JUAN CARLO/THE STAR
Ventura County could become one of the largest hemp-growing areas in California now that commercial production has been legalized and the first season’s crop is being harvested, officials say.
Agricultural Commissioner Edmund Williams says the county could rank second or third among the 58 counties at a time when 40% of them have imposed moratoriums on hemp production.
“It’s going to be a really good boost for agriculture in Ventura County,” Williams said.
He sees no need for a ban here as farmers and investors try to cash in on the demand for health-related cannabidiol or CBD oil products made from hemp bred for industrial use. Although industrial hemp belongs to the same plant species as marijuana, it must by definition have negligible intoxicant properties.
The commissioner expects most of the hemp will be sold for CBD, a compound in over-the-counter lotions, salves, salts and oils used to relieve arthritis, anxiety, insomnia and pain. CBD is contained in edible products, too, but such use is prohibited by federal and state authorities.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved CBD for any type of pharmaceutical use except two rare and severe forms of epilepsy. Still, customers say it works.
CBD oil can fetch prices of $30 to $300 for 1 ounce, a likely factor in estimates showing industrial hemp could produce $60,000 an acre before overhead. Strawberries bring an estimated value of $70,000 or even $75,000 an acre, but the overhead costs are much higher than for hemp, Williams said.
JUAN CARLO/THE STAR
$100 million expected
Williams expects hemp to be lucrative. If no one loses a crop in the 4,100 registered acres in Ventura County, the gross estimated value would reach at least $100 million this year and likely much more than that, he said.
He said hemp could be ranked among the top five or six top-value crops in the county, running near traditional top sellers such as avocados and raspberries in the first year of commercial production.
Fields filled with the spiky green plants are nearing harvest now in western Ventura County. One stand of more than 100,000 hemp plants lies along the south side of Highway 101 in Camarillo on land owned by organic grower Phil McGrath. The smell is mild but is expected to grow more pungent when the plants blossom, an issue that regulators and growers say normally lasts just a few weeks.
McGrath has teamed up with the Ventura Seed Co., which is growing more than 1,000 acres of hemp in Ventura County and New York. The business was started by Riki Trowe and Akasha Ellis, two men who say CBD helped family members facing major illness and injury.
Trowe says regular, high doses of CBD along with other medical treatments helped his paralyzed son get out of his wheelchair and walk again after a diving accident. Ellis said his 76-year-old father has survived stage 4 throat cancer for five years with help of CBD.
“He couldn’t eat much but he survived,” Ellis said.
The two men came to Ventura County last year because of the potential of growing hemp year round, said Vanessa Ramirez, Ventura Seed’s vice president of operations.
McGrath said the new crop can be harvested by machine and requires little water — a plus for farmers grappling with labor shortages and limited water supplies. Another advantage is that hemp is grown in the summer, supplementing the normal fall to spring production season for crops such as strawberries and celery, he said.
“I think the crop has a ton of great potential economically and environmentally,” he said.
Voters weigh in
Hemp was once heavily grown as an agricultural crop in the U.S., but production dropped and then ended in the late 1950s because of legislation, anti-drug sentiment and competition from synthetic fibers, according to a 2014 report from the Congressional Research Service.
The situation started turning around in the middle part of this decade, partly because California voters allowed hemp to be grown as a commercial crop when they passed a 2016 proposition legalizing personal use and cultivation of marijuana.
Then late last year Congress legalized hemp and allowed the plant to be transported across state lines. Williams said he understands that at least two states, Kansas and Idaho, are awaiting regulations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture before they comply, but that is not the case in California.
Now, businesses are filing registration documents so they can breed seeds and grow hemp in Ventura County and other areas of the state. Previously, it had only been allowed to be grown for research purposes, Williams said.
County registration records for hemp properties show much of the investment is coming from outside the county.
