Imperial Valley’s Hemp Hubris Meets Harsh Reality » Holtville Tribune


Hearing Imperial County officials talk about it, hemp was a miracle crop that would turbo-charge the Valley’s economy and create much-needed jobs.

Valley farmers successfully grew hemp for fiber until its cultivation was banned in 1937. Fast-forward about seven decades, and not only was it legal again to grow hemp, but the market was hot, hot, hot.

A closeup shot of a hemp plant flowering on an experimental Imperial County farm circa 2018-2109. | COURTESY FILE PHOTO

Growers in other states were rushing to plant hemp. Processors were extracting cannabidiol and infusing it into a multitude of over-the-counter medications, beauty products, and food and beverages items, and CBD-enriched products were flying off the shelves.

And Imperial Valley growers and officials were dreaming big.

They had wide tracts of prime agricultural land, access to all the water they needed, plenty of sunshine and generations of know-how in making the desert bloom. They envisioned vertically integrated projects with which they could control every step of the process, from seed to market, from cultivation to processing to packaging.

Then came the reality check.

Hubris, bad timing, and glacial bureaucracy meant just one of the projects would eventually get off the ground. The market crashed, crops were left rotting in the fields, and the most ambitious of the projects was torn apart by litigation, bankruptcy, and the sale of assets for pennies on the dollar.

“My deal was over half a million dollars. Some growers lost millions of dollars. It’s one of those life lessons. Even my wife said, ‘You knew better, why’d you do it?’ But my friends were going to do it, and I didn’t want to miss out,” Brawley-area farmer Alex Jack said in a recent interview.

“It was a decision like a 12-year-old would make,” Jack added.

Two years after hemp seeds went into the ground, nearly every party growing or processing hemp in Imperial County had lost large amounts of money and had reconsidered their approach to the crop.

Jack Vessey of Holtville’s Vessey and Co. is custom growing about 19 acres of hemp for a customer from out of town on a plot near Holtville. The crop will be used to harvest CBD from the plants’ flowers. | PHOTO COURTESY OF JACK VESSEY

“The hemp that we grew was for CBD oil,” said John Currier, a hemp grower and part-owner of the Valley’s sole operational press, Imperial CBD Extraction.

“There is a different type of hemp for fiber. That’s going to be huge,” he said.

If there is a future for the crop in the Imperial Valley, it looks to be on the back on the biomass it produces, which can be used in building materials, fiber, and other longer-term goods.

What isn’t as certain is the future of the formerly explosive profit-heavy CBD market, whose ship appears to have sailed to some degree. But that doesn’t mean men like the Currier brothers won’t find their sea legs among the choppy waters.

Will anyone else?

A Slow Burn

California took some baby steps toward industrial hemp cultivation in 2013 with the passage of Senate Bill 566, which redefined marijuana to exclude industrial hemp, and regulated the production of hemp by established agricultural research institutions and commercial growers.

But there was one major issue: The latter section was not immediately effective and was subject to federal approval.

The passage of the 2014 Farm Bill defined hemp as distinct from marijuana, and authorized universities and state departments of agriculture in states that legalized hemp cultivation to regulate and conduct research programs.

However, then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris issued an opinion noting that certain provisions of SB 566 were “inoperative to the extent that they apply or pertain to any form of industrial hemp cultivation not authorized by federal law.”

Commercial cultivation was still not legal.

An Imperial Valley College student intern examines a hemp field as part of one of the college’s agreements with a local grower in 2019 to tie the ability to grow hemp in Imperial County and use Imperial Irrigation District water to experimental pro-grams with educational/research institutions. | PHOTO COURTESY OF IMPERIAL VALLEY COLLEGE

The approval of Proposition 64 in 2016 removed the last major hurdle to industrial hemp production in California. Prop. 64 amended the California Food & Agriculture Code to make those relevant hemp provisions go into effect on Jan. 1, 2017.

But California was late to the party.

Farmers in 15 other states were already growing hemp on a combined 9,649 acres, according to Vote Hemp, a hemp farming advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. Colorado’s growers were cultivating the lion’s share of the crop, with 5,921 acres, followed by Kentucky, with 2,525 acres.

In April 2017, the state Department of Food and Agriculture tasked each of California’s 58 county agricultural commissioners with hemp registration in their respective areas.

Seven months later, in November, the Imperial County Board of Supervisors passed its first policies legislating “Cannabis and Industrial Hemp” in a combined ordinance.

That set up the Agricultural Commissioner’s office as the “enforcement agency” over “industrial hemp activity,” according to the ordinance. Growers that wanted to cultivate hemp in the Imperial Valley for industrial purposes would need to register with the office of Agricultural Commissioner Carlos Ortiz. But other states were faster, and the market was heating up.

The number of states growing hemp increased from 15 in 2016 to 19 in 2017, and total acreage nearly tripled to 25,713.

Two Imperial Valley College interns documents the growth of an experimental in-dustrial hemp research plot grown by an Imperial County farmer under an agreement with the college in 2019. | PHOTO COURTESY OF IMPERIAL VALLEY COL-LEGE

“Farmers around the country the previous three years made more money growing hemp than they made growing anything else,” Alex Jack said. “When the opportunity arrived here in Imperial Valley, people jumped on it.”

Collapse and Fail

People commonly think that agriculture entails planting seeds, irrigation and harvesting. They’re not wrong. But there is more.

Commercial growers depend on crops for their livelihoods, so their overriding concern is profitability. In short, every crop they plant needs to bring in more money than it costs to produce. It doesn’t make sense to plant or harvest a crop that does not have a buyer. This means that every crop they plant needs to have a “home,” as growers say.

For hemp, this necessitated local processing plants to buy the harvest from growers and extract the CBD oil for wholesalers and other buyers.

“We envisioned about 25,000 acres of hemp supporting half a dozen presses,” said Ryan Kelley, District 4 Imperial County supervisor, and a big advocate for the crop.

Ryan Kelley, Imperial County District 4 Supervisor

The county Board of Supervisors, with Kelley as its chairman at the time, was so bullish on the plant’s promise that it organized a hemp summit with the Imperial Valley Economic Development Corp. in September 2019, which drew hundreds of businesspeople, growers, marketers, and advocates.

But growers and investors had significant hurdles they needed to overcome if they expected to make good on the hype.

Banks were leery of lending money to growers to cultivate what once was a controlled substance.

The Imperial Irrigation District informed its growers in a letter that it would not deliver water to hemp fields because cannabis was listed a Schedule I controlled substance under the Federal Controlled Substances Act.

Interestingly, that letter, dated April 16, 2019, explained how farmers could get around this hurdle: Hemp cultivated for educational purposes or as…


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