Oregon’s Frogsong Farm crafts an approach to growing cannabis that promises to last beyond the current profit-driven craze.
If you haven’t heard yet, you will soon: A wondrous new cure-all is sweeping the land. Whether you suffer from anxiety, depression, colitis or cancer, an herbal compound called cannabidiol — more commonly known as CBD — could be your savior. At least, that’s what its proponents would have you believe, and a nascent industry has emerged to capitalize on that belief. CBD is currently a half-billion dollar industry in the U.S., and some speculators expect it to grow to $20 billion by 2020.
CBD has long been known as one of the many chemical constituents found in cannabis, but, until recently, it was overshadowed by its more popular cousin, THC, the stuff in marijuana that gets you high. CBD doesn’t get you high in the same way, but it produces a pleasant sensation that I’m tempted to describe — this is corny, I admit it — as a “zen vibe”: relaxed and blissful yet alert and grounded. I took a large dose of concentrated CBD extract before writing this article — my first such experience — and, so far, I haven’t lost my motivation or started staring at the patterns in my office plants. However, I will say that dropping the green liquid onto my tongue brought a rush of memories of things I dropped onto my tongue back in college, which most certainly left me staring at patterns in plants.
Potential medical benefits aside, this marijuana-minus-the-stoniness aspect of CBD seems to account for its recent popularity. It’s suddenly found in every other smoothie and cocktail in Brooklyn, as well as boutique dog treats, gummy bears, bath bombs and pimple creams now available from a zillion Web retailers.
CBD has made cannabis cool again and spawned a strange industry where dready hemp bros meet the Gwyneth Paltrow Goop set. Goop.com is drenched in CBD propaganda — I mean, advice — and the company recently launched a partnership with marijuana mega-dispensary MedMen, which features products like Beboe’s Inspired Sativa Blend Vaporizer Pen and Papa & Barkley’s Releaf Patch.
Farmers are all for this new brand of reefer madness. Chuck Adams, the CEO of Frogsong Farm in the Willamette Valley, outside of Portland, Oregon, says scores of farmers in his area are now planting hemp. “They’re making 10 to 50 times as much per acre as they would if they planted wheat or onions,” he says. Adams says that on just 10 acres, one can easily grow hemp worth $25 million on the retail market, where a vial of CBD goes for as much as several hundred dollars. “It’s like a gold rush,” he says.
There are two broad types of cannabis: strains bred for astronomical THC content and those bred historically for making rope, paper and other industrial products. The former is what we refer to as marijuana; the latter, hemp. Both types are increasingly legal to grow, and both contain CBD. However, because marijuana is even more valuable than CBD, no one grows high-THC strains to make bath bombs — hence, the market for hemp. Hemp can be grown on practically any modestly fertile patch of earth and doesn’t require the million-dollar greenhouses loaded with sensors and high-intensity lights that are found on most modern pot farms.
Colorado became the first state to legalize hemp in 2014. By 2018, 39 states had followed suit. But with the passage of the U.S. Farm Bill in December, hemp became legal at the national level — unlike marijuana, which has turned up the volume on the gold rush considerably.
Despite the homey, all-natural image of CBD products, the hemp that goes into them is largely being cultivated on industrial-scale, pesticide-drenched farms like any other commodity crop. The harvest is then brought to a central processing plant, converted into CBD concentrate and sold wholesale to herbal suppliers and cosmetics companies that make the products found on shelves.
Frogsong Farm is one of a select few hemp operations that harvest the crop by hand and process it into their own line of small-batch health products, says Adams. The business is a family affair, with Adams’ wife, Connie, and their three sons, David, Reid and Brett, pitching in with everything from raising the crop to selling it at local farmers’ markets.
The organic farm consists of a six-acre hemp field surrounded by forest, flower and vegetable beds and hedgerows of blueberries and blackberries. On one side is a red barn where fragrant hemp boughs hang from the rafters in autumn. Once dry, these are shredded and sifted before being moved to the adjacent “lab,” a room of cobbled-together processing equipment that extracts CBD-rich green goo. The goo then moves to a special “kitchen,” where it’s transformed into tinctures and topical salves.
“Our approach goes far and above organic,” says Adams, who goes the extra step of buying biodegradable pots for his hemp seedlings rather than using plastic ones. “It’s important to us to have total control of the process from seed to shelf,” he says. That control also boosts profits, as millions of dollars of value held in each acre of hemp goes back to the farm rather than being divvied up among processors, wholesalers and retailers.
Frogsong Farm planted its first hemp seeds in spring 2017. The cost of those seeds came as a shock to Adams: five dollars apiece. But these were specially bred, high-CBD varietals produced organically at a farm up the road that had developed strains adapted to the Willamette Valley climate. With scant seed suppliers offering them and hordes of farmers seeking them, the law of supply and demand was not working in his favor.
Once the seedlings, all 12,000 of them, had sprouted in the greenhouse, the farm threw a planting party to cut down on labor costs. “We bought a couple of kegs of beer and put on some music, and it took about 11 hours for us and 20 of our friends to do the plantings,” says Adams.
Raising the plants was the easy part. Hemp, as one of its many synonyms suggests, grows like a weed. With a little compost and mulch, the plants were head high by late summer and began to develop the heavy buds savored by potheads everywhere. At this point, Oregon law requires a visit from the state’s Department of Agriculture, which took samples to determine that the plants were below the legal threshold of 0.3 percent THC, which allows them to be used in CBD products (high-proof marijuana strains contain 20 to 30 percent THC).
One of the reasons why more farmers aren’t taking a seed-to-CBD approach is that a career in agriculture doesn’t equip them with the laboratory skills required to extract herbal compounds from plant material and transform them into a marketable product.
But Adams is no ordinary farmer. He is a former corporate executive with an eclectic group of friends, including a guy whose résumé spans building a biodiesel refinery, brewing beer and working in the essential-oil extraction business, plus skills in chemistry and welding. With his help, the company fashioned a homemade extraction lab for a fraction of what it would cost to purchase the equipment from a supplier. Another friend with a background in beauty products came on board to help develop the product line.
Adams let me in on a little secret that the wide-eyed CBD boosters don’t like to talk about: Everyone knows that the jaw-dropping profit margins won’t last. After all, no gold rush goes on forever. He has already observed the first signs of a glut in the Wild West of the recreational marijuana industry, which Oregon was one of the first states to legalize. And, like any level-headed businessman, he knows that the balance of supply and demand will shift soon enough in the CBD industry as well. That’s partly why he insists on the seed-to-shelf approach.
“Those profit margins will be a flash in the pan for farmers,” he says. “That’s why we decided that if we’re going to do this, we’re going to grow it, extract it, turn it into products and sell them directly to consumers. I think it’s the only way that hemp will be sustainable.”