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Santa Rosa Junior College is first college in state to offer hemp cultivation program

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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.

The market, however, is difficult to assess because the federal government is not keeping statistics on hemp cultivation, said Kristen Nichols, the website’s editor.

In a recent cultivation “snapshot” based on its own research, the website reported that Colorado (with 80,000 licensed acres), Kentucky (with 58,000 licensed acres), Oregon (51,313 acres), Montana (40,000 acres) and Tennessee (37,416 acres) were the top five states in terms of hemp acreage and had a total of nearly 8,000 registered growers last year.

The statistics may be misleading, Nichols said, because there is no data on how many licensed acres are planted in hemp and how much of the plants are harvested.

Neil Bledsoe and Clorissa Lepe, two students in SRJC’s hemp program, said they were attracted by the job prospects.

“It’s an emerging industry,” said Bledsoe of Ukiah. “Now that it’s legal a lot of opportunity will pop up.”

The college’s hemp courses for the fall semester are full. The skills they teach apply to marijuana cultivation, as well, Goldstein said.

California, an agricultural powerhouse and once a pot pioneer as the first state to legalize medicinal marijuana in 1996, is so far a lagging in the hemp parade.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture reported Friday that 258 growers have registered 16,889 acres in 23 counties for hemp cultivation, with no information on the number of acres harvested. Two Central Valley farm giants — Kern and Fresno counties with 6,463 acres and 2,748 acres, respectively — lead the pack, while San Diego, Riverside and Imperial counties have more than 1,000 acres each.

Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa counties are not on the list, but Lake County is with 466 registered acres and the third-largest number of growers at 29 on the state list.

Lake County’s agricultural commissioner, Steve Hajik, said the county has 32 registered growers and 14 more pending approval, and most have crops in the ground this year.

Many are “frustrated cannabis growers” who have switched to hemp because it is easier to grow and lacks the complex, costly regulations for growing legal marijuana, he said. Lake County allows hemp on land zoned for agriculture and rural homes; anywhere that crops can be grown.

Linegar, the Sonoma County ag commissioner whose staff members are working on a proposed hemp ordinance, said he considers agricultural land the “most logical place to grow hemp.”

Considering the high cost of land here, Linegar expects most hemp would be female plants grown to produce CBD and would present no threat of cross-pollination with female marijuana plants. The county limits marijuana cultivation to one acre per parcel.

Hemp has the potential to become the county’s most valuable crop, but the market could be constrained by the prohibition that CBD cannot be used in food and beverage products, Linegar said. A bill by Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters, that would have removed that barrier died Friday in the Legislature.

The county also needs a facility to extract CBD from hemp without the risk of introducing unwanted THC, Linegar said.

“I think a lot of people are anxious to get the regulations decided,” he said.

At Shone Farm, Sellu wants the county to get into producing one of the first crops cultivated by humans that dates as far back as 8,000 B.C.

“I’s time for us to catch up with the rest of the country,” he said. “California is usually ahead. They left us in the dust here.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457.

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