A Grand County alfalfa farm is home to one of the State of Utah’s first licensed hemp operations – and Moab native Terill Johnston could not be more optimistic. State lawmakers in 2018 passed legislation allowing hemp production in Utah that took effect in December.
“To our knowledge hemp has never been commercially farmed in Utah,” said Johnston, who along with his wife owns TJ Farms near Cisco. “We are very excited to be on the ground floor of this new industry for our state. We feel very fortunate to be one of the first in Utah’s history to grow this amazing product. Industry experts predict hemp will be a $20 billion industry in five years. We are proud to bring at least a piece of that industry to Grand County.”
At the moment, Johnston is growing commercial alfalfa on half of his 320-acre farm. The plan is to fully transition to growing hemp in three years, starting with a modest 10-acre crop in 2019 to test different strains to see which ones grow best in this region in terms of adapting to the climate and yield.
“After we learn the ropes of production hemp farming we will increase our acres year over year; 250 acres of hemp in three years is the goal,” said Johnston. He said the initial crop will be used for the production of CBD oil and he will grow both hemp and alfalfa in 2019. He said there’s cause for excitement in terms of economic boons as well as the benefits of industrial fiber hemp and CBD oil.
Plans also call for the construction of a 10,000-square-foot greenhouse and drying facility in which clones, or starter plants, are grown 30 to 45 days before they’re planted in the ground. Johnston said the structure would be completed this summer, meaning he’ll be able to dry this year’s crop and start his own plants for the next growing season – and provide clones to other growers. For now, though, Johnston is working with a contractor to provide him with clones.
While Johnston’s hemp-growing license is strictly for the industrial variety that contains less than 0.3 percent THC – the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that makes people “high” – he does intend to grow medical marijuana “once the State of Utah gets the regulations and process worked out for medical marijuana. We intend to pursue the growing license to provide that product, as well.”
Johnston has not yet planted his first crop but he already has that most coveted asset of every business: customers. He said they have processors in both Utah and Colorado interested in buying his hemp biomass to turn into alternative fuel.
The product must be tested and the crop analyzed to ensure there is a very low THC content. If it is any higher than the 0.3 percent threshold it must be destroyed, said Johnston. Hemp creates more biomass than any other plant and processors want it grown “as naturally as possible,” he said. His customers also will test for oil purity and chemical input.
A one-man operation at the moment, Johnston said he will hire a full-time employee later this year and will hire up to four temporary workers to help with planting and again at the harvest. He anticipates hiring three full-timers and up to a dozen temporary workers when he expands.
The married father of three said his grandfather and father were born and raised in Moab. He said he started farming at 18 on the Cottonwood Bend Ranch on the Dewey Bridge, the same farm his dad has worked at for 30 years.
Johnston began his own operation when he leased the old Nelson Ranch near Cisco on the banks of the Colorado River. He later purchased the land, which had lain fallow since the 1980s. He has been producing hay to market for the past six years.
Transitioning from one crop to another on a working farm means TJ Farms already has purchased much of the equipment it will need – the land, tractors, irrigation equipment, etc. – moving forward. Still, Johnston expects to spend $500,000 just this year.
“We have to invest in a greenhouse and drying building,” he said. “We have to purchase new, hemp-specific ground preparation equipment for planting and seed bed prep, as well as harvesting equipment.”
While Johnston hopes to eventually grow medical-quality marijuana, he emphasized the current operation is strictly for industrial purposes.
“We intend to become one of the larger-scale hemp producers,” he said. “We look forward to being able to help people with our full-spectrum cannabis oils, as well as relieve some pressure on our gas and logging industries, once hemp textiles and hemp fibers become more widely used again in the U.S.”