During World War II, the United States Department of Agriculture released a propaganda film titled “Hemp for Victory” to convince farmers to grow hemp to support the war effort. As triumphant music plays, the narrator recites the lines, “Hemp for mooring ships, hemp for tow lines, hemp for tackle and gear, hemp for countless naval uses both on ship and shore — just as in the days when Old Ironsides sailed the seas victorious with her hempen shrouds and hempen sails. Hemp for victory!”

Seventy-five years later, the potential uses for hemp are still abundant. In March 2017, the U.S. Congressional Research Service, Congress’ nonpartisan think tank, identified 25,000 products that hemp can be used for in nine submarkets: agriculture, automotive, construction materials, food and beverages, furniture, paper, personal care, recycling and textiles. And although cannabis — the plant that is used to make hemp products — is classified as a Schedule I drug, federal and state lawmakers have passed and are attempting to push through legislation to allow low-THC hemp to be grown for uses such as oil, fiber materials and hemp seeds for consumption.

In many states, horticulture industry professionals are reaping the benefits of cultivating hemp, and many of them would like to see a more navigable federal regulatory climate for its production, processing, sale and use. Take Alex Seleznov, CEO of Greenhouse Growing System in Brighton, Colo., just north of Denver. As a young child, he thought about the multiple uses for hemp and how the United States wasn’t taking advantage of them, but he didn't do much about it at the time. “I had known about hemp and I said, ‘I don’t understand why we have this product that we’re not utilizing,’” he says. “I never really thought much about it until later on, and just through the evolution of my life I became more sensitive to the Earth and sustainability and matters of the earth.”

After more than 20 years working in finance, accounting and small business, Seleznov became the financial analyst for a greenhouse company near Denver. Then the Agricultural Act of 2014, also known as the Farm Bill, passed. “It was like, ‘Wow, we’re going to be able to grow hemp again — what a great thing to be able to do. “I was looking for an opportunity to be able to find a way to make that part of my work and part of what I did.”

Seleznov realized that opportunity when he came forward with a business plan and became involved with the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s then newly established Industrial Hemp Program. In 2015, he founded Advanced Extraction, LLC, which includes Greenhouse Growing System, the company’s growing division, as well as Advanced Plant Processing, its extraction and manufacturing division, and Pure Hemp Botanicals, its retail division.

With 80,000 square feet of under cover production space and 40 acres outdoors, Greenhouse Growing System grows plants to flower. The other divisions of Advanced Extraction, LLC, extract plant material into an oil with 70 to 80 percent cannabidiol (CBD) oil to use in dietary supplements, such as soft gels, tinctures, teas, mints, concentrates and vapor products. As a vegan, Seleznov recognizes hemp’s high protein content, and says researchers are also studying CBD for other benefits, such as to reduce anxiety and inflammation.

Greenhouse Growing System's roughly 35 employees, unlike employees who work with marijuana, do not need an occupational license badge.

(Re)defining hemp

The Farm Bill defined “industrial hemp” as Cannabis sativa L., and components and derivatives of it, that have a tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of less than 0.3 percent “on a dry weight basis.” (THC is the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.) Although hemp comes from the same species as marijuana, “You can’t get high from that,” says Duane Sinning, assistant director of plant industry and the Industrial Hemp Program manager for the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

As of July 2017, 32 states passed or had pending legislation related to industrial hemp, according to the National Hemp Association, of which Seleznov is treasurer. Seleznov is quick to point out that hemp is not marijuana, noting the 0.3 percent THC limit for hemp. “If you’re talking about the average marijuana plant that’s grown, for example, in Colorado today for sale in a dispensary, you’re looking at somewhere usually north of 20 percent THC,” he says.

Across most of the United States, marijuana programs are controlled by state governments, and some newer states are putting limits on marijuana licenses, whereas hemp programs are often controlled by state agricultural programs and colleges, Seleznov says. “The regulatory system came in place to be able to grow hemp without the regulatory system in place for marijuana,” he says. “It was, for us, a lot easier to get started growing hemp, and the hemp crop has a lot more versatility — whereas, right now, the only purpose for growing medical marijuana is essentially the THC in the marijuana because of the way the system is even set up.”

Alex Seleznov gives the Perennial Plant Association a tour of Greenhouse Growing System on Wednesday, July 26, 2017.
Photo: Patrick Williams

The Colorado Industrial Hemp Program

A number of key moving parts had to come together to make hemp legal in Colorado again, Sinning explains.

In 2012, Colorado passed Amendment 64, legalizing recreational marijuana and industrial hemp. The following year, then-Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote a memorandum listing eight guidelines for law enforcement and prosecutors to follow regarding cannabis. And in 2014, the federal Farm Bill passed. The bill has been interpreted differently by various governments in states where hemp is legal, sometimes believed to mean that only universities and research institutions can cultivate the plant. However, CDA officials have interpreted it to mean that they can welcome growers into a program to grow hemp for profit.

To take part in Colorado’s Industrial Hemp Program, growers must file three reports with the CDA:

1. Pre-Planting. Initially, the program in Colorado began with a planting and harvest report, Sinning says. But registrants who said they planned to grow and harvest industrial hemp decided they would grow marijuana instead, which isn’t allowed under an industrial hemp license. So, the Colorado Department of Agriculture now has registrants reaffirm that they plan to grow hemp.

