Some Chaves County businesses have ventured in to the emerging hemp industry, one that agricultural and economic development leaders think could become a significant part of the state economy in future decades.
Many local enterprises are not willing to talk publicly yet about their efforts, but those interviewed are firm believers in what they consider to be the benefits of hemp-derived products. Yet they and hemp experts acknowledge that a greater understanding of the plant and its products, as well as of the regulatory and agricultural practices surrounding them, still need to occur before hemp becomes a major crop or product in the area.
Hemp makes its return
Hemp is a strain of the cannabis sativa plant, which is related to the cannabis plants from which marijuana and hashish are derived. But, compared to the other plants, hemp has significantly lower levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which produces the “high” people experience from the plants.
According to various sources, hemp was first cultivated in Asia in about 8,000 B.C. and was grown in the early 1600s in the colonial Americas. In fact, it was a required crop for early American farmers in the 1700s because of all of the plant’s uses for fiber and clothing and in food and oils. It can be used for paper, rope, clothing, sails, lamp fuel, fiberboard, detergents, inks and bioplastics. Its protein-rich seeds and seed oil, which contain extremely small amounts of THC, can be used in all types of foods and products.
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Hemp was made illegal in the United States by the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, but industrial hemp was legalized again at the federal level by the 2018 farm bill.
New Mexico approved regulations for industrial hemp cultivation in late 2018, with hemp manufacturing regulations due to take effect in September.
Now Chaves County has 17 annual and continuous grower licenses, according to Kristie Garcia, New Mexico Department of Agriculture public information officer. Statewide, 292 cultivating licenses have been issued to all but two of the state’s 33 counties. McKinley and Harding counties are the exceptions.
Unlike other crops
No known commercial grower in the county was willing to be interviewed. One reason could be that outdoor crops are not expected to have their first flowers until August or their first harvest until October.
Jeff Anderson, a horticultural extension agent with the Dona Ana Cooperative Extension Service of New Mexico State University, said that he is aware of active growers in Deming and Las Cruces. He said that he divides growers into two categories: those like Rich Glo, a partially state-funded commercial enterprise in Las Cruces with investors and officers from other states, and individual growers working to figure out the crop for themselves. That’s not an easy job, Anderson said.
“With pecans, you can take the university guidelines and produce a really great pecan crop, follow it like a recipe,” he said. “You can’t do that with hemp. It is like floral production. You have kind of a recipe, but you are always adjusting it and monitoring it because things can change in an instant. And that is how it is with hemp.”
Under current regulations, which some think might change in the future to give growers more latitude, the plants must have a THC level of 0.3% or lower. But Anderson and others say that fertilizer, soil composition and even the amount of sunlight on the plants can make a difference on the THC amounts, so that one portion of a field might test below or at that level and another portion could be “hot,” the term for hemp with too high of a THC level.
Anderson, who has worked with growers in Nevada for several years, said that the next couple of years will be trial and error, but he said the New Mexico Department of Agriculture is going to want to work as closely with farmers as possible to aid in their success.
“They are going to help you measure the fields correctly, and, if you get a high test, they will go back there, like they said, and look at that and try to measure again,” he said. “They don’t want you to lose your crop because that is money lost to the farmer.”
The ‘urban grower’ option
A new Roswell business, Zia Canna Grow and Care, aims to help people grow all types of plants indoors, including hemp if they have a cultivation or personal production license.
“We are geared toward the people who want to grow indoors, whether it is your variety of fruits and vegetables and what not, herbs, or your medical garden,” said manager Jeremiah McClain. “There is a growing need for people to realize that you don’t have to (go to the) grocery store to grow their own food.”
Eventually the business, which opened in early December at 905 W. McGaffey St. and is owned by the Mascarenas family, intends to get a hemp cultivation license, said McClain.
Right now, they have a white cherry wine hemp plant in the store to show to customers, but are not distributing any seeds or products from it.
The major focus of the business now is to educate current and potential urban growers.
McClain has worked with a local high school teacher to set up an aquaponics station of peppers and microgreens for her classroom and has spent hours with local gardening clubs talking to them about how a closet, spare room or other area of the house can become a garden or urban farm, which he says can be especially attractive to people who don’t want to garden outside during New Mexico summers.
McClain has been growing his own food for himself and his family, which includes nine children, for about 18 years. His gardens include squash, zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant, green onions, potatoes and broccoli, but he said almost anything can be grown indoors with the right equipment, including dwarf lemon trees and pineapple trees.
McClain also has a medical cannabis license and has been growing marijuana and hemp for about 11 years. He said he is a staunch believer that the alternative medicines saved him from renal failure and ulcers.
I was “waking up every day and throwing up blood because of the narcotics they were giving me for my back pain,” he said. “The CBD (cannabidiol) and THC helped reverse that 100%. I don’t take any pills now. Once in a while, I’ll take a Tylenol or something like that.”
He added that he wants people to understand that hemp and medical cannabis are natural products. While he said that their use must be responsibly monitored and handled, they should not be stigmatized.
“I know a lot of people, my mother included, that were just downright against any kind of hemp or cannabis at all,” he said. “Then she saw how it fixed and changed my life.”
From soaps to vapes
Another southeastern New Mexico business that intends to grow hemp commercially within the next couple of years is Bryan’s Green Care, which started in Hobbs four years ago and now has stores in Roswell, Ruidoso and El Paso. The Roswell location is at 3108 N. Main St.
It is a family business owned by Roberta Bruce, chief executive officer; registered nurse Victoria Bruce, director of nursing and operations; and Victoria’s husband, Logan McIlroy, a company manager.
The company sells CBD products, with Victoria and Logan creating 90% of the products at their retail outlets, including lotions, soaps, candles, pain salves, oral salves, and CBD-infused honey and coconut oil. They also sell some third-party products from other manufacturers.
Once an oncology nurse, Victoria Bruce said that she came to appreciate the health benefits of CBD and THC for different ailments. She now advocates for and educates about cannabis use for patients. She said local doctors often serve as a primary referral source for their stores.
Like McClain, the Bruce-McIlroy family has a personal connection to the issue. The stores are named for Roberta’s son and Victoria’s brother, who passed on from a terminal illness but had found some relief from symptoms with CBD and THC use.
Right now, Bryan’s Green Care buys hemp flowers and oil from Massachusetts, Oregon or Colorado, but they said they anticipate purchasing from New Mexico growers once farms yield viable crops.
They also hope to start growing their own hemp.
“We likely will grow indoors in Chaves County,” Victoria Bruce said. “We’ve grown in small, very small, amounts with a personal production license. How you grow hemp is very similar to how you grow cannabis, exactly the same. We wouldn’t do outdoors, the wind is a huge factor. You can’t grow all year-long outdoors, and then the humidity is a huge factor, or lack thereof.”
They all agree that the next few years for the New Mexico hemp industry will be interesting, as the new state regulations regarding manufacturing and growing licenses become more fine-tuned and with the expectation that research into both the agricultural aspects and medicinal benefit of hemp will improve following federal and state legalization.
Our expertise “has been in front of our retail stores and really trying to reach out to the community,” said Victoria Bruce, “and then setting an example on making safe and reliable products. So we have focused on that end, but we are excited about being in the agricultural industry, as well.”
Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.