Credit: Hemp Industries Association | Hemp is commonly grown for its seeds, but it may soon become a source of cannabidiol.
Grass Valley, Ore., is about two hours east of Portland, on the dry side of the Cascade Range. It’s a farming community, but growing conditions are tough; the area gets only about 28 cm of rain per year.
Winter wheat and spring barley have always dominated the landscape there, but recently, a handful of farmers, with help from Phil Swindells, are considering a change: growing hemp for cannabidiol.
Hemp is a different variety of Cannabis sativa from the psychoactive plant commonly known as marijuana. It has been cultivated since prehistoric times for the fiber in its stalk and more recently for its edible seeds. The flowers of both hemp and marijuana plants contain cannabinoids, but in hemp they are almost entirely in the form of cannabidiol, more commonly known as CBD.
Swindells and his father founded Golden Ratio Distribution a little over a year ago to derive CBD from hemp for wholesale buyers. They recently purchased the town’s abandoned elementary school for their headquarters.
“Our top goal is to help the community and our farmers grow a new crop,” Swindells says. “Growing hemp can help to boost the agriculture economy here.” This summer the company’s workers will grow their second crop of hemp. Swindells and his colleagues are busy installing equipment to process flowers from the grassy plants to make high-purity CBD.
Although growing hemp and selling CBD is still illegal under federal law, the 2014 Farm Billallowed states to oversee programs to grow the crop. Language to legalize hemp and hemp products is now part of the 2018 Farm Bill, which was approved by the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee last month.
Hemp’s complicated legal status makes it difficult to purchase seeds, so Swindells hopes to become self-sufficient by producing his own hemp seeds to distribute to local growers. It’s an opportunity to fine-tune varieties by selecting for vigorous plants that produce a lot of CBD. Because the international market for CBD requires a THC content of less than 0.3%, Golden’s cohead of horticulture, Conner Luckey, is aiming for plants with nondetectable levels of the psychoactive compound.
Luckey shows a visitor a greenhouse full of young hemp plants. By harvesttime they will reach as tall as 3 meters, and their flowers will contain 5% CBD by dry weight. The waste flower material is used for compost, while the plant’s stalks can be used to make high-quality specialty paper products, including “hempvelopes,” Luckey says.
Meanwhile, in a light-filled classroom at the back of the school, vacuum pumps hum and rotovaps turn as workers boil off ethanol from a dark, oily substance. This first processing step results in a molasses-thick mixture of plant resins and chlorophyll. The CBD-rich distillate can be used in cosmetic ingredients such as skin creams or processed into tinctures. To get pure CBD, workers put the distillate through a second solvent-extraction process to produce a powder of white crystals.
Swindells says he’s planning to sell CBD ingredients to nutraceutical, pharmaceutical, and other markets. That would put the business in competition with some forms of medical marijuana; the CBD in GW Pharmaceuticals’ Epidiolex is obtained from marijuana plants.
Assuming hemp-derived CBD finds its way into approved medicines, however, Swindells says he’ll be ready to meet U.S. Food & Drug Administration regulations for drug manufacturing..