Jim Hutchens is as surprised as anyone that he ended up in the hemp business.
The 55-year-old retired Army and commercial pilot, who lives in Boise, says he flew counter-narcotics missions in the 1990s. His son got interested in growing cannabis after Oregon legalized it, so he read extensively about it.
“It took me about six months,” he said. “With a lot of research and pushing from my son, the fact is, the medicinal qualities of this plant way outweigh the bias people have against it in the recreational aspect. This is a phenomenal plant, and it does amazing things. I never in my life would have dreamed I would say that.”
Last October, he and several business partners opened Treasure Valley Extraction in the clubhouse of an old city golf course in Ontario. They’re extracting cannabinoid oil, or CBD oil, from hemp flowers in a lab built in the basement. They plan to relocate their seed factory from Portland to Ontario.
CBD is a sought-after substance that’s used in a growing number of health and wellness products. CVS and Walgreens announced last week that they will be carrying products containing CBD in some states, but not in Idaho.
Cannabis is illegal in Idaho — both marijuana and hemp. State law doesn’t distinguish between the two; anything that tests positive for the psychoactive drug THC is prohibited. Hemp contains miniscule amounts of THC, and it doesn’t give users a high the way marijuana does.
So Hutchens is on the road seven days a week, traveling to a site just over the Oregon state line, where it’s not illegal.
“It was either not do it, or do it in Oregon,” he said.
The end of this legislative session in Idaho could be a game-changer, though: The federal farm bill passed in December legalized industrial hemp, and the Idaho Legislature is considering a bill that would legalize hemp. The House passed it and the Senate will take it up at 9 a.m. Monday.
Hutchens said he isn’t paying much attention to what happens in Idaho. He’s just glad to be ahead of any future competition.
“If there are places where it’s illegal, it gives it a little naughtiness that keeps it in the news and keeps people interested,” said Hutchens, who estimates that he and his partners have invested nearly $2 million in their hemp seed and CBD extraction businesses. “Having it a little bit illegal is good for business.”
Idaho County farmer Mark Frei, a county commissioner who grows wheat and other crops on a 5,000-acre family farm near Grangeville, is interested in growing hemp because the United States is losing wheat markets to other exporters, such as Russia.
“To me, Idaho is being backwoods and putting its head in the sand,” Frei said. “The federal government has deregulated [hemp] and said it’s not a controlled substance. Other states are years ahead in [hemp] research. I kind of just don’t understand what the hold-up is for Idaho.”
Hemp growing in Oregon
Hemp farming has been legal in Oregon since 2015, and now there are more than 600 registered growers around the state, according to Sunny Summers, cannabis policy coordinator for the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Malheur County, home to Ontario, has a dozen registered growers and another dozen registered for hemp seeds and processing/handling.
Growers pay $1,300 for registration, and that’s good for a calendar year.
Data collected from growers by the department shows a huge increase in hemp acreage in Oregon over the past five years, from 105 in 2015 to 20,278 in 2019.
Clint Shock, who was director of Oregon State University’s Malheur Experiment Station in Ontario from 1984 to 2018, estimates that hemp acreage in Malheur will grow from a few hundred acres last year to a couple of thousand this year.
He said hemp grows well there.
“It likes the dry weather,” Shock said. “The dry weather is better than the moist weather in western Oregon. It likes the long growing season. There are lots of soils where it grows real well.”
He said the common method of growing hemp in the West is labor intensive. Pesticides aren’t used and the buds are taken off by hand, but farmers are experimenting with ways to mechanize the crop. Growing hemp for CBD requires seeds/plants that are all female, so growers have to be vigilant that male pollen doesn’t ruin the crop.
“Most people growing it have no background, and even if they have background, they think that they can grow it like they grow alfalfa or corn or wheat or something like that,” said Shock, a plant breeding expert who will growing 20 different types of hemp on 2 or 3 acres this year in hopes of identifying the best for a modern, efficient crop. “It’s a very intensive enterprise. It needs a lot of thought and planning.”
Greg Willison, a retired New Plymouth farmer, and his son grew about 6 acres of hemp near Coos Bay, Oregon, in 2017. They grew hemp for CBD extraction.
“Five to 10 acres is plenty the first time,” said Willison, who hand-weeded and looked for male plants every other day . “It turned out to be a lot more work than what we anticipated, and it kind of wore me out a little bit.”
But they were handsomely rewarded for the effort.
“I made more money on an acre of [hemp] than I did on farming 150 acres [of row crops],” said Willison, who shared his experiences in Oregon with Idaho lawmakers.
Golf clubhouse to hemp lab
Hutchens and his son initially planned to grow marijuana but decided against that after prices plummeted, and Oregon temporarily stopped accepting new applications for licenses.
They started a hemp seed factory in Portland and grew 10 acres of hemp in Malheur County. Soon after their first harvest, they looked for a place to build an extraction laboratory.
An Ontario official suggested the former Shadow Butte Municipal Golf Course, near the airport. The golf course has been closed since at least 2013, City Manager Adam Brown said.
The Ontario City Council voted unanimously to lease the property to Treasure Valley Extraction. The 20-year lease starts at $2,000 a month and escalates by the consumer price index until it reaches market rate, Brown said.
Hutchens, who grew up in Vale, is partnering in the business with a group of friends from high school, including former history teacher Dave Eyler.
“It’s kind of an adventure,” said Eyler, who works in the extraction lab and with local farmers who are growing hemp. “I’m really right-brained. I like poetry, art and music. This is all left-brained, mechanical. It’s been fun having a different challenge.”
The basement lab is operating while they renovate the main floor of the golf club building. Steel doors, cameras and alarm system are in, but there’s a lot left to do on the bathrooms and offices. They plan to build greenhouses for seed production on the 10-acre site.
The seed they produce will be provided to contracted growers in Malheur County and Roseburg, and they’ll use the hemp produced by those growers to extract CBD. They’ve processed 20,000 pounds of hemp in the past few months, and next year expect to handle about 500,000 pounds.
The hemp is brought into the lab in 300-pound bags. It’s crushed and compressed in a 72-hour process involving a lot of expensive equipment, including carbon dioxide and ethanol extractors. The end product is THC-free CBD isolate, a fine white powder, Hutchens said.
Treasure Valley Extraction is the first hemp extraction facility to open in Ontario, but two others are being built, said Dan Cummings, community development director for the city. An Eagle resident associated with one of those under construction declined to comment for this story.
“A lot of people are saying the hemp industry is going to be bigger and better than the marijuana industry,” Cummings said.
Treasure Valley Extraction hasn’t done much marketing of CBD, other than putting up a website and a couple of ads on industry boards. They don’t need to.
“We are inundated with phone calls from around the world,” Hutchens said. “They’re finding us. We’re just making it as fast as we can.”