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Elbert County is establishing a permitting system for something that looks scandalous, but is actually harmless.
To the trained and untrained eye, hemp plants look exactly like marijuana — a crop forbidden in Elbert County. After numerous requests to grow hemp, the board of commissioners has decided to set up a system that distinguishes the unwanted from the wanted, and also believes it could be boon for the economy.
Within the last few months, businesses and individuals have approached county commissioners, asking about the growing process. One upcoming business, 221 Farms, spoke at a recent board meeting to explain what they hoped to do with their ranch, and the legitimacy of their operation.
“With the first farm we have, they’re looking at just farming to get their feet wet,” said the project’s manager, Doug Chimenti.
The permit is set to cost $250. If the board give a green light in June, then permitted farmers can begin on the first day of 2019.
County Commissioner Chris Richardson believes this crop could bolster the local economy, continuing the board’s vision of becoming more business friendly.
“We’re aiming toward flexibly zoned and lightly regulated,” Richardson said.
Chimenti sees hemp’s potential as being more than just a trend that could fizzle as a steadily increasing number of people grow the crop. In a county with such a dry climate, he says hemp could use a drip irrigation system, opposed to other crops that requires spraying.
A study published in 2010 found that cows produced more milk when they were fed a moderate amount of hempseed cake, a good deal more than those that ate the control feed. Not only could local cows consume hemp, but for the humans, popular product lines exist for everything from lotions to shoes to seeds eaten for nutritional value.
Despite looks, the hemp plant will not affect a person the way marijuana does.
“What I’ve heard is it takes about 100 pounds,” Chimenti laughed, explaining that the controversy only extends to appearances.
Even the best sheriff could confuse an industrial hemp farm for its illegal cousin, because it’s impossible to know unless the plant is tested for THC. Taking a look at other counties like El Paso showed the project manager Chimenti how to execute a plan that eliminates controversy.
First, everyone needs a permit in which they give their name and the GPS coordinates of the farm; this helps law enforcement but also the fire department in case of a wildfire. Next, the state sends out analysts who test the plant on-site to ensure the THC levels are below 0.3 percent. Anything above that will be destroyed, and the farmer will be penalized. If the levels are well above that, anything over 1 percent, the state turns the results over to law enforcement.
Chimenti said this last point is not unheard of as businesses in northern Colorado have claimed to grow hemp, when it turned out they were growing marijuana and selling outside the state.
An unexpected issue that hemp farmers may face is not the confusion from cops, but from bandits.
“A lot of counties are having issues with what I call `boneheads’ robbing farms, thinking they’re marijuana farms,” Chimenti said. “El Paso County is always getting huge tracks taken down, ripped out.”
Army veteran Chimenti was brought into the county through a special project to help transition military personnel into civilians. He says it’s often difficult for veterans to translate their skills in a way that hiring managers understand. Even though he’s traveled the world and coordinated the lives of hundreds of men and women, finding a job has been difficult. Industrial hemp permitting is one of the many tasks he has undertaken during his fellowship.
Richardson said of the county staff, “Ten percent were let go in 2010. This last year we’ve come back up to the same number of employees in 2011. Somebody like Doug can come in, we’ll give him a project and he can do the research. We could probably use three or four more Dougs.”
“It’s a reciprocal relationship,” Chimenti replied with a smile.
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