Snowville farmer grows industrial hemp for pain-relieving oil
Story and Photos By Dianna Troyer
Ches Burmester is giving “the girls”—260,000 female industrial hemp plants prized for their pain-relieving properties—whatever they need to thrive on his northern Utah farm.
In a former 130-acre alfalfa field near Snowville, the hemp plants are watered, weeded and nurtured to withstand the region’s wind, heat and alkali soil.
“Strips of alfalfa will still grow and be a nurse crop to protect the young plants as they grow,” Ches says. “They need a little bubble space, too—about 5 feet to reach their ideal height of 6 to 8 feet by fall when they’ll be harvested.”
The girls have other unusual benefactors: two ball pythons named Stripes and Boulder, the farm’s organic pest exterminators. In May, the pythons were released at night in a greenhouse to feast on mice eating newly planted seed.
“We’re excited and nervous because it’s our first time to grow hemp,” says Ches, who is partners with three others in the business venture called Tycoon Botanicals. “We’re raising female plants because they have higher concentrations of CBD oil, so we call them the girls. Our crop is organic, too, to make it more marketable.”
After harvest, the plants’ cannabidiol oil will be extracted and used as an ingredient in lotions and ointments used for pain relief and cosmetics.
Two Idaho physicians who studied the benefits of CBD oil and wanted to be part of the increasingly popular hemp industry found Ches and hemp-growing consultant Cristian Martinez of Salt Lake City through internet searches and mutual friends.
“A patient of theirs lives in Snowville and knew about our farm,” Ches says. “They wanted a farmer willing to take a risk and grow it in a field that would meet criteria for being organic. The warm days
and cool nights here should increase oil yields, too.”
With Ches’ farming expertise and Cristian’s five years experience raising industrial hemp and marijuana, the plants are well cared for.
The partners invested in specialized equipment: a 1,600-square-foot greenhouse to start the plants from seed in May, a strip tiller to cut 1-foot-wide rows for hemp in the alfalfa field, a 24-footwide
hemp planter that plants six rows simultaneously, a specialized watering system and a shucking machine for harvest.
To meet the criteria for being organic, herbicides cannot be used. A crew of 15 to 20 employees weeds the field by hand or with string trimmers. The alfalfa is trimmed with 30-inch-wide riding lawnmowers.
Butte Irrigation in Paul built a custom watering system that includes sand filtration units and a salt deionizer to deal with the alkali soil. Perforated driplines, about 70 feet long, are attached to the pivot and dragged along the rows.
“The irrigation system delivers 725 gallons a minute to the entire pivot, which is approximately 1 gallon an hour per plant,” Ches says. “For me, growing hemp has been an education in botany.”
Applying his biology and ecology degree from Colorado Mesa University, Cristian has worked at marijuana and hemp farms in Colorado, Oregon and Utah since 2015.
Male hemp plants are culled from fields, allowing female plants with higher concentrations of CBD oil to thrive, Cristian says.
After the 2018 federal farm bill allowed cultivation of hemp nationwide, the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food established a department to monitor the crop. More than 220 licenses have been issued statewide.
Unlike marijuana, hemp doesn’t contain high concentrations of the psychoactive chemical tetrahydrocannabinol, more commonly referred to as THC. At harvest, the hemp must contain 0.3% or less of THC or the plants are destroyed.
“It’s easier to grow more acreage of hemp than marijuana because there are less regulations,” Cristian says.
Ches and Cristian are uncertain of the amount of CBD oil their plants will yield. Generally 50 pounds of biomass yields 1 liter of oil.
“We’ll have to wait and see until mid-September and October,” says Ches, who plans to have 50 employees during harvest.
The partners are negotiating with several companies to buy their hemp.
“We’ll see who wants it the most,” Ches says.
Unlike the perennial alfalfa next to it, hemp must be reseeded every year.
“We’ve invested heavily in equipment, so we’ll keep growing it,” Ches says. “This fall, we’ll see what we need to tweak. Then we’ll do this again next year. Eventually, we’d like to extract the oil here on the farm.”