With marijuana's nonintoxicating cousin hemp making a comeback, a group of growers in the Antelope Valley wants to get in on the ground floor.
"Hemp meet big agriculture," said Zac Cullen by way of introduction at Friday's ribbon cutting ceremony for a newly planted hemp farm on the outskirts of Lancaster. Cullen is a vice president with the grower SoCal Farms.
"Big Agriculture, meet hemp," he added with theatrical flourish before an audience that included state officials and members of the Chamber of Commerce.
A staple of agriculture since ancient times, but banned in the 1930s for its association with the intoxicating forms of cannabis, growing industrial hemp became legal again only last year with legislation at the federal and California level.
The cannabis fiber is useful for making paper and fabric, among other products, but the motivating demand nowadays is for cannabidiol (CBD) oil, a non-psychoactive chemical reputed to have therapeutic benefits. Major pharmacy chains such as CVS are now selling creams and lotions with CBD extract.
"Our goal is to become the largest supplier of hemp oil," Cullen said.
CBD is not to be confused with THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, which is governed in California under separate law, and at the federal level is still technically illegal.
Last year's hemp legislation greenlighted growing cannabis plants which contains less than 0.7 percent THC.
"This is a win-win for local farmers," said lawmaker Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, the state senator who authored the hemp bill signed into law last fall.
Hemp offers hope of injecting new life into Antelope Valley Agriculture, which has been squeezed by lack of access to irrigation. Hemp is touted as requiring as little as a third of the water needed by alfalfa and other Antelope Valley crops increasingly impractical to grow.
SoCal Farms is partnering with Ojai Energetics, a company which specializes in cannabis research and technology, and also with Antelope Valley College.
"This is cutting edge," said the college president, Ed Knudson.
In hailing hemp for sustainability, proponents also note it requires minimal use of pesticides "because literally it is a weed," Wilk explained, eliciting guffaws from the ribbon cutting audience.
SoCal Farms planted 6,500 seedlings on 100 acres last month, said company President Donald Collins, and expect to plant another crop in July. Ultimately, SoCal Farms hopes to be growing on thousands of acres.
"Without scale, CBD is not available at a reasonable price," Collins said.
Some adherents ingest CBD, but that is currently not approved federally, nor in California for CBD derived from industrial hemp — though somewhat ironically, those who seek nonintoxicating CBD for ingestion can obtain it legally under state law from marijuana dispensaries.