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Experimental Crop

Brandon Callandri has a dream about hemp. He foresees a time when you can buy a plastic bottle made from hemp, with water inside made from hemp and labelling on the outside made from hemp. “You’d have a completely biodegradable plastic bottle of water that was a derivative of hemp,” Callandri said “That is a doable thing.” To see that dream become reality, Callandri, a third-generation vegetable farmer in the Antelope Valley, has partnered with four other businessmen to form SoCal Farms and start growing the crop, a cousin to the marijuana plant. For decades, hemp had been outlawed by the federal government as a Schedule One narcotic. But in December President Donald Trump signed the Farm Bill that included a provision making cultivation of hemp legal. The crop produces a chemical called Cannabidiol used to reduce inflammation and pain without the high of marijuana. Hemp also contains fiber used in rope, paper and various industrial applications. With headquarters in Lancaster, SoCal Farms is the first legal hemp operation in Los Angeles County. The company has partnered with Antelope Valley College on a research project to grow the crop on 100 acres adjacent to where Callandri currently grown onions and carrots. The research, which will include college undergraduates managed by faculty, will look at such factors as seed germination, how the plants grow in the soil, water usage, viability in the marketplace and labor requirements. “Contrary to popular belief, this is not just a weed that you throw down some seed and water and it comes up,” Callandri said. “This is a tough plant to grow.” Ed Knudson, president of Antelope Valley College, said this project was exciting for students because of its real-world applications to support the agriculture industry. “They will provide that data to SoCal Farms but part of it also is if faculty members want to publish an article, we have the right to do that,” Knudson said. Hemp, not pot Hemp differs from marijuana in that it does not have the high percentage of THC, the active ingredient that produces a high. The plant contains 0.3 percent or less of THC and if it goes over that amount has to be destroyed, Callandri said. SoCal Farms has to notify the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner’s office 30 days before it harvests the hemp to have a representative come out and test the plant to make sure the THC is less than 0.3 percent. “So, it is serious,” Callandri said. “The Los Angeles County Ag Commissioner’s office and the CDFA (California Department of Food and Agriculture) are not to be trifled with. Those guys will string you up.” Wayne Richman, founder and executive director of the California Hemp Association, the lobbying group for the industry, said that if farmers are not allowed the opportunity to grow hemp the best way they know how, the crop risks not realizing its potential to benefit farmers. “I am about making sure California farmers being first and foremost at the table for any national conversation on hemp and hemp laws,” said Richman, who is also executive director of the California Hemp Foundation, an educational research organization that has contracted to grow 600 acres of hemp in several counties. As a research farm, SoCal has not lined up any customers yet to buy its hemp. The end use market is part of the research underway, Callandri said. So Callandri is more focused on growing the safest and cleanest hemp that he can. “At the end of the day, everybody is consuming your product and you need to be aware of that and keep them safe,” he said. Selling the harvest In late May, the hemp plants in the field were just a few inches tall. By mid-July, Callandri said the plants will be in the 30-inch range. That is for the early season crop, just one of three that can be grown in California because of the state’s size and different climates. Full-season hemp plants can be grown to 50 inches or more, he said. Having three hemp harvests in California is a definite advantage over Kentucky, South Dakota, Colorado and other states that only have one. “That means we will be able to have the freshest, most consistent supply of quality product on the market compared to anybody else,” Callandri said. “That is a game changer.” The first crop starting in April will come from seedlings. The second crop, or full season, is grown to 2.5 to 3 inches tall in a greenhouse and then transplanted into a field. The third crop, which would be grown far south in, say, the Coachella Valley, would be transplanted as well. Callandri anticipates growing 6,000 to 7,000 pounds per acre of full hemp plants. The wholesale price for the entire plant is between $50 and $60 a pound. While Callandri said that hemp was a costly plant to grow, it was still less expensive than marijuana. To grow a marijuana plant indoors costs between $200 and $220 per plant while hemp can be grown for about $7.50 per plant, he said. Still, that is double or triple the cost for lot of other crops grown in the Antelope Valley so one needs to make sure that it pays for itself, Callandri continued. “There is no doubt that it pays right now; the big thing is just where to go with it and where is the market going as it develops,” he said. A big use for hemp is in production of Cannabidiol, or CBD. A dropper full of CBD oil sublingually can supposedly reduce inflammation throughout the body, which proponents say reduces anxiety, alleviates pain and can even improve atherosclerosis. The hemp-derived CBD market is expected to reach $22 billion by 2020, according to a report in September from cannabis industry market research firm Brightfield Group. When it comes to CBD, there is an education aspect that has to happen so that people will understand the value of it for treatment of pain and other ailments. Callardi has both a relative and a family friend who have used CBD products to improve their lives. “Why wouldn’t you want to look at something that would mitigate the pain you already have while being able to enjoy the quality of life you have left with your family,” Callardi asked. “That is why there is a place for it.” Other uses for hemp include making rope and as a fiber substitute for cotton.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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