SAFFORD — The strips of white plastic covering a field along Highway 70 east of Safford could be the start of something big in the Gila Valley. What was old in agriculture is new again, thanks to federal legislation legalizing industrial hemp and a state pilot program to grow the crop.

Once widely used, the versatile plant is seeing a resurgence that could revolutionize local agriculture and boost the economy — and at least one local grower is in on the action.

“I know of a couple of growers that are seriously looking at it,” said Randy Norton, resident director at the University of Arizona Safford Agricultural Center.

On the plastic-covered, 120-acre field east of town, one of those growers — Big Ranch Hemp — is getting set to plant its first crop. Formed in the Gila Valley, Big Ranch Hemp is among the growers in an Arizona Department of Agriculture (AZDA) pilot program.

That program was funded by Senate Bill 1098 (former State Representative Drew John was among its co-sponsors), signed into law on May 14, 2018. In December, President Donald Trump signed the 2018 Federal Farm Bill, which legalized industrial hemp by excluding it from the definition of marijuana. The Farm Bill also allowed commercialization and interstate shipment of hemp.

On June 1, 2019, AZDA issued licensing guidelines. “That’s kind of been the start date for being able to grow industrial hemp here,” Norton said.

Industrial hemp is a strain of the cannabis sativa plant, another strain of which produces marijuana. Though the two are sometimes confused, hemp generally has lower levels of THC, the component that produces the “high” of marijuana. Hemp fiber has been used to make fabrics and sail canvases; during World War II, it was grown to make rope and jute. Today, the plant is used to produce CBD (cannabidiol) oil, touted for medicinal benefits. Those, however, are only a few of its uses.

On the field leased to it by VIP Farms, where cotton was once grown, Big Ranch Hemp has been getting ready to plant. VIP Farms managing partner Dennis Palmer stressed that VIP Farms was not growing the hemp itself.

A drip irrigation system is in place, with 60-inch-wide tape running down each row, some eight inches underground. The white plastic reflects sunlight, keeping the dirt cooler and giving the future hemp crop more light. Big Ranch Hemp tentatively planned to start planting July 8.

The grower said that, between its drip system and the plant itself, the crop would use less than half the water used to flood cotton. “Hemp is a very hardy plant, and it grows a very deep taproot, so it can find its own water. It’s very good at that, so surface water isn’t as important to a hemp plant. That’s why we don’t flood.”

Norton was not as sure.

“We (at the Agricultural Center) really don’t know a lot about its water requirements. We don’t know a lot about its fertility requirements. That’s all going to be tested, and we’ll try to find that out,” he said. “From what I’ve read, there are a lot of different varieties of industrial hemp. Some are going to be more tolerant to drought than others, but at this point, we don’t have a whole lot of information about how those varieties will perform in this area.”

Norton said it was too late for the Agricultural Center to start a crop this year, but it would plant one for research purposes next spring.

Aside from water use, genetics is a crucial factor in successful hemp growth. Big Ranch Hemp’s plants are all female clones. “That’s something really big,” the grower said. “If any aspiring hemp farmer in the Gila Valley can learn anything from this, they need to learn that male hemp plants are bad.

“People that just put seeds out are going to get 50 percent males and 50 percent females, statistically. Male plants create pollen, which fertilizes the female plants, and then you’re left with a lot of seed. That’s not what we’re farming for; we’re farming for cannabinoids and fiber.”

One popular hemp product, CBD (cannabidiol) oil, has driven much of the plant’s resurgence. According to Harvard Health Publishing, studies have shown it can reduce or stop seizures in some forms of childhood epilepsy. It is also claimed to help manage chronic pain, anxiety and insomnia, but those claims await further study.

But that’s hardly the end of it; industrial hemp promises many more current and potential uses, from clothing to building materials such as hempcrete (a mix of ground hemp and binding agents) to biodegradable plastics.

“The CBD market is what’s booming now, but hemp as a whole is going to be a large part of farming throughout the Southwest, not just the Gila Valley. This is a long-term change for farmers,” the grower said.

The hemp plants are being grown at a facility in Deming, N.M., and will be transplanted here. By using cloned plants, Big Ranch Hemp estimated a crop could be harvested in around 90 days, allowing for multiple crops a year. “We could get several crops in a year in Arizona, which is one of the reasons it’s a big deal, but what a lot of people don’t understand is that there’s specific genetics that have to be planted in order to achieve that. You can’t just plant any hemp.”

Big Ranch Hemp originally planned to grow the transplants locally, but was unable to find a greenhouse location in time for this year’s hemp season. The company still hopes to find some land where it can build greenhouses, which could employ 25 to 30 people. Big Ranch Hemp also planned to hire several workers for maintenance of its field and construction.

“We know it’s exciting and we know everybody wants to get in on it, but everybody needs to remember that this about long-term sustainability in the Gila River Valley, not about today. This is something that will change your grandchildren’s lives, my children’s lives, if it’s properly done. It will have a huge impact on farming in this area for generations to come. It’s really about good farming practices,” the grower said.

“It’s all brand-new, so a lot of questions will come up that people haven’t thought about. It’s fun to watch,” Palmer said.

Farmers in Greenlee County said there are no plans to currently plant hemp; instead, growers will watch what happens in Graham County before making any changes in growing plans.

Ken Showers contributed to this report.

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