“Many of the registrations are (from) people we have never heard of before,” said Andy Calderwood, the deputy agricultural commissioner in charge of the county’s hemp program. “They are various partnerships and consortiums of investors. We don’t really know beyond the name given to us who is behind all these registrations.”
Close to 40 registration applications — or permits — have been approved for breeding seeds or more commonly growing hemp. Proposed locations include the Ojai and Santa Rosa valleys, the Oxnard Plain, Moorpark, Camarillo, Somis, Ventura, Santa Paula and Fillmore.
It’s not clear where the hemp will be processed. There’s talk of opening processing plants in Oxnard, Thousand Oaks and the unincorporated area of Ventura County, but Williams knew of no plants operating in the county now.
The biggest player in the county’s hemp production appears to be HCG Partners of Las Vegas, which accounts for half of the 4,100 acres registered for hemp cultivation and seed breeding. HCG has linked up with several major growers in the county, some of them well known.
“It’s a who’s who of the Oxnard Plain,” Calderwood said.
HCG Director Saul Milrod said the partnership came to the county because the area has the best climate for growing hemp.
The organization pays fees to the growers for planting and tending the crop on their land, but does the harvesting and takes the risk, he said. HCG, which has an office in Somis, is basically made up of two principals, including himself and two investors, he said.
Milrod, a former commercial airlines pilot who lives in Beverly Hills, said he hopes for good results from the investment. But it’s hard to know yet because it’s just the first season, he said.
Other operations are on the small side.
“I wanted to have more quality control,” said the 54-year-old mortgage loan officer.
Bumpy rollout seen
Critics, though, say regulations should have been put in place to protect neighborhoods, churches and schools before the hemp was planted.
“It has not been rolled out in a very careful way,” said Ojai resident Pat Hartmann. “It’s kind of haphazard with no restrictions.”
In late August, the Ojai City Council prohibited growing of industrial hemp within the city. But cultivation is allowed in the nearby unincorporated areas under the Ventura County Board of Supervisors’ control.
Ojai Mayor Johnny Johnston has asked the board and the agricultural commissioner to stop registrations of industrial hemp-growing properties until regulations can be put in place. Included could be setbacks from schools, parks and residences and regulation of strains to ensure the odor is minimized, he said.
Williams said he is enforcing state rules regarding testing of the plants, the varieties that can be grown and registration of acreage, but has not instituted any county restrictions.
“We want to see how it all plays out,” Williams said.
He did not know of complaints from any city besides Ojai, but said that officials in Fillmore and Piru are asking questions about the new crop.
County Supervisor Steve Bennett, who represents the Ojai area, said he was not prepared to propose an emergency moratorium to the rest of the board at this time. The permits to grow hemp last for only a year, he said.
“I need more information about this before I would feel comfortable trying to sell four supervisors on an emergency moratorium, particularly when the impacts are temporary and we can reverse them after one year,” he said.
In Camarillo, the hemp growing on Phil McGrath’s land should be ready for harvest by the middle to end of October, ranch manager Dave DiNapoli said.
DiNapoli said the plants will be picked, then dried and taken to a processing facility where the CBD compound will be extracted.
More than 25,000 products can be made from industrial hemp, said Oli Bachie, a UC Cooperative Extension farm adviser in Imperial County who is studying hemp production. The plant can be used for fiber, feed, textiles and oils, but most if not all of the strains of hemp being planted in the county are for CBD, apparently because of the large profits that are expected.
Bachie would not be surprised to see that happen around the state.
“There is a huge interest in this because people want to grab the first economic benefit out of it,” Bachie said.
The plants look the same, but industrial hemp cannot have any appreciable level of THC, the primary intoxicant in marijuana and hashish. The THC level must be tested at less than three-tenths of a percent for the crop to be harvested. Otherwise, it must be destroyed, Williams said.
Looking ahead, it’s hard to know how lucrative hemp will be and when the market could be saturated, officials said.
“Until that product hits the market, no one knows what it is going to be worth,” said John Krist, CEO of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County.