Hemp Hubbub – Oregon’s potential as a crop-growing hub excites some

July 20th, 2009 – SALEM — Oregon is about to become the first Western state to permit its farmers to grow industrial hemp. Picture 10

But there are a couple of problems to be confronted before Oregon becomes a Hemptopia by the Pacific:

It’s still an illegal crop, according to the federal government.

Oregon wasn’t an ideal place to grow hemp the first time it was legal. And it won’t be the next time, either.

That’s not bringing Dena Purich down, though. The owner of a business that makes hemp-based clothing, Purich is excited about the possibility that the supply chain is one step closer to running from Oregon farmers to her Eugene-based Earthbound Creations. Right now, she and her two employees design and assemble men’s sports shirts, women’s skirts and other garments from hemp that’s grown in China, woven or knitted there into 100-yard bolts, and shipped across the Pacific Ocean.

“It would be awesome to keep everything in Oregon,” she said. “That would be great not only for our local economy, but for businesses like mine.”

Local enthusiasm for hemp’s possibilities also was evident at a three-day Emerald Empire Hempfest, featuring music, speakers and other entertainment, that wrapped up Sunday at Eugene’s Washington-Jefferson Park.

A spokesman for Gov. Ted Kulongoski said he plans to sign Oregon’s new hemp legislation, Senate Bill 676, into law. When that happens, Oregon will become the seventh state to allow farmers to grow hemp. And it will be the only one in the continental United States west of the Rockies. Hawaii’s governor signed a similar law this month, and Maine’s governor did the same in June.

State Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Eugene Democrat who championed Oregon’s hemp bill, did the same thing every session going back to 1997. Just as the issue moved from the fringes to the mainstream in Salem, Prozanski said he thinks recent action in statehouses, along with growing public acceptance of hemp as an industrial resource, will help compel Congress and the Obama administration to follow suit at the federal level.

“All that will have a very positive impact on getting things shifted and changed at the federal level,” Prozanski said. “I expect to see things change there within the next two years.”

A bill introduced this year in Congress with bipartisan sponsorship would make it legal for American farmers to resume growing hemp. An act of Congress would be unnecessary if the Obama administration decided to rule that industrial hemp no longer should be considered a Schedule 1 controlled substance, as it has been since 1970. Advocates of such a move, including Prozanski, say that’s the most sensible approach.

Hemp is related to marijuana — both are varieties of the cannabis sativa plant. But industrial hemp contains only trace levels of the psychoactive THC that makes marijuana an effective recreational and medicinal drug.

So how well would hemp grow in Oregon? According to a 1998 research paper by an Oregon State University crop and soil scientist, hemp is unlikely to become a major commodity in the Pacific Northwest.

For all the precipitation that befalls Oregon, not enough of it rains down during hemp’s summer growing season, wrote OSU’s Daryl Ehrensing.

Before federal drug laws and the advent of synthetic materials like nylon and petroleum-based plastics doomed hemp, it flourished in such Midwestern states as Kentucky and Wisconsin.

The same pattern has been playing out in Canada, where farmers have been legally growing hemp since 1998. Canada’s breadbasket provinces, Manitoba and Saskatchawan, have produced 81 percent of that country’s hemp crop. Westernmost British Columbia, with growing conditions more similar to Oregon, has produced 2 percent of Canadian hemp.

“The old rule of thumb is that you can grow good hemp where you can grow good corn,” Ehrensing said. “Look around the Northwest. How much corn do you see growing? Not much. There’s a reason for that, and the same would be true for hemp.”

But Ehrensing allowed that as long as growers in Oregon are willing to test the marketplace, hemp could prove a successful niche crop — especially for those with land with access to irrigation water in the Willamette Valley and in the Columbia River Basin.

Eugene’s David Seber, a veteran of Oregon’s industrial hemp movement, said much has changed since he first started working on particleboard, Fiberglas-like composite and other prototypes of hemp-based products in the early 1990s. Seber started out to find an alternative to wood-based products and reduce the need to log Northwest forests.

Now, worries about climate change have given hemp even more cache, he said, noting its potential as an alternative to petroleum-based fuel and plastic, as well as the plant’s superior ability to capture carbon emissions, which contribute to global warming.

Tom Murphy, spokesman for the Hemp Industries Association, said Oregon may prove an attractive place to grow hemp because, like the rest of the region, it has several hubs of hemp product manufacturing and consumption. Besides Eugene’s Merry Hempsters and Earthbound Creations, similar businesses in Portland and Ashland are contributing to the estimated $113 million in North American annual retail sales by companies affiliated with his hemp trade association.

“The West Coast, Oregon, Washington, California, is a huge marketplace for hemp production,” Murphy said. “And having it grown near the marketplace would be a huge advantage over growing it in North Dakota, say.”


George Washington and other founding Americans cultivated hemp.

Hemp seed was used throughout history to make paint and varnish. Hemp fiber was used for rope and canvas.

Today, it is a source of seed oil for lip balm, biofuel and a nutritious, nonallergenic ingredient in food products, including breakfast cereal and alternatives to milk and ice cream.

The long, tough fibers from hemp stalk can be used to make such products as paper, automotive door panels, homebuilding materials and clothing.

Hemp is a nonhallucinogenic variety of cannabis sativa. Congress curtailed hemp production, starting in 1937 through the Marihuana Tax Act.

Oregon is the seventh state since 1999 to allow farmers to grow industrial hemp, although it is still not allowed by the federal government.

Canada resumed the legal production of hemp in 1998. Its hemp exports increased in value from $74,949 to $3.45 million (Canadian dollars) in 2007, according to government figures.

The U.S.-based Hemp Industries Association estimates 2008 annual retail sales of all hemp products in North America to be about $360 million. The U.S. imports most of its hemp from Canada, China and Western Europe. By David Steves. Source.

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