Colorado’s Hemp Industry Evolves and Positions Itself for the Future

Colorado’s Hemp Industry Evolves and Positions Itself for the Future
Image: Mike Scheid/Unsplash
October 18, 2023

Colorado has one of the oldest hemp programs in the country and, like many other states, it has been seeing ongoing contraction in its hemp sector in recent years. This article provides information on the current state of industrial hemp production in Colorado, how the landscape has changed since the crop was reintroduced in the state, and what lies ahead for Colorado hemp.

When asked about the current hemp season, Brian Koontz, Hemp Program Manager at the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA), was less than enthusiastic. Hemp production, he noted, is once again slower than the previous year. “We’re down to 132 registrations, which is where we were when we started in 2014 [when the state’s hemp research pilot program began],” Koontz told Hemp Benchmarks. “We’re down to 1,200 registered acres, with 772 acres actually planted.”

Hemp Fiber Acreage Increases and Finds a Foothold

However there are some signs that Colorado’s hemp sector is evolving and putting itself in position for growth. “Probably the biggest change this year … is the percentage of hemp fiber acreage has gone up to 30%, from 10% last year,” Koontz noted. He said that roughly 70% of Colorado’s hemp acres remain devoted to CBD and other cannabinoids.

Koontz pointed out that the nature of farming hemp for fiber necessitates larger plots, which can lead to notable jumps in acreage like that seen this year. “That’s very easy to do, for that swing to happen dramatically, because hemp growers [in Colorado] are growing under circles, [using irrigation] pivots in 120 acre-plus fields.” In contrast, Koontz added, the average size for a CBD / cannabinoid hemp plot is five acres or fewer. “It’s not economically feasible to grow five acres of fiber,” he added. “Not even 10 acres is really adequate. You need 50 acres-plus to even have a viable [fiber] crop, commercially.”

According to Koontz, nearly all of Colorado’s hemp fiber production is currently taking place in the southern part of the state, in the San Luis Valley. “There’s a hemp processing facility there that’s very active, very aggressive, that’s contracting acres,” he said. However, that facility has fallen short of its goal of 5,000 acres of fiber hemp in Colorado this year, instead contracting fewer than 1,000 acres in the state. As a result, Koontz added, that facility has been forced to go to New Mexico, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, and other nearby states to contract with farmers there.

Grain Hemp Still Stifled, but Potential New Approval May Bring Change

As for hemp grain, Koontz believes the lack of movement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding the legality of hemp grain as livestock feed continues to hamper that market. He observed that so far two states, Texas and Kentucky, have approved hemp grain for horses and chickens, while Montana has done so for pets, specialty pets, and horses.

According to Koontz, Colorado could soon be added to that list. “The Colorado Department of Agriculture is looking favorably on it, to approve … [hemp grain] feed for horses and chickens. I think it’s very possible it could happen this year or the beginning of next year.”

Farm Bill Concerns

Another factor behind the contracting hemp market, according to Koontz, is a concern over the upcoming Farm Bill in Congress. As we mentioned in a recent article, hemp industry stakeholders are watching closely to see how the new Farm Bill will impact hemp businesses, while also engaging with lawmakers to ensure that the multifaceted industry’s needs are addressed.

The current version of the Farm Bill, which legalized hemp back in 2018, officially expired at the end of September, although it was widely anticipated that work on the new Farm Bill would continue well into the autumn.

However, according to Koontz, the current dysfunction in the Republican caucus that has left the House of Representatives without a Speaker, along with a potential government shutdown in November, could delay hemp reforms even further. Koontz said D.C. policy consultants, lobbyists, and others he’s spoken with expect that passage of the 2023 Farm Bill will likely not take place until sometime in 2024.

Those delays, he added, will impact changes that the hemp industry is counting on, such as the elimination of required THC testing for hemp fiber and grain, as well as an increase in the maximum THC threshold for hemp from the current 0.3% to 1%.

Future is Hazy, but Hemp is Here to Stay in Colorado

When it comes to what might be next for Colorado’s hemp industry, Koontz said there are too many factors at play to make an accurate prediction. Still, he believes that if the established hemp companies and facilities in the state can survive the recent downturns, then hemp can remain an important crop in the state. “Anything that would remove the risks would encourage traditional farmers to participate in hemp cultivation,” he said.

Koontz also noted that hemp stakeholders in Colorado are looking to establish a hemp center in the state at some point in the near future, similar to the Global Hemp Innovation Center at Oregon State University and the Hemp Research Team at Cornell University in New York.

Colorado hemp producers, along with CDA, he said, are “hopeful that there will eventually be a Center of Excellence funded at some point, web-based or even a facility hosted by Colorado State University, to give hemp farmers the tools and information they need to cultivate hemp.”

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