Boulder / Eaton, Colorado
Products: Hemp seeds and CBD-infused products
Agronomist and Operations Director Damian Farris grows the cannabis used in CBD preparations, food products, and even beer at Colorado's largest licensed hemp farms.
Back when Farris was a teen in the early '90s, he first read The Emperor Wears No Clothes, Jack Herer's seminal work about the multiple uses of the then-prohibited hemp plant. "That was one of the most influential books I've probably ever read," says Farris.
Thanks to Colorado overhauling its cannabis laws in 2012 to allow for hemp cultivation along with recreational sales, Farris' company presently contracts farmers to grow hemp near where he spent time growing up in Fort Collins, as well as near other agricultural towns across Colorado: Campo in southeastern Colorado; Hooper and Antonito in the San Luis Valley; Otis and Wray on the Eastern Plains. For the last couple of years, Colorado Cultivars has been the largest licensed hemp grower in Colorado -- and the United States.
Its CBD extractions are used within wellness products: Colorado Cultivars produces white label products at its Boulder location for -- or distributes the raw ingredients to -- around 30 different companies. The company also distributes its own products under the name Moonrise Boulder. Farris says, "We have developed that to kind of showcase our ability to white label and create different formulations for clients. Our main focus is bulk production."
In addition to several other companies, Colorado Cultivars' seeds are processed and then added to products marketed by Evo, sold as seed oil and protein powder by Nutiva, and brewed into a beer made by New Belgium Brewing named, appropriately enough, The Hemperor.
Farris says he's "always been fascinated by cannabis -- and hemp specifically." In 1998, he assisted a cannabis caregiver in Oakland, California, who was working with cancer patients. Between 2009 and 2011, he ran a medical marijuana dispensary, Top Shelf Colorado in Fort Collins, before a city ban put the shop out of business. He says it soured him somewhat on the city's voters and the medical marijuana business, but not on hemp.
After Amendment 64 passed in Colorado in 2012, Farris says, "I started walking fencelines, again, and railroad tracks and irrigation ditches -- places where I'd seen hemp previously." He says the majority of the grain varieties which he grows for seeds originated in Colorado.
In 2014 (the first year cultivation was allowed), Colorado Cultivars planted around 30 grams of feral hemp seeds which Farris had accrued. After that year's harvest, Colorado Cultivars had enough seeds -- and cloned plants started in an indoor facility -- to sow 294 acres in 2015.
In 2018, the company has planted about 1,250 acres of grain-producing plants and about 250 acres of high-CBD varieties. Farris expects an increase in seed volume: Colorado Cultivars has purchased two grain bins in Eaton, which can hold 500,000 pounds of seed each.
Also in Eaton, the company extracts CBD, using ethanol, from the plants. Farris says he's working on breeding plant varieties which will be able to produce both both seeds and CBD abundantly -- thereby eliminating some of the labor attendant with planting the CBD-rich varieties.
In a field a few yards away from the intersection of two county roads in Eaton, Farris walks up to an unfenced, 11-acre stand of hemp just starting to produce seeds; the plants are densely packed together, some already towering three or more feet above Farris, who's 6'3". The THC within the plants is nearly undetectable, says Farris, reaching around .014 percent by weight.
Farris also points out a separate field of CBD-rich plants which are spaced five to seven feet apart from their centers, so the plants will be able to bush out and bud with enough room between them; he says there are close to 60,000 plants in the 58-acre field. The strain he's growing produces 14 to 18 percent CBD, with a low, 0.2 to .25 percent THC content -- perfectly legal within the definition of industrial hemp.
Farris says local farmers have welcomed the additional, grain rotation crop, and law enforcement has been cooperative. (He has even conducted an informational tour for Senator Michael Bennet at one of his fields.) From his pickup truck, Farris points out organic corn "looking awesome," where organic hemp grew the previous year -- and vice versa: "These [farmers] have an opportunity to get a lot more money than they would with corn, and just, in general, heal their land and provide a healthy crop for people to eat."
Or drink? Farris appears within a video produced by New Belgium about its beer, The Hemperor HPA. New Belgium brews the beer using Colorado Cultivars' hemp hearts -- the insides of the de-hulled seeds -- which Farris says add a "creaminess" to the beer. As part of the novelty of the brew, New Belgium attempted to match the smell of cannabis plants using non-cannabis ingredients. "That was their goal," says Farris. "When somebody opened or poured it, it would smell like someone opened a dank bag of herb. And they achieved that goal, for sure."
Farris, 41, has achieved a goal of his, as well. Asked if he ever imagined himself growing fields of hemp in Colorado, after reading The Emperor Wears No Clothes all those years ago, he responds, "I hoped. In, like, my biggest fantasies, I figured I'd have to go to Europe -- and I figured I might be in my 60s, 70s, before it was possible. To do it right in the area I grew up in is just so cool."
Challenges: The federal -- if not state -- illegality still surrounding cannabis, which makes banking, crop insurance, and financing difficult -- or impossible -- to obtain. Farris says, "Farmers that we work with, several banks have -- once they hear that they're doing hemp -- [the banks] say if you do hemp, then we will not fund any of your non-hemp projects. So that's a big problem."
He adds, "Farming is financed. There are very few people who pay up front. And without that ability to get the crop financed, that limits what can happen. . . . Crop insurance is also a big problem, because farming's very expensive and it's very volatile." In northeastern Colorado, hailstorms are a threat. "Hemp, corn, and beans get completely destroyed by hail," says Farris.
Opportunities: People becoming more aware of the health benefits of CBD. "The market for that is absolutely massive here in the United States and throughout the world," says Farris
There's also the market for organic hemp foods from domestic seed sources, he adds. "There's just a huge opportunity, right now. I would say 99.8 percent of all hemp food is coming out of Canada."
Needs: Farris says a change in federal law is needed, noting, "De-scheduling hemp, and being treated as just any [other] agricultural commodity."
There might be a greater demand eventually for hemp stalks for paper, fiber, or building materials. But, for now, the stalks are plowed back into the fields. So far, the high cost to bale the hemp versus the low market market price for the stalks makes it economically unfeasible to market. What's needed? "Local infrastructure with the equipment in place to handle the agricultural side of the volume."