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Update: Costilla County hopes hemp can help improve struggling economy

Update below: The two-month period during which Colorado farmers could register to grow hemp for the 2014 growing season closed on May 1. As of 4:30 p.m. that day, state records show that 42 people or businesses were approved to grow hemp and another 53 had applied but were not yet approved. And there may be more on the way. Colorado Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Christi Lightcap says more applications may trickle in, since they simply had to be postmarked -- not received -- by May 1.

A few of the applicants stand out, including Costilla County and Colorado State University.

The list of registrants provided to us by the Colorado Department of Agriculture doesn't include any details about where or what Costilla County intends to grow. It only indicates that the county was approved to grow hemp for research and development purposes rather than commercial purposes. We've reached out to Costilla County officials about their plans and will update this post if and when we hear back.

Update, May 6: After this post went live on May 5, we heard back from Ben Doon, the Costilla County administrator for the county commissioners. He says the county is partnering with a nonprofit out of California called Fibershed to plant a quarter-acre to a half-acre of hemp seeds this spring. The seeds will be planted on the Carpenter Ranch, a 1,200-acre ranch that the county bought in 2005 with funds from a Great Outdoors Colorado grant.

"We're always looking for interesting agricultural projects that we could do," Doon says. Doing so is especially important since Costilla County and the San Luis Valley have a high unemployment rate, a low median income and little private industry, he says. Because of that, Doon explains, "nonprofits and governments have a big role to play around here to find economically viable ventures." Hemp, he figures, might be one of those ventures.

"We'll be trying a couple different varieties of hemp to see how it does in this climate," Doon says. The county already has a small bio-diesel plant that crushes locally grown sunflower and canola seeds into fuel to use in the county's fleet of vehicles. Doon says it's possible that hemp seeds could be used to produce bio-diesel, as well. In addition, the California group, Fibershed, is interested in the uses of hemp fiber.

If this year's attempt at growing hemp goes well, Doon says he envisions a bigger project next year -- possibly a commercial trial of up to twenty acres in which local farmers, many of whom have turned to more lucrative ranching, could get involved.

"We're just trying to get some baseline data," Doon says of this year's plot.

Continue reading for the rest of our original post, from May 5.

We also contacted Colorado State University and spoke with Alan Rudolph, CSU's vice president for research. CSU also applied to grow hemp for research and development purposes, and Rudolph says the university is currently in discussions with the state agriculture department and industry groups about how best to support farmers.

Continue for more on CSU's plans.

Some possibilities, he says, include certifying hemp seeds to guarantee that they'll produce legal plants -- that is, plants with less than 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana -- and researching optimal growth conditions for the crop. Rudolph says CSU has already started evaluating hemp from an agro-economic standpoint, which means the university is looking at "the value chain of what the opportunity is from farm to fork."

But Rudolph says CSU is aware that hemp is still considered a Schedule I controlled substance by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. In February, President Obama signed the Farm Bill, which included an amendment by Colorado Congressman Jared Polis allowing colleges and universities in states where hemp is legal to grow it for research purposes. "Certainly, as a Schedule I, we'll comply with the federal laws with regard to the research and development of hemp," Rudolph says.

The 95 entities who've applied or registered to grow hemp hail from all over the state. Fourteen of them are from Boulder County, and there are eight each from Larimer and Delta counties. Adams County and Weld County are home to seven farmers each and Alamosa County is home to five. Four are from Conejos County and there are also four from Jefferson County. Only one applicant is from Denver.

Colorado is one of a handful of states where it's legal to grow industrial hemp. The state took its first steps toward legalization when voters passed the marijuana-centric Amendment 64 in 2012. The measure directed the state legislature to "enact legislation governing the cultivation, processing and sale of industrial hemp" by July 1, 2014. In May 2013, lawmakers approved a bill that created a nine-member advisory committee tasked with helping the Colorado Department of Agriculture come up with a way to register hemp farmers and inspect their crops. Registration began March 1.

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But the agriculture department wants farmers to understand the risks. It issued a cautionary press release in March that included warnings about the variable THC levels in Colorado's hemp seed stock -- and how the department plans to randomly test hemp farmers' plants. Plants containing more than 0.3 percent THC must be destroyed or "utilized in a manner approved of and verified by" the state agriculture commissioner.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Hemp: Read final regulations for growing industrial hemp in Colorado."

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com

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