Marana hemp farmer optimistic despite industry growing pains

Updated: Jan. 21, 2020 at 11:12 AM MST
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MARANA, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - The budding hemp industry in Arizona is experiencing growing pains. Many farmers are being forced to destroy their crops because the high from the plants is just too high.

According to the Department of Agriculture, about 41% of hemp plants in the state have failed early THC testing.

“I was very surprised about the reports,” said Sully Sullivan, the Executive Director of the Hemp Industry Trade Association of Arizona. “It was quite shocking.”

However, one local hemp grower says he is not shocked by the findings.

“I’m surprised it’s not a higher number of plants that had to be destroyed,” said Bruce Laird, the Owner of Avra Valley Growers.

Laird is currently growing produce on a plot of land at Leapin Lizard Farms near Anway Road and Avra Valley Road. Before growing fresh fruits and vegetables, he worked in the cannabis industry.

“[It] just became legal to grow industrial hemp here in Arizona in 2019,” said Laird.

So, Laird obtained the necessary licenses to grow and process hemp last summer. He says he grew a small crop in the fall but didn’t test the THC level before it was killed by frost.

He says he was expecting non-compliant hemp crops from growers this year because no hemp seeds have been specifically bred for Arizona’s climate.

“[Industrial hemp is] the same plant as what would be marijuana. The USDA and federal regulations are still being figured out, but basically a plant that tests at .03% THC or less is considered hemp,” said Laird. “THC, in specific, is a UV protectant for the plant. So, in areas where there is high UV -- which we have pretty high UV numbers here -- you are going to have higher THC production. It’s just a matter of nature. The right cultivar needs to be used here in Arizona; it’s going to have to be produced here in Arizona. It’s not like we can bring in another seed in from Europe and expect the same results right away.”

Laird says the type of soil being used also impacts THC levels. He plans to harvest his hemp before the crop flowers to ensure less THC and a higher-quality fiber.

“As Arizona hemp seed companies produce and breed hemp seed in Arizona, that is acclimated and adapted to Arizona’s climate and environment, farmers will have greater success when using these in-state seeds,” said Sullivan. “Some Arizona hemp seed companies are now producing the first generation of Arizona hemp seed as we speak. It takes roughly three generations for hemp seed to adapt to a new climate. It could take 1-2 years for Arizona hemp seed genetics to stabilize and adapt to the Arizona environment.”

Laird is confident hemp will be profitable not only for farmers making CBD oil, but also for farmers making fiber.

“The cotton quality that comes out of this area is superb, it’s right in line with Egyptian cotton in terms of quality,” said Laird. “The hemp fiber that is produced here will be of the same quality.”

He plans to expand his hemp-growing business in the coming years and will look to partner with other farmers. Laird says he is also looking into what it would take to get a hemp fiber processing plant up and running in the state.

In the meantime, he believes his other crops will benefit.

“It’s going to increase the health of our soil and increase the water retention of our soil,” said Laird.

According to the Hemp Industry Trade Association of Arizona, there are about 160 licensed hemp growers in the state. The association is expecting that number to double this year.

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