Hemp creates political stink in Emma; Pitkin County sniffs out issues
The boom in the industrial hemp business has Raphael Fasi smelling opportunity.
After planting fields in Silt for the past four years, Fasi expanded his scope of operation and planted hemp on his wife’s family’s farm in Emma this summer. About 7,000 hemp seedlings were hand-planted on four acres of ground that had been fallow. He is confident the hemp is well suited to the high elevation, cool nights and warm days in the mid-Roaring Fork Valley.
“I already know it’s going to do well,” Fasi said while on a recent tour of the field. “It’s a question of how well.”
While Fasi smells opportunity, next-door neighbor Cathy Markle fears she will smell a “stench” once the hemp crop flowers. A corner of the field is within 20 feet of her bedroom window. Her work on Google Maps indicated there are 65 residences within one-half mile of the field, as the crow flies. The property is in the heart of Emma, not far from the old schoolhouse and the Rio Grande Trail.
“It is an inappropriate area to grow this stinky stuff,” Markle said.
She contends cultivation of hemp will drive down property values and interfere with the use and enjoyment of her property. She took her complaints to Pitkin County commissioners in May and asked them to pass a moratorium prohibiting planting of industrial hemp until local regulations were considered.
Commission chairman Steve Child said it was premature for the county to take action. The board discussed it briefly and determined they want to monitor conditions this growing season and see if there is an issue that needs to be addressed.
“Cathy’s on the losing end of the experiment, unfortunately,” Child said.
Fasi is taking the big stink in stride.
He complied with Colorado Department of Agriculture regulations and got a license to plant industrial hemp. He said hemp is a viable crop that will enable farmers to make a living from the land and avoid selling out for development. He is eager to teach people about the crop.
“It’s giving an option where a farmer can make a good living for 20, 30, 40 years,” he said.
Hemp and marijuana are both a strain of the cannabis sativa L. plant. While marijuana remains illegal in the eyes of the federal government, industrial hemp was removed as a Schedule I controlled substance in the 2018 Farm Bill. Colorado allowed growing hemp earlier than the federal government, Fasi said.
The value of the Farm Bill from the perspective of a Colorado grower is it allowed transport of hemp and its products across state lines. That’s led to booming business.
Federal law allows hemp to have only 0.3% THC, the psychoactive ingredient that produces a “high.” That’s significantly lower than THC levels in marijuana strains. With that low of level of THC, hemp’s value is for the cannabinoid or CBD, which is being used in everything from dog treats to salves, edibles and smoking material for humans. Many people believe it has beneficial health effects and it is used for relaxation.
Fasi and business partner Connor Corgiat cut their chops in the cannabis business in California and founded Sirh Farms. They moved their operation to Silt, where they have planted and harvested hemp on 60 acres annually since 2016. The extract is sold to companies that make CBD products.
“We do everything from A to Z except end products,” he said.
In Emma, Fasi is growing hemp that can be smoked. He put down weed barrier, installed a drip irrigation system and then planted by having two workers riding machinery place the 7,000 seedlings in holes in the ground.
On a recent warm afternoon, Fasi explained how he was watering only occasionally to make the plants’ roots burrow deep into the earth and establish strong plants. While the hemp plants are only a few inches tall now, they will shoot to about 6 feet tall after maturing during the sun-drenched days of July and August.
Hemp and marijuana look similar, so Fasi plans to post signs at his Emma field making it clear that the product is hemp.
The plants will flower in mid- to late-September into early October. The plants will be monitored by Sirh Farms to make sure the TCH level remains below the 0.3% threshold. State regulators also check for compliance.
The hemp flowers will produce a similar odor to marijuana, but it won’t be as potent, Fasi said. He noted that the field is downwind of Markle’s house, given the prevailing westerly winds in the valley.
Members of the Emma Caucus are reluctant to welcome hemp into their neighborhood. The caucus provides a collective voice to the county government on land-use and other issues. Markle took her concerns about the hemp operation to the caucus May 11.
“There is no way that anyone in this valley wants to smell marijuana,” Markle wrote to caucus members. “We cannot have worked so hard to protect this valley from marijuana stench and everything else that goes with it, and let this happen.”
The caucus leadership surveyed members later in May and found 46 against hemp cultivation and 17 in support.
Given the stance of the caucus and the fact that the Emma Master Plan recommends prohibiting the growing of cannabis, Markle is frustrated that Pitkin County didn’t stop Fasi from planting.
Child said it’s not that easy. Agriculture is a use by right in most parts of rural Pitkin County.
“It is a legally allowed agricultural product,” he said of hemp.
The Colorado Department of Agricultural has issued three licenses for growing of hemp in Pitkin County — Fasi’s field, farther down the road in Emma at Happy Day Ranch and in the Crystal River Valley at Sustainable Settings, according to Child.
He said he urged Markle to keep a journal noting any problems she has, odor or otherwise, with the hemp field next to her property. He said it would likely be appropriate for the county environmental health department to assess any complaints about odor.
Child said the county did an extensive investigation of complaints to work with the owners of a grow operation in Holland Hills outside of Basalt to eliminate odors. The difference is that was an indoor operation where eliminating odor came down to engineering and money. The hemp fields are outdoors.
Child said in the future, it might behoove the county to have anyone who wants to grow hemp to get a permit from the county, just as it gets one from the state. The county must also gauge if there is an issue with hemp fields being located around residences and, if so, restrict where they are allowed through zoning.
Pitkin County Commissioner and Emma area resident George Newman agreed county officials need to wait to see if hemp produces an issue.
“We’ll be curious to see if there is a problem,” he said. “If it becomes an issue, I think the county can look at zoning changes.”
Fasi said he willing to do what it required on the regulatory side. For now, he is looking forward to the experiment to see how hemp grows in the midvalley environment. He stressed the crop’s versatility and sustainability.
The flowers will be separated from stalks this fall and sold for smoking. Stalks will be sold for everything from fiber for use in textiles to bedding material for livestock.
“Every part of the plant will be used,” Fasi said.
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