2. Planting. Registrants must tell the CDA within 10 days after planting what crop they planted, where it came from and that they believe it is, in fact, hemp, Sinning says. 

At grow sites that they used in the previous years, growers must also notify the CDA if hemp seedlings sprout up, Sinning says. Within a 10-day period, those growers must make the decision to either register for the program or till the seedlings under.

3. Harvest. Growers must fill out a harvest report at least 30 days before harvesting. They have a five-day window either before or after the 30-day period to harvest, or otherwise must notify the CDA. By announcement or unannounced, the department can sample any buildings or land belonging to a given operation that is involved in the program.

Since it was first authorized in 2014, hemp production in the U.S. has increased from 220 acres of production space outside and 300,000 square feet of indoor production that year, to an estimated 15,000 acres outside and 2.2 million square feet of indoor production in 2017. Throughout that time, Colorado has accounted for more than half of all hemp production in the U.S.

However, Sinning points out that hemp growers face multiple risks. The market remains volatile, with the price of seed planting stock for production dropping to new lows. “Seed that first year was $1,000 a pound,” he says. “We’re finding seed now goes for about $25 a pound.”

In 2016, 25 percent of hemp in Colorado had to be destroyed, Sinning says. The CDA found that many of the hemp breeds that exceed the 0.3 percent THC limit often fall into three groups: Colorado Gold, Rocky Hemp and US Landrace. Certain breeds are susceptible to crossing on their own and rising THC levels. Factors such as high elevation and sunlight also contribute to higher THC concentrations.

Meanwhile, future federal legislation could be stricter on hemp. “Only get involved as much as you can afford to lose,” Sinning says. “It’s like gambling. Don’t bet the farm — because you may lose the farm.”

Pure Hemp Botanicals, a division of Advanced Extraction, LLC, sells soft gels, tinctures, teas, pints, concentrates and vapor products.

From green fields to gray areas

To minimize risk, Greenhouse Growing System primarily grows a variety called Otto II that keeps a low THC profile, Seleznov says. The operation began with the genetic two years ago, purchasing multiple seeds that produced different phenotypes.

“We culled all the way through those phenotypes to come up with the best phenotypes that we had available to us, where the flower set the best, the cannabinoid profile was the best, and we didn’t have plants that were bumping up against that 0.3 percent,” Seleznov says. “Also, right now, because of how long the Otto II variety has been grown in Colorado, the CDA is very comfortable with it.”

Greenhouse Growing System currently grows four phenotypes — Otto II Endurance, Otto II Stout, Otto II Franklin and Cherry X Otto II Sweetened, which is a cross between Cherry and Otto II, says production manager Jason Stephenson.

All propagation at Greenhouse Growing System is in Ellepot 50-count trays. “It’s just like taking cuttings off of any other stock program,” Stephenson says. “It’s about a four-week propagation.” Side roots appear after about two weeks, he says.

The business places an emphasis on organic. For nutrition, it uses 3-1-1 organic fertilizer from Nature’s Source, Stephenson says. For pest control, it doesn’t use any chemical pesticides or plant growth regulators.

Since it was first authorized in 2014, hemp production in the U.S. has increased from 220 acres of production space outside and 300,000 square feet of indoor production that year, to an estimated 15,000 acres outside and 2.2 million square feet of indoor production in 2017.

Multiple factors influence cannabinoid concentrations. Decisions about whether to cultivate in a greenhouse or outdoors, or use one type of roofing over another, affect light spectrums and plant characteristics, Seleznov says. “The cannabis plant is very sensitive — it’s a light-sensitive plant,” he says. “That’s what decides whether or not it’s in vegetative mode or flowering.” He and his colleagues have also found that THC levels rise in the greenhouse material faster than the field material.

Separate from its oil extraction endeavors, Greenhouse Growing System sells the hemp crop to other farmers, Seleznov says. These sales consist of Ellepot clones, as well as hemp in multiple sizes all the way up to fully grown plants. In its own field, the operation has planted hardened-off Ellepots in the field with less than a two percent loss.

The grower doesn’t ship live clones across state lines, but customers can come pick them up due to what Seleznov and Stephenson call a “gray area.” “If another state doesn’t have a hemp program, then how does that state view the fact that hemp is in their state?” Seleznov asks. Another gray area is where exactly finished product can be shipped; state and local governments have drafted their own legislation addressing CBD sale and consumption.

In July, Congressmen James Comer (R-KY), Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Jared Polis (D-CO), and Thomas Massie (R-KY) introduced a bipartisan bill to remove hemp from the Controlled Substance Act’s definition of marijuana. “That’s just one area in which the whole hemp industry is happily looking for guidance from the regulatory authorities,” Seleznov says. If passed, such a bill would also allow hemp to play a larger role in the U.S. economy.

Like its place in an uncertain — and by many accounts, unclear — regulatory framework, hemp is resilient in the soil. “You can literally set the hemp crop out, give it nothing but water and a very bare minimal amount of it, it will keep growing and it will be fine,” Seleznov says.

But, he says, it will do better with a bit more attention.