With Arizona being in a drought, this farmer thinks hemp could be the future of all small agriculture
In the history of Eloy, Arizona, cotton is king.
But to farmer Salvador Ruiz, hemp could be its future.
On a one-tenth acre test plot, tucked into the corner of a ranchers’ roping arena, Ruiz grows around 200 hemp plants for fiber and for CBG, a cannabinoid which he uses for his new tea business, Trail Light. The sizes of the hemp plants range from less than a foot to 8-foot-tall stalks, which rise above the trellis netting he set ahead of the windy monsoon season.
Further south in Yuma, where lettuce is king, another grower is researching varieties of hemp that can be eaten as a leafy green. But farmers primarily grow hemp for cannabidiol, the cannabinoid better known as CBD. People use CBD products, such as edible drops and candies, to help alleviate chronic pain, reduce anxiety and improve sleep.
Right now Ruiz is trying to find the perfect dual-purpose hemp strains for Arizona’s climate — plants that can be grown for both CBD and fiber.
In drought-stricken Arizona, where growing cotton uses six times as much water as growing lettuce, Ruiz wants to see hemp become a more accessible, sustainable and profitable substitute for farmers in central Arizona. It takes 5,283 gallons of water to produce 2.2 pounds of cotton — roughly one cotton T-shirt and one pair of jeans, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
“We have a strong history with cotton, it’s one of our five C’s,” Ruiz said. “But looking at where we are at in Pinal County, we need to be smarter about how we use our water.”
What to know about Eloy’s cotton farming history
Eloy was founded in the early 1900s when the Southern Pacific Railroad built a switch, a juncture where trains can change routes, about 65 miles southeast of Phoenix. Then in 1918, W.L. Bernard, John Alsdorf and J.E. Meyer purchased farmland nearby, declaring it “Cotton City,” according to Eloy’s website.
Ruiz, whose family is from Eloy, grew up around cotton farmers. His grandparents were seasonal migrant workers who picked cotton in the fields, he said. They later started a pump company that serviced wells for about 40 years. Ruiz also remembers rooting in the fields alongside his father, picking loose cotton off the ground and throwing the fuzzy balls into a basket.
Eloy feels special to Ruiz. He feels like he’s coming full circle as he transitions to growing hemp, maybe one day in the same fields where his grandparents once worked as child laborers.
“The prohibition of marijuana had a really bad effect on minority groups… Now that prohibition has ended for hemp to be grown, it can help people who come from minority groups, who were destroyed because of it, be in positions of leadership like I’ve put myself in.”
Hemp contains 0.3% or less THC content, meaning it can’t get someone high. But when the more potent cannabis plant, marijuana, was outlawed in the U.S., hemp was banned by association.
Arizona didn’t legalize growing hemp until May 2019. It’s such a newly regulated crop that there’s still not a solid infrastructure for it in Arizona, Ruiz thinks.
Ruiz understands investing in a new crop is a risky venture that longtime cotton farmers may be wary of. That’s why he’s testing out different varieties to see which will be the most heat tolerant and productive in Arizona’s climate.
‘There’s farming maybe to feed your soul’
Ruiz started his hemp test plot in 2019. His friend Chris Dinh, a vegetable farmer from California, has also gotten involved with Ruiz’s work. The farm currently produces hemp flowers for teas, and Ruiz is also testing hemp fibers for making building bricks.
Dinh said he supports Ruiz’s project because he’s interested in how people use CBD and CBG for mental health and wellness. Farming itself is a therapeutic experience, he described.
“There’s farming to feed your tummy, and there’s farming maybe to feed your soul. I thought I wanted to explore both,” Dinh said.
Trail Light sells tinctures and loose leaf tea blends with 30 grams of tea and 10 grams of CBG hemp — CBG stands for cannabigerol, one of the cannabinoid compounds found in cannabis.
People can purchase the products online at www.trail-light.com and 10% of every purchase will be pledged to the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona. Ruiz also plans to be bringing Trail Light to the Downtown Phoenix Farmers Market in the near future.
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Sales will go toward Ruiz’s and Dinh’s efforts to promote hemp fiber production in Arizona.
“When something works, like cotton, and there’s generations of knowledge built up, infrastructure, investment, and many industries that have developed around it, financial stakes become more and more important,” Dinh said. “It’s so hard to introduce a new idea that may affect whoever has an interest in keeping things the way it is.”
It’s a story that’s applicable in every industry in society, not just hemp, Dinh said. But the water crisis means they can’t afford to keep farming practices the way they are.
Why hemp could be a more sustainable crop for Arizona
Lake Mead’s decline toward a first-ever water shortage will likely trigger cuts in 2022, The Arizona Republic reported in April. This means Pinal County farmers should expect their water supply from the Central Arizona Project to shrink by nearly a third.
One 2015 report in the Netherlands indicates that the water footprint of industrial hemp, based on earlier studies, is less than one-third the water footprint of cotton.
Robert Masson thinks more research on hemp needs to be done in Arizona. Masson is an agricultural extension agent at The University of Arizona Yuma, acting as a bridge between farmers and the university. He’s tested about 40 different CBD, grain and fiber hemp varieties in research trials.
It’s highly likely that in Arizona, hemp consumes less water than cotton, based on a few reasons, he said.
For CBD plants, farmers are only growing plants for the flower; for cotton, additional energy is needed to make additional structures, such as the seed and fluffy white ball, he explained. In his research in Yuma, Masson found that hemp doesn’t need to be overwatered because it makes them a breeding ground for disease. He also looks at mountainous Nepal, an early site for hemp cultivation, where the dry climate indicates hemp could be well adapted to drought conditions.
But growing hemp has come with other challenges, he added.
In 2019, there were 5,500 acres of hemp being grown in Arizona and half the crops failed — some by disease, others by producing too much THC for the legal hemp limit, Masson said.
Most of the growers were small farmers. In 2020, the hemp crops dwindled to 1,500 acres, he said.
“2019 saw a lot of grift,” Masson said. “A lot of people selling bad seeds… A lot of predatory, get rich quick people who created an atmosphere of instability that hurt the farmer.”
Most of the hemp was grown for CBD, which is more fashionable than fiber, he said. But CBD varieties are also more unpredictable, more disease prone and have more expensive seeds than fiber varieties, he said.
He does, however, see one way to make fiber varieties more attractive — market and sell them as leafy greens, which can be used in salad mixes. After conducting taste test trials of different varieties, Masson has started working with the federal and state departments of agriculture to legalize selling hemp as a leafy green.
‘I would love to see the hemp industry substitute cotton’
Ruiz said he’s currently trying to get a license to process hemp for fiber. Processing licenses are separate from growing licenses. The lack of fiber processors in Arizona is another hurdle to overcome, he said.
The annual fee for a hemp processor is $2,000. There are 41 processor licenses issued in Arizona and the majority are for processing hemp for CBD, said Brian McGrew, industrial hemp program manager of the Arizona Department of Agriculture.
“I don’t want Arizona to miss the boat on doing things that are really, really cool,” Ruiz said. “I joke around with Chris (Dinh), in the story of the tortoise and the hare, I’m just the slow little tortoise going and going, but I’m determined to see it. I would love to see the hemp industry substitute cotton.”