Marijuana leaf

ST. JOHNS — A hemp farm.

Right here in the little old White Mountains.

Who’d a figured?

The Apache County Board of Supervisors routinely approved permits for the county’s first hemp farm near St. Johns and north of Concho at last week’s board meeting.

Prescott-based Gorilla FarmCo will start with 20-acres of industrial hemp grown in greenhouses shaped like big quonset huts, although the company has purchased a total of 1,400 acres. Initially, the operation will have only 3-6 workers.

The organic operation will use virtually no chemicals and rely on an existing well to conduct furrow irrigation flowing to a drainage pond. The farm will sit just off Highway 180, about eight miles northwest of St. Johns. The growers will spend the first season testing how different varieties fare here and getting an organic certification.

Gorilla FarmCo President Kemper Burt said “our project will include research for animal feed stocks … Industrial Hemp can help offset with inexpensive livestock feeds. We are a sustainable company who will be the very best land stewards, with water conservation being one of our primary goals and Organic Certification. No pesticides or chemicals will be used in our operation. We will not be processing anything at this location other than bundling/baling of the raw materials for shipping to be processed,” he stated in a document in the agenda packet.

Hemp has proven easy to grow and relatively water-thrifty. Some farmers say it grows like, well, a weed.

Industrial hemp operations have blossomed in 40 states, with repeal of laws that lumped hemp together with the closely related marijuana plant people use to get high. Hemp has just .03 percent THC, the compound that creates a high. Marijuana grown as a drug has 10 or 15 percent THC.

The breakthrough for a crop with deep historical roots came when the Trump Administration adopted a rule differentiating hemp from marijuana. Hemp was once widely used for everything from sailing ship rigging to clothes, but farming of the plant declined in the US in the face of competition from India. Eventually, hemp in the US got caught up in the effort to stamp out the use of marijuana.

The modern rebirth of hemp production has seen the plant used for a wide array of products, including rope, plastic, food, insulation, clothing, fiber, oils and even medical extracts used for pain relief, anxiety and insomnia. But you can’t smoke enough hemp to get high.

Hemp has the highest percentage of polyunsaturated fatty acids in the plant kingdom, making it useful in flour, processing of dairy products, animal feed and even in making cake and beer, according to materials provided by Gorilla FarmCo. The plant can provide pulp comparable to trees, but grows to maturity in just four months. The fiber can also substitute for almost anything made from cotton, timber or petroleum. The plant provides some of the strongest fiber in the plant kingdom, which is why it was once used for all the rigging on sailing ships. Hemp biomass can even be converted into ethanol, methanol and methane gas.

Gov. Doug Ducey swung open the door to hemp production in Arizona last year, setting up an industrial hemp authority with the power to regulate and oversee operations. Hemp production bears an extra element of risk since the rules would allow the state to order the destruction of the whole crop if tests show samples have more than .03 percent THC.

Hemp and marijuana are so closely related that they can cross pollinate. This prompted the operator of one existing marijuana grow site in Navajo County to appeal to the board of supervisors to ensure a wide separation between hemp and marijuana operations. The hazard runs both ways, since a cross with marijuana plants could endanger the entire hemp crop.

The new Gorilla Farms hemp farm will sit on a wide-open parcel that’s been used for farming and grazing for years. The site has a well and some microwave towers, with another one added as part of the permit.

The neighbors welcomed the operation with open arms, according to the comments, emails and letters included with the agenda packet.

Bar T ranch manager Rick Clark wrote “I hope to form a long-lasting, productive relationship. I am excited to have someone else in our area looking to be productive and progressive with their operation. There are so many in the vicinity that hardly look at new ideas and new processes.”

Victor Alexander of Dayachinane Farms wrote “we wish you every success. Keep us in mind if we can assist in any way. We have 80 acres off the Little Colorado, with very close access to the highway.”

Gorilla FarmCo President Burt said the neighbors had offered to help plow, provide a guest house for workers, sell irrigation pipe and proved in every way welcoming, in the tradition of Apache County. “We are very pleased with the reception we had. Everyone was upbeat and truly into what hemp could do for agriculture and the myriad of things we can make from hemp.”

Peter Aleshire covers county government for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

Peter Aleshire covers county government for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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