It’s harvest time in the hemp fields. And, no there aren’t any hoary, romantic images available of century-old farms and pioneers who hacked out pieces of the wilderness to begin growing wheat or corn.
Hemp is new. This is year four of legal harvesting in Oregon. Regulatory challenges still exist and unlike those wheat and corn farmers with hundreds of years of institutional knowledge, the hemp guys are winging it.
In fact, when the newspaper visited the eight acres that Josh Gulliver controls near Philomath, the first topic discussed was mold or, more specifically, botrytis, a fungus that is most known for affecting wine grapes.
It likes hemp, too, and Gulliver thinks that perhaps 30 to 40 percent of his overall holdings of 35 acres will be affected. The source of the mold is simple: too much moisture from the early September rains. The solution is a black hole at this point. There is no cure for the malady. Just another of those issues that can pop up when you are mining new turf.
Gulliver works in partnership with John Eveland of Gathering Together Farm and his operation is certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He believes his enterprise is the only organic seed-to-finished-product undertaking west of Colorado. He started with just a single acre of hemp in 2016.
“One of the things about us,” Gulliver said of working with Eveland, “is that we both like to take risks.”
The newspaper followed Gulliver and his SunGold Botanicals crew through the harvesting and drying and manufacturing processes that transform spiky green — and a bit malodorous — bushes into salves, tinctures and smokeable medical marijuana.
And if the Gulliver name sounds familiar, it should be noted that he ran a spirited outside-the-mainstream campaign for mayor in 2014 and received nearly 40% of the vote against then-Ward 8 Councilor Biff Traber.
Gulliver doesn’t rule out future forays into local politics, but he’s kind of busy these days.
Hemp is a classic plant-in-the-spring-and-harvest-in-the fall crop, with new seeds used every year. Gulliver buys feminized hybrid seed from Oregon CBD, the pioneering hemp operation started by former Oregon State University sociology professor Seth Crawford and his brother, Eric.
The picking is done by hand, with crews selecting the bunches — ignoring the moldy ones — and emptying plastic tubs that contain about two pounds onto the back of a flatbed truck. Gulliver’s group owns three, all late-1940s models that produce images of a John Steinbeck novel.
Gulliver said that most growers harvest mechanically, which eliminates the chances of a “second harvest.” Gulliver’s crews come back in a couple of weeks and reharvest the new shoots that have sprouted since the first cut.
Gulliver’s operation harvests about 2,500 pounds of hemp biomass per acre, with the finished product eventually selling for $50 per pound, largely through contacts with others.
“People recognize a quality product and they are willing to go into contract with us,” Gulliver said.
The flatbed trucks move the hemp to the dryers, which are set up in an enormous outbuilding that looks like the shell of a giant covered wagon. Gulliver started with two immense walk-in coolers that he has adapted for drying hemp. He and his employees custom-built a third one. Huge blowers at the back end of each drying box work 24/7 to remove moisture from the crop.
Crews load the leaves and buds into the drying boxes, with the harvested hemp losing 75% of its weight via blower-induced evaporation. Two of the drying boxes hold about 8,000 pounds apiece, with the third rated at about 10,000. Fill ’em up and you ultimately wind up with about 6,500 pounds of dried hemp to be processed. The drying process, which requires manual “fluffing” of the drying hemp, takes about 24 to 30 hours.
A perforated shelf about 2 feet up from the floor of each drying box allows for the detritus, known as “shakes,” to settle to the bottom. The shakes wind up in SunGold’s massive composting operation, which also benefits from all of the Republic Services leaf pickups in Albany, Corvallis and Philomath.
A short drive away lies the warehouse in which two vastly different manufacturing processes take place.
In one cavernous room, massive wooden drying units strung like clotheslines rise 14 feet up to the ceiling. They hold the highest-quality hemp, the early harvest that once dry is sold as smokeable CBD. The arrangement looks like drying pelts or someone manufacturing Christmas boughs.
The day the newspaper toured, Gulliver and his crew were on day two of the use of a powerful dehumidifier, a three-phase 240-volt machine that looks like it can suck the water out of a swimming pool from three blocks away. Before, the operation used floor models. Which took longer. Gulliver just laughed when asked about the impact of the new blast furnace on his electric bill.
Continually refining his process keeps Gulliver up nights, but it also keeps him engaged.
“We’ve got a lot going on,” Gulliver said. “It’s fun and fascinating. I’m still interested in learning more. And I think about it a lot. I enjoy that stuff.”
The drying principle works the same on the pelts as it did on the hemp in the drying boxes. About 75 percent of the weight is lost via moisture evaporation.
In the next room it gets really high-tech. Isaac Daniel, a former Rutgers University environmental planning undergrad, Oregon State University master’s student in forestry and geography, trail worker, stay-at-home dad, and farmers market employee specializing in value-added products, runs the operation that reduces dried hemp into the CBD oil that goes into a wide range of products.
First, Daniel soaks the hemp in industrial-grade ethanol that is lodged in what looks like 20-gallon spaghetti pots inside a freezer that takes the ethanol down to minus-85 Celsius. How cold is that? Well, that’s equivalent to minus-121 degrees Fahrenheit, which is about 108 degrees colder than it was when the Packers and Cowboys (and the fans at Lambeau Field) nearly froze to death in that 1967 NFL title game in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Daniel handles the pots with thick cryogenic gloves.
The mixture then is run through an evaporator that looks like a prop from any number of science fiction movies and college chem classes. It’s basically distillation. Ultimately, the liquid is separated into CBD oil, which is bottled in 1-kilogram (2.2 pounds) bottles; ethanol, which is recycled for future work in the freezer; and leaves and other biomass destined for the compost pile.
Daniel, who sported a Beavers ball cap that looks as old as the flatbed trucks, got the hemp bug when employment in the industry was suggested to him by a friend at a Phish concert in Colorado.
“I came back and said to my wife (an OSU College of Forestry faculty member), “We should do this,’ ” he said. “I had the experience with value-added goods … but I’m through making salsa.”