Agribusiness  March 30, 2021

Wildfire smoke spares hemp crop

The summer and fall of 2020 were marred by plumes of smoke and ashfall along the Front Range as the state wrangled with the largest wildfires on record.

But although the smoke and the fires were intense, hemp farmers in the state didn’t experience impacts in the growth or potency of their crops, said Jill Ellsworth, the CEO of Denver-based cannabis decontamination company Willow Industries LLC.

“Colorado, even though it seems pretty intense, was kind of spared,” she said.

Ellsworth attributed that mainly to Colorado’s hemp farms being outside of the main burn areas in the mountains, compared to some of her customer farmers in California whose crops were directly in the path of fires.

That’s good news for Colorado’s hemp industry, which is trying to use its status as the first state to legalize marijuana and its relaxed attitude to cannabis to claim a large cut of the national CBD market after hemp was legalized through the federal Farm Bill in 2018.

However, there are mixed anecdotes on how much the West Coast fires affected hemp crops. An Oregon farmer reported in late November that crops that were as close as eight miles to a major wildfire site produced CBD oils that had near-undetectable levels of ash and other fire byproducts, but some plants were slower than usual in reaching expected potency.

Smoking out all forms of life

Wildfires have shaped plant ecologies for millenia and benefit the environment by removing dead tree brush, spreading seeds and encouraging their germination in its aftermath.

However, the frequency and intensity of fires seen during the record-breaking fire season of 2020 cause far more harm than benefit. Prior research suggests just 20 minutes of exposure to smoke can cause plants to lose up to half of their photosynthesis capability as exposure to toxic levels of various compounds damages chlorophyll and affects how the plant’s pores absorb carbon dioxide.

Since photosynthesis is the main driver in plant growth, a prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke could slow a plant’s timeline to maturity, reduce its yield and affect how it tastes.

Ellsworth said that some farmers reported premature flowering for both their hemp and cannabis plants due to the reduced sunlight, which forced them to harvest their plants earlier than they would have in the fall.

Managing ash, smoke

Zach Nassar, the CEO of Gemini Extraction Inc., said the process for breaking down hemp into CBD and other desired compounds is thorough enough to remove the compounds that could tarnish the quality of the extracted material.

“That taste and smell profile is much less important in our sector of the industry as compared to the marijuana space,” he said.

Gemini Extraction is a white-label producer of CBD that sells to consumer-facing cannabis brands. The company was formerly known as Zelios Colorado and claims to be potentially the largest extractor of cannabinoids by volume in the U.S.

Marijuana plants suffered more from the wildfire smoke, mostly in its taste. Ellsworth said cannabis plants in Northern California had a tinge of smoke flavor to the flowers that’s difficult to remove with industrial means before the plant can go to a dispensary. 

“It just smelled like smoke, and there wasn’t a way to get rid of it except to wait it out,” she said.

Plants react to a changing climate

While Colorado’s cash crops were spared in 2020’s wildfire season, it’s not exactly clear how future crops are going to handle an environment that is becoming hotter, drier and more primed for wildfires due to climate change.

There’s limited academic research at the moment on how hemp and cannabis strains will cope with a different climate.

However, Ellsworth said she expects interest to rise in how cannabis plants react to climate change not just because cannabis cultivators are interested in finding ways to remove smoke smell from their plants, but also because a plant that flowers too early opens itself up to microbial harm.

“When the plant is pre-flowering, it really stresses the immune system, which then in turn causes more contamination, whether that be pests, they’re more susceptible to, or it’s mold, mildew, yeast, any of those types of pathogens,” she said.

However, hemp is likely to remain one of Colorado’s most-promoted crops because it takes a relatively small amount of water to grow.

Trevor Fitzler, a LaSalle resident and director of operations at hemp services provider Farmers Revival LLC, said an onion crop requires four times the amount of water that an equivalent hemp crop needs.

“True industrial hemp for fiber is all but a dry land crop, which could potentially be a peaking industry in the next few years,” he said.

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