By Emily Ferguson | HempToday • The U.S. may be behind the curve in industrial hemp farming, but not for long, if Jerry Norton has anything to say about it. Norton, based in Salem, Oregon, is the founder of American Hemp Seed Genetics (AHG), the first commercially viable hemp farm in Oregon in more than a century.
Norton comes from generations of grass farmers. He became intrigued by hemp’s potential to change the world thanks to its environmentally sustainable and seemingly endless uses. Ten years ago, he opened a retail store at a mall in Salem, selling various clothing and accessories made from hemp. The store went out of business within two months. Refusing to abandon his dream, Norton started to research the medicinal qualities of CBD and criss-crossed the country, attending medical marijuana conventions. Four years ago, AHG was born, and Norton raised a sea of hemp on a little under 100 acres and in greenhouses to extract CBD for medicine.
Norton seized the opportunities opened up after Measure 91 and the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013, which legalized industrial hemp research and farming. He has dedicated AHG to revolutionizing the American hemp industry and introducing it to mainstream markets, all while lobbying to make the growing process easier for hemp farmers throughout the states.
At AHG, CBD is extracted from hemp either to sell on its own or to market as a secondary product line. Take Honeystix, for example. The popular Oregon-based brand uses AHG’s CBD oil for their tubes of honey, which carry 5 to 20 mg per stick. With their potent levels of CBD, Norton says the sticks can be used for PTSD, depression, epilepsy, physical pain, and other ailments.
“This is medicine,” he says. “We are pushing for legitimacy and for transparency on labels as well, so people know specifically what they are buying.” That makes AHG unique, he says: it provides an example of a product that will work for the general public, accredited by labs, with labels showing the percentage and milligrams of every ingredient.
Hemp: A commodity
Honeystix is not the only secondary product AHG works with. Cosmetic companies and food businesses have reached out with requests to use American Hempseed Genetics’s CBD.
“Hemp is a commodity, just like wheat,” Norton says. “And it will be moved based on supply and demand.”
Norton proudly described the new, cutting edge technology AHG has begun to experiment with to harvest the crops. While crops are currently being harvested by man power, this new equipment will reduce the THC levels in the crop using heat. If uniformly successful, the method could mean a harvesting revolution, simplifying the process while lessening the THC levels to ensure the product’s legality.
AHG farmers cross different strains to raise the CBD levels of its products while maintaining the legal threshold of .3% THC. Their strain the “Holy Grail,” for example, contains 20% CBD and .3% CBD. Higher quality CBD makes for better medicine that AHG will distribute.
Legal hurdles, of course
Good intentions, Norton has learned, only get you so far. He and his company still face several legal hurdles to bring his goals to fruition. Mainly, this involves buying the seeds and getting the seeds tested in a prudent manner, while maintaining the legal limit of THC.
The Oregon Agricultural Department, which is in charge of testing seeds, is underfunded, and only two accredited labs that are equipped to do the work also work with marijuana companies. Once the department has approved the crops, farmers are given only fourteen days to harvest them. AHG is working with the Oregon Hemp Industries Association (OHIA), led by Courtney Moran, to lobby for a thirty day time frame. They also hope to persuade the state to raise the THC limit to %1. A higher limit would reduce waste, because crops that exceed the limit must be thrown away.
Norton says Moran “put Oregon on the map” in the world of industrial hemp. Together they have created a network of farmers to work as a team to change hemp regulation. Norton’s dedication to the hemp plant is also reflected in the Oregon Hemp Convention, which he organized the past three years. The convention is held during Hemp History Week (June 6-12), and draws in “a couple thousand participants each year.” Farmers, both seasoned and new, come together to share knowledge and brainstorm solutions to issues such as cross pollination between marijuana farms and hemp farms.
Oregon just getting moving
Industrial hemp farming only show signs of progression in Oregon. In 2015, Oregon had 20 acres of hemp, and now there are 1,200 acres. As a part of the Oregon State University Industrial Hemp project, the university offers classes on industrial hemp and provides field work to estimate how industrial hemp grown for commercial use (such as fibers or cannabinoids) will fare in various field-growing zones in Oregon. The project has also introduced seed certification standards for industrial hemp that were approved by the Oregon Seed Certification Board. The project will last from 2016 to 2020, when hemp farmers may use the final information to discern the yield potential of different hemp varieties.
For now, Norton is acquiring materials to build a grind facility and an industrial hemp processing facility in Oregon. Norton sees a bright, hemp-filled future for AHG, for Oregon, and beyond. In five years, he predicts, “Big pharma will be on all CBD products.” By then, he believes his company will have international reach. He hopes to eventually be exporting hemp seeds, rather than importing them.
Just last month, AHG welcomed some important visitors: staffers from the office of Oregon’s Senator Ron Wyden, bureaucrats from the Department of Agriculture, and the director of a prominent grant-making foundation.
Their reactions were unified: “All positive feedback, all signs of moving forward.”