Not long ago, the sight of a large field of plants that looked like marijuana would cause quite a stir — maybe even calls to law enforcement.

But now, a drive along the open stretch of Los Osos Valley Road between San Luis Obispo and Los Osos reveals multiple large fields of hemp plants in plain view, causing fascinated drivers to stop and snap photos in a new era of legalization.

Hemp comes from the same plant family as cannabis, but grows are required to have under 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content to meet federal standards. THC is the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.

Hemp products don’t get people high and often are used to provide pain relief and help treat anxiety, among other health benefits, local growers say.

Hemp is used to make rope, plastics, biofuels and other industrial uses,” said Nick Andre, chief operations officer for Natural Healing Center, which is cultivating nine acres of hemp plants off Los Osos Valley Road. “And it has a lot of medical benefits. It’s used to reduce anxiety and prevent seizures.”

Hemp plants currently are being harvested this fall at a limited number of SLO County locations in the first year the crop has been allowed under the U.S. Farm Bill.

The county’s commercial registration to grow hemp started in May before the Board of Supervisors implemented a temporary ban on new applications that runs through June 2020, according to county officials.

Sixteen applications were grandfathered in before the new temporary policy passed.

The law has stunted hemp farming, according to those in the industry, who say the county is losing economic opportunity.

“This is a federally legal agriculture commodity that shouldn’t be held to the standards of the NIMBYs at this point,” said Adam Kirchner, of Wild Coast Farms, who grows hemp in the Los Osos Valley. “There is neighbor opposition and fear, and a lot of money is being lost. This is one of the best micro-climates in the world, and a lot of people would want to farm here if it were open.”

Nick Allen harvests a hemp plant at the Los Osos Valley farm that supplies the Natural Healing Center. The whole plant is lopped off at ground and then dried. David Middlecamp [email protected]

Nine hemp growers hold agricultural research permits allowing grows, along with the 16 commercial permit holders, according to Marc Lea, the county’s assistant agricultural commissioner.

More than 50 applications for commercial hemp had been filed, but only about a third were approved before the shutdown came from a 4-1 county supervisors vote in June (with Bruce Gibson dissenting), Lea said.

The county hemp ban came following community concerns about odors and questions over appropriate setbacks from other properties.

“Basically, it shut the door on anyone besides the 16 commercial growers (and the ag researchers),” Lea said. “Everyone else doesn’t have an option to grow. We expect there will be a new permanent ordinance in the spring with restrictions.”

The primary focus of the supervisors’ restrictions likely will concern zoning, setback and parcel size considerations.

The permits allowing hemp research will close at the end of the 2019 calendar year, and because the federal approvals have been passed, future growers can be permitted under commercial allowances.

Testing samples must be collected 15 days before harvest under the latest federal regulatory framework for THC content levels.

County hemp farming becoming more visible

Representatives of the Natural Healing Center — which currently runs a Grover Beach retail cannabis store and has approvals to open cannabis stores in SLO and Morro Bay — recently offered a tour of a nine-acre plot of hemp off of Los Osos Valley Road.

The farm also has a hemp parcel closer to the city of SLO on Los Osos Valley Road.

“This has been my dream for a long time, to grow out here on LOVR where it’s beautiful and the climate is really good for farming this crop,” said Helios Dayspring, the company’s owner. “We don’t use pesticides. We don’t use sprays. And I know some people have expressed concerns about odors, but as you can tell, the smell is very faint, if you can smell it at all.”

Dayspring also has a pending application for a nine-acre site for cannabis cultivation.

The nine-acre field is currently being harvested and the company is hanging plants to dry for processing for eventual sale in the form of cannabidiols (CBDs) — the compound in hemp that’s inhaled or ingested for dealing with various forms of pain.

A greenhouse worker irrigates hemp being grown as seed plants at a farm off Los Osos Valley Road. David Middlecamp [email protected]

The hemp field is patrolled by a security guard at night, and a fence has been put up as a windscreen to prevent accidents where drivers often pull over to take photos, Dayspring said.

Opposition to county hemp has created pause

Brent Burchett, executive director of the county Farm Bureau, came to SLO County from Kentucky in February, where hemp farming has become a successful, normalized crop to help take the place of other crops that have faced market challenges.

In SLO County, he said he has heard mixed reactions from farmers — including some in the wine industry who believe the odors would affect their businesses and that the terpenes, the compounds that produce odors in hemp, could spread to their plants.

“There’s no evidence to bear that out (terpenes invade other plans),” Burchett said. “Testing has shown that’s not happening.”

Burchett said that processing companies were considering starting operations in SLO County, but many have backed off with the restrictive measures in place.

The Los Osos Valley farm that supplies Natural Healing Center grows hemp for seed in a greenhouse. David Middlecamp [email protected]

Other concerns include fears that farmers who use pesticides could face legal actions if sprays waft over to neighboring hemp fields, Burchett said.

Hemp must be farmed organically, and some growers fear that the organic plants could be contaminated, creating conflicts.

George Donati, a vineyard manager with Greengate Ranch & Vineyard in Edna Valley, told The Tribune he and many fellow wine country operators have opposed hemp farming near vineyards, saying the impacts are felt from a mile away.

“Although hemp is a federally approved crop, it doesn’t co-exist with other crops that are here because of the odor and the terpenes,” Donati said. “At night and in the early morning, hemp releases odors. All of the residences and businesses here are affected by it, and it causes allergies like watery eyes and people’s throats close up. People come here and leave.”

Donati said the county’s new ordinance needs to identify locations that are “carved out where there are no schools, residences, or other sensitive crops.”

Hemp farmers say county opposition is misguided

But people like Kirchner believe that some of the arguments against hemp farming don’t hold weight and are hypocritical.

“What they’re saying is that if their pesticides cross over and our products test dirty, they’re afraid of us suing them,” Kirchner said. “But we can’t even let our smell escape the property line. So you have these people in power, good old boys, who don’t want to be liable because of old-fashioned labor practices.”

Helios Dayspring, CEO of the Natural Healing Center, stands next to drying hemp plants that will be used for biomass and CBD oil. David Middlecamp [email protected]

Kirschner has five acres of hemp permitted on his farm but feels the county is vastly underrepresented in comparison to others statewide.

Dayspring’s property includes outdoor and indoor greenhouse cultivation, which he says provide head-of-household jobs.

“We farm other crops as well as hemp here, avocados, flowers, and this is just one of the things we do,” Dayspring said.

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.