The little farm in Montrose County has been her home for decades. This is where she and her late husband raised their children, their cow herd, a lush field of alfalfa and an abundant garden. Neighboring farmers raise fields of sweet corn, pinto beans and onions in straight rows. The farm above her raised produce for years and, beginning in 1936, her farm had tailwater rights. When that farm was irrigated, any remaining water would make its way into her ditch, into her alfalfa field and into draws to water livestock and wildlife, not fighting gravity or wasting water.
The other farmer eventually left when an out-of-state hemp corporation came knocking, offering three times the value of the land. He was retirement age and sold. The corporation came in and covered the rows in black plastic and installed a water pump at the bottom of the field. The tailwater that once, by rights, was the woman’s was pumped back up to the top using a diesel-powered generator and electricity to defy gravity and be “green.”
The hemp, hailed by the governor and his Department of Agriculture as the farmers’ salvation, was planted and irrigated. Then it was abandoned.
It turned out, the market for hemp wasn’t there. Not enough processing capacity was available and the labor to keep the weeds down and to harvest it proved to be too much. The weeds took over once the wind blew and shredded the black plastic strips. During winter, the plastic tangled in barbed-wire fences and tumbled through fields and pastures. The drip irrigation lines lay out in the weather, rotting and splintering. The tailwater never made it past the plastic to be of any benefit to crop, stock or wildlife.
The hemp corporation took bankruptcy and the farmer who sold the land said he thought it was probably too good to be true. What was once productive farm ground stood shrouded in shredded plastic and weeds. Nearby, other hemp producers abandoned huge greenhouses and more fields were left to become weeds.
I reported on state Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg’s goals presentation to the Joint Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources and House Rural Affairs and Agriculture committees in early 2020. Greenberg’s goals for her agriculture department included a significant hemp-acre increase. That was met by heated comments by a number of legislators. Rep. Richard Holtorf criticized the goals, saying the growers had no market for their crop. Sen. Don Coram called the industry “dying on the vine” in part due to the lack of input Colorado was able to offer at the federal level. Sen. Kerry Donovan expressed her concern with labor availability that would be even more stressed with the addition of hemp acres in an already tight labor market. This, of course, was prior to the stranglehold labor laws producers are grappling with beginning this summer. Donovan also cited low commodity and cattle prices, suggesting that traditional ag — the kind that’s been paying the bills — be the focus of the CDA.
“Again, soil health, hemp, organic farming, expanding a new farmer bill I carried a couple of years ago isn’t going to support those numbers on the graphic you started with,” Donovan said. “There’s no question in there it’s just a genuine request that across the state is feeling more concerned than positive. You’ve heard those stories. We’ve talked about that. And I don’t think these goals you’ve presented today will make them feel less anxious. I think they will feel like we’re not talking about some of the big markets, big issues, big problems and, instead, we’re talking about trying to have more contact with new farmers.”
Plastic sheeting caught on barbed-wire fences turned into the flag of failure, waving in all corners of the state. The governor, though, and his Department of Agriculture, continued to proclaim the state a leader in the emerging hemp industry. They authored a state hemp plan, brought in a national hemp expert, and called it a “wildly important goal” to build a vibrant hemp industry. Gov. Jared Polis announced about a year ago that the state’s hemp plan had been approved, making it legal for Colorado farmers to grow the crop. During his announcement, he even unveiled a large portrait of Willie Nelson with a quote celebrating the move. Really.
The promotion of the hemp industry in Colorado by Polis and his CDA was unfair to growers, and it set them up to fail. The framework was established during Don Brown’s tenure as the Commissioner of Agriculture after Polis penned the language in the Farm Bill legalizing the crop. Brown is a farmer in northeastern Colorado, and he doesn’t grow hemp.
To further muddy the waters, a lawsuit alleging conspiracy by Polis and 15 others, including Commissioner of Agriculture Greenberg was filed in February of 2022. The 125-page suit reads like a white-collar legal thriller, complete with allegations of libel, slander, bid-rigging and leaving a senior member of the hemp industry “blacklisted” from working in the industry.
Plaintiff Grant Orvis, who holds a Ph.D. in Molecular Genetics and Reproductive Biology, owns BoCo Farms. He has been breeding hemp varieties for nearly a decade and his BoCo Farms owns fiber and seed genetics. In the filing, he alleges the “public and state official defendants conspired with private citizen defendants to rig the bidding processes ensured that MPG would be awarded the most lucrative hemp related contracts in CDA history…” According to the filing, the entire process was corrupt and no documents that came from the process — notably the Colorado Hemp Advancement and Management Plan (CHAMP) and the state hemp plan — are legitimate.
So now, across the county road from the widow’s porch, the farm was purchased by a developer in a foreclosure sale. It will eventually be taken out of production entirely, but for now it has been leased to another farmer. The widow has watched as the plastic and drip-irrigation tubing has been removed. Truckloads of bundled trash were hauled to the landfill and more now smolders in piles where it was burned. There’s still no growing crop and no tailwater but the Polis administration continues to dole out grants to expand the industry and promote hemp, calling Colorado the “undisputed leader in the cannabis industry” and the hemp plan a “model for the country.”
Rachel Gabel writes about agriculture and rural issues. She is assistant editor of The Fence Post Magazine, the region’s preeminent agriculture publication. Gabel is a daughter of the state’s oil and gas industry and a member of one of the state’s 12,000 cattle-raising families, and she has authored children’s books used in hundreds of classrooms to teach students about agriculture.