Terill Johnston stands in front of the field irrigation equipment at his farm in Cisco, where he plans to begin hemp production this year. [Photo courtesy of Moab Area Real Estate Magazine / Photo by Murice D. Miller]

TJ Farms is tucked away beyond the abandoned buildings and broken-down cars of the old town of Cisco, along the bank of the Colorado River, where Terill Johnston pumps the irrigation water for his 320-acre farm.

Starting this spring, Johnston is devoting some of his acreage to learning how to grow industrial hemp.

Johnston has grown alfalfa on his farm in Cisco since 2013 and will begin as a “one-man show” with his hemp operation this year. If production goes well with the crop and the market, Johnston plans to transition to hemp farming within the next few years. Growing hemp became legal in Utah last year under the Hemp and Cannabidiol Act, which was soon followed by federal legalization with the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill.

The sandy soil at Johnston’s farm is fertile, and the vegetation and remote location is home to wildlife. Flocks of wild turkeys trot across the fields and in the winter, elk come down from their high grazing grounds and gather on an island in the river across from the farm. Johnston said he regularly sees deer, eagles and hawks and recently spotted a badger. He said he loves to be outside working at his farm.

When the time comes, he’ll look at ways to mitigate any potential impact the wildlife could have on the new crop. For now, he’s looking at its economics.

“Farming and ranching — the commodities business — is a hard business,” he said. “And the numbers on hemp per acre, for what our ground could produce, are very enticing.”

He has learned that hemp producers can yield roughly 1,000 pounds of dried hemp for every 1 acre. This measurement is the “biomass” of the hemp — the leaves, stems, stalks, flowers and seeds combined.

“Then you can get roughly 41 grams of extracted oil per pound of biomass hemp,” Johnston said. “So, 1 acre would produce 41,000 grams an acre of extracted oil.”

That’s about 90 pounds of oil.

Johnston said his operation will result in both hemp oil and cannabidiol (CBD) oil; he plans to cultivate cloned hemp plants that have been bred and selected for oil production. Hemp oil is used as a nutritional product, while CBD oil from the same type of plant is used for its therapeutic properties.

Johnston continually researches proposed uses for hemp, and he said he doubts some of the claims made about CBD oil, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the product for at least one therapeutic use.

In a June 25 press release, the FDA said CBD had been approved to “treat seizures associated with two rare, severe forms of epilepsy in patients two years of age and older.”

It is also widely believed that CBD has anti-inflammatory properties. The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine said in a 2017 report that while CBD “was initially licensed and approved in Europe, the United Kingdom and Canada for the treatment of pain” due to multiple sclerosis, it continues in the trial phase in the U.S. as efforts are underway to develop pharmaceutical drugs that will act similarly to target the brain’s receptors. The 130-page report summarizes that there is conclusive or substantial evidence showing positive treatment benefits from CBD oil.

“People have given it to pets with great results, for easing of arthritis in their joints and stuff like that,” Johnston said.

Since the hemp industry began to open up in the U.S., cultivators and researchers have been experimenting with old and new uses for the plant. The fiber has been used in textiles and as a reinforcement additive in concrete; the extracted oil has been used to make plastics. Hemp seeds are becoming more popular in high-protein powder and energy bars. In December, the FDA completed its evaluation, determining that hemp seeds are “generally recognized as safe.”

Consumption of these hemp seed-derived ingredients is not capable of making consumers “high,” the FDA’s report said. The seeds do, however, provide consumers with all 20 amino acids.

There are strict regulations for producing industrial hemp. Inspectors from the Utah Department of Agriculture will visit the farm throughout the season to test for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content in the plants, the psychoactive molecule found in medical and recreational cannabis.

Johnston’s cloned hemp plants will have been bred to have lower THC content than cannabis, but stressors such as drought or overheating can cause the plants to produce more THC than expected or wanted.

Johnston will purchase cloned hemp plants from a greenhouse operation in northern Utah and in April, after the last frost, plant them on 10 acres of his farm. He has established three plots with different watering systems for the hemp plants. This way, he can study the systems to find out which method has the best results. One plot will use a flood-and-drain irrigation system, another plot will be watered using a center pivot and the third plot is being designed with drip irrigation.

He’ll assess the results when he harvests the plants in October, a task that will be done by hand.

“Right now I’m kind of a one-man show,” Johnston said. “I’m going to hire one full-time employee this year to help me get it all going, and then I figure I need to hire probably three or four people temporarily during planting and then again during harvest.”

Zacharia Levine, director of the Grand County Economic and Community Development Department, said he’s pleased by TJ Farms’ initiative to explore hemp production.

“Hemp can serve as a critical input into a myriad of health care, consumer and industrial products,” Levine said. “I think TJ Farms’ transition to hemp reflects the longstanding entrepreneurial spirit of Moab’s residents.”

Levine also speculated that if hemp is more economically viable than alfalfa, it could be the means of maintaining agricultural activity in the area.

“Currently, agricultural operations account for very little of Grand County’s economic activity,” Levine said. “However, [hemp farming] could add to our economic diversity and it does preserve some of the area’s culture and history … Moab had a rich agricultural scene long before it became a global tourism destination.”

Currently, Johnston sells his alfalfa as baled hay for livestock feed, mostly to cattle ranchers around Moab and Blanding. His customers will have a few years to find new suppliers over the next several seasons as he gets the hemp operation underway.

One of the appeals of growing hemp is that it is “very much less resource intensive” than alfalfa, according to Johnston’s research.  

“It just grows,” he said. “There’s a reason that its nickname became ‘weed.’ It doesn’t consume a whole lot of water.”

Levine echoed this point.

“In comparison to alfalfa production, [hemp] is probably considered a more sustainable crop,”  he said. “We live in the desert. Alfalfa requires a lot of water.”

Hemp production does require more hands-on labor because the plants begin as clones in a greenhouse before being transplanted in the field, as opposed to sprouting as seeds in the field.

If Johnston can develop the right farming practices for hemp, he thinks he will be able to use about 250 acres of his farm for its production, eventually making his own greenhouse for clones and a drying area for the biomass.

“We plan to be a pretty big operation when it’s all said and done,” Johnston said.

Local farmer looks to hire help for production

“There’s a reason that its nickname became ‘weed.’”