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Leave it to enterprising southern Oregon growers to look for a better way to mulch their hemp fields.

Concerned about the environmental effects of using plastic sheeting as a weed and moisture barrier, a local grower is blowing straw onto a hemp field in the Applegate Valley as a test. The technique uses a blower he rented in Portland that grinds up straw and shoots it out 60 feet, moving seven tons an hour.

This growing season has seen a huge increase in acres planted in industrial hemp — a variety of cannabis low in the psychoactive chemical THC but high in fiber and cannabidiol (CBD), a substance widely believed to have medicinal properties. The 2018 U.S. farm bill enacted last December legalized the production of hemp as an agricultural commodity.

Jackson County has seen more acres planted in hemp this year than in pears and wine grapes combined, and leads all counties with more than 8,500 acres. Almost 56,000 acres are planted statewide.

Initial public reaction was critical of hemp farmers for using plastic sheeting to control weeds and reduce water use. Some growers are using a biodegradable material that can be tilled into the soil after harvest, but it costs more than plastic. So does the straw alternative.

Meanwhile, one data analytics firm predicts U.S. hemp sales will hit $2.6 billion by 2022, half of it generated from CBD products.

Local growers hope to cash in on that trend. Rogue Valley residents hope they can do it without clogging landfills with plastic.

-- Ashland Tidings

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