return on hemp could be “dramatically higher” than grapes, the county’s signature commodity.
Sonoma County produced nearly $778 million worth of wine grapes on about 60,000 vineyard acres last year, averaging about $13,000 per acre.
Shone Farm sells fruit from its 91-acre vineyard for $1.5 million, covering the farm’s operating cost. It hopes to market hemp, as well.
“We’re open to buyers,” Goldstein said.
Vineyard owners may not rip out expensive vines to make room for hemp, but the farmers and ranchers around the county may see an opportunity in setting aside an acre or two or mixing hemp in with other row crops.
“Farmers tend to know how they want to optimize their income,” Goldstein said.
Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar, who is in the process of drawing up hemp regulations, believes hemp will find a home here, but the market remains “very uncertain,” he said.
In April, when county supervisors slapped a moratorium on hemp cultivation that runs through next spring, the Sonoma County Farm Bureau protested the move, saying hemp “may be what keeps some of our longtime food producing farmers in business.”
The college obtained an exemption to grow hemp for educational purposes.
Income derived from a high-value crop like hemp could provide dairies and vegetable operators “the catalyst needed to keep our farmers farming,” Jeff Carlton, Farm Bureau president, said in a letter to supervisors.
But the supervisors banned hemp until the end of next April, wary of repeating the controversy over how to fit legalized marijuana into the landscape and mindful that hemp may prompt some of the same objections.
Hemp and marijuana, which look and smell the same, are two varieties of cannabis sativa differentiated by their intoxicating content. Hemp, by legal definition, contains no more than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC, far too little to get anyone stoned.
Marijuana now sold in dispensaries contains up to 20% THC and was illegal for recreational use in California until voters approved Proposition 64 in 2016.
Hemp cultivation was outlawed until Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, tucked a legalization measure into the Farm Bill of 2018, declaring hemp an agricultural commodity and delivering financial relief to his state’s farmers coping with America’s declining consumption of tobacco.
That triggered a green rush into a hemp industry focused on cannabidiol, or CBD, a compound already in wide use as a nonprescription remedy for chronic pain, anxiety, acne, insomnia and other conditions. CBD, which can be extracted from female hemp plants, is found in products sold at convenience stores, health food stores, gas stations, pet supply stores and marijuana dispensaries and are expected to appear on the shelves of mainstream retailers such as Target or Walmart.
The retail market for hemp-derived CBD is estimated at about $1 billion in 2019, soaring to upwards of $7 billion in 2023, according to the Hemp Industry Daily, a Denver-based news website.