PHOENIX — It is a new crop that holds a lot of promise for Arizona. Far from the flashy dispensaries that grow medical marijuana behind ten foot high walls and in greenhouses, this cash crop will be growing right out in the open.
Farmers all over Arizona are now gearing up to grow hemp. Since the state legalized the crop last year, the Arizona Department of Agriculture has been working to set up rules and licensing for those who are interested in growing the crop. Even though it's legal, it will be heavily regulated by the state because of its close relationship to marijuana. By law, hemp cannot have any more than 0.3% of THC in it, the ingredient in marijuana that provides the high.
Bruce Perlowin, a California businessman, is one of many who is already setting his sights on Arizona to grow what he calls a cash crop.
"Hemp means a goldmine for Arizona. An absolute goldmine," he said.
Perlowin is already running two successful hemp growing and processing operations in Oregon and North Carolina. His company has created a product using industrial hemp to clean up oil spills.
Perlowin has already purchased about 545 acres of farmland near Kingman. He plans to set up what he calls a 'hemp village' there and hire dozens of veterans to work the farm.
Perlowin said this was his way to give back to veterans who had protected our country. He said he plans to provide other services for them, including counseling for PTSD or other issues they may be facing, and stock in the company to give them a sense of ownership.
"Hemp is actually bypassing marijuana in price point, and you don't get high," said Perlowin.
Perlowin also wants to start a 'hemp university' in Arizona where farmers interested in growing the crop could get education and advice from those already experienced in the industry. He added that farmers he knew in other states were already cashing in.
"When a farmer can make $100,000 an acre that is good money. That allows the small family farm to re-emerge into the American landscape--including Arizona," said Perlowin.
Despite the promise and optimism from so many, Pinal County farmer Paul Ollerton said he was taking a cautious approach toward farming Hemp.
He liked the fact that hemp required much less water than the cotton or alfalfa he was currently farming.
"To me, it's promising as another crop," said Ollerton, "but there's a lot of things we just don't know."
One of his concerns was how the crop would fare in the scorching triple-digit heat. Ollerton had said he had heard THC levels in a plant could go up when it is stressed.
State officials have said any plant with more than 0.3% of THC in it would be officially considered marijuana and illegal to grow without a medical marijuana license.
Ollerton said he feared that could lead to the destruction of his entire field of hemp.
"That's a sizeable loss taken right out of my pocket if I can't harvest it," said Ollerton.
Perlowin said in all his years working in the hemp industry he had never seen that happen. He said farmers would need to educate themselves on the right conditions and strains to grow. The farms he had been in had mobile labs set out in the field constantly monitoring the THC levels to ensure compliance.
Perlowin said if the THC levels got to 0.3% they would harvest the crop earlier.
Hemp is also expected to bring many new jobs to Arizona.
While there is no official estimate at this point, Arizona Farm Bureau officials said the anticipated hemp boom could lead to jobs not only on the farms but also processing plants to turn the crop into an industrial product or cannabinoids.
Hemp is used industrially as rope, textile and paper, while its extracts form the basis of several therapeutic products, such as CBD.
Economic impact studies are showing that hemp and CBD could grow up to 700% by 2020.
"We know it's a burgeoning market, there is really a demand for it in varying forms," said Chelsea McGuire, the government relations director for the Arizona Farm Bureau.
If a new bill proposed by state Senator Sonny Borrelli passes, Arizona farmers could start planting their first hemp seeds by early June.
All farmers will have to apply and receive a state license.