New Mexico's hemp growers still waiting to strike gold. farmers into unfamiliar terrain, enticing them with profits amid turmoil in agriculture while proving to be a tricky endeavor in the early stages (Nov. COLUMBUS — New Mexico farmers eager to cash in on the hemp craze the first year they could legally plant the crop say it did not pan out. "It was like a gold rush," said James Johnson, a Columbus-area farmer. His Carzalia Valley family farm and produce company is famous for its sweet onions, but, this year, he also planted 142 acres of hemp. Johnson, like many New Mexico farmers, saw an opportunity after the federal farm bill legalized industrial hemp last December. Hundreds got licenses to grow hemp in New Mexico with an eye on the burgeoning market for Cannabidiol, commonly known as CBD, extracted from the plant. CBD is now found in a variety of products promising relief from a wide range of ailments, including chronic pain, insomnia and anxiety.
Many farmers coped with their own anxiety as they struggled with uncertainty of growing hemp in New Mexico. "I think you would have a hard time finding a grower who made a profit, and if they are, it's few and far between," Johnson said. A hemp strain named Nacho Libre at the Table of Beyond Organica during the 2019 New Mexico Hemp Conference, held in May at the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum. (Photo: Josh Bachman/NMSU) He said his crop yield was lower and the CBD content was not as high as promised by the broker who sold him the seedlings. The price he got was also a third lower than he estimated at planting time, he said. Johnson was also critical of the Department of Agriculture for the way it managed licensing. He said the greenhouse he wanted to use in New Mexico could not get a license in time to plant so he had to buy from California. "How supportive is our state when they know that timing is everything?" Johnson asked. The department so far this year has issued more than 400 licenses, including 276 licenses to grow outdoors totaling 7,540 acres, and 132 licenses for indoor growers totaling 8,334,424 square feet. 1 thing we learned is we did not anticipate the level of excitement or the number of people who would actually get licenses," said New Mexico Secretary of Agriculture Jeff Witte. Jeff Witte, director and secretary of New Mexico Department of Agriculture speaks at the announcement of 420 Valley, LLC business in Las Cruces on Wednesday, Dec. (Photo: Nathan J Fish/Sun-News) The number of hemp license applications was more than double what the NMDA expected for a beginning program, according to Witte. "There was a challenging year in the state, and quite frankly across the country, because there were a lot of people who jumped into it and basically oversupplied what was traditionally in the market," Witte said. There were plenty of novices trying their hand who had to cope with issues all farmers face from labor shortages to pests and weeds, according to Witte. But even experienced farmers had to deal with uncertainty. "This first year in New Mexico was very, very difficult," said Lucas Ogaz, agronomist and harvest manager for Seco Spice. His family has farmed chile in the Hatch and the Mesilla Valleys for four generations. Ogaz planted 20 acres of hemp on the same plot previously used for organic chile. He and others looked for expertise from neighboring Colorado, which has legally grown hemp since 2014. "Nobody had ever dealt with hemp in our climate, in our area," Ogaz said.
New Mexico State University regents approved the New Mexico Department of Agriculture’s proposed hemp manufacturing rule at its regular meeting Sept. (Photo: Courtesy of New Mexico Department of Agriculture) "You get so much sun, so much longer of a growing season that that plant is going to react differently in our area than in Colorado, California, Kentucky and in Oregon," he explained. As he watched farmers struggle, he and a team started Pharm True, a new company to manage the process from seedlings to processing to sales.
"A lot of inexperienced farmers who had never even farmed an acre in their life were jumping into this hemp game because they thought there was money to be made, not knowing there were some sharks in the water," said Ogaz. Ogaz and others said scammers moved in to take advantage of growers. Inexperience also meant some farmers did not produce quality hemp because of moisture, mold, insect damage or chemicals, according to Ogaz. And they struggled to sell their crop or find processors to extract CBD oil. Others had to destroy part or all of their harvest because the level of THC was higher than the 0.3% allowed under federal and state law.