It’s a cold, gray February morning. We are gathered around a rough-hewn table in a warehouse in southern Polk County. To-do lists, invoices, technical manuals and odd bits of flotsam and jetsam litter the table.
To the right of us is a hydroponic stand of cannabis clones.
We start talking product lines. Seth Crawford turns around and picks up a plastic tub with a screw-on lid and sets it on the table. It looks like one of those containers in which Costco sells mixed nuts.
The jar contains 100,000 cannabis seeds that have been bred, planted and harvested by Crawford and his brother Eric in their new venture Oregon CBD. They sell the seeds for $1 apiece. Yes, that means that was a $100,000 jar of cannabis seeds sitting there in the middle of the table.
Oregon CBD, which will have sales in the $8 to $10 million range this year, now has the capacity to ship 50 million seeds per year. Yes, that math is similarly simple: That's a potential $50 million dollars in revenue.
Welcome to the brave new world of industrial hemp.
The cannabis seeds that the Crawfords lovingly nurse to the market are 100 percent female to prevent cross-pollination. Their level of THC, the plant's intoxicating ingredient, is below 0.3 percent. You can chew, smoke, fold, spindle or mutilate or inject the seeds and you’ll never get high.
Instead, the seeds are sold to people who plant them and produce a wide range of products. Oils, tinctures, topicals. Products to relieve pain, prevent seizures and treat insomnia and anxiety. Dietary supplements. Products for pets. Psoriasis and eczema treatments.
“It’s the best pain reliever I’ve ever encountered,” Seth said. “I was on the bike this morning and my neck was stiff. I put some on it, and I feel fine.”
Seth, 37, and Eric, 33, came to their new venture with a wide variety of skills that have seamlessly meshed. Although you can easily detect differences. Seth is talkative and expansive. Eric is more laconic and speaks in short, direct sentences. Eric is more of the dig-in-the dirt brother, with muddy boots and a Carhartt jacket. Seth styles sneakers and Patagonia outerwear.
Seth has degrees in English, public policy and sociology, with a doctorate in the latter. Until June 2016 he taught at Oregon State University while also serving as a go-to statewide source for information on marijuana, having extensively studied the economy and sociological aspects of the business in his native region of Southern Oregon.
Eric graduated from OSU with a horticulture degree in which he emphasized environmental science and botany. He worked as a naturalist at Mt. Rainier National Park and owned his own landscape architecture firm in the Eugene area before selling it last year to join forces with Seth.
“We’re just a regular business,” Seth said. “If you are in recreational marijuana you are growing a federally illegal but state legal crop. Hemp is legal both federally and in the state.”
Is it harder to grow industrial hemp?
“There are pluses and minuses both ways,” Eric said. “We both have been breeding cannabis for a long time. Rec farming is more intensely regulated.”
The cannabis rooms
Across from the office is a barnlike structure. Shimmers of yellowish light can be seen through the small translucent window set into the door. Inside are 1,700 potted plants, which look remarkably like recreational marijuana plants. That’s because they are exactly like recreational marijuana plants. The Crawfords have bred out the THC and two of their associates — there are eight employees beyond the Crawfords, with most of them holding horticulture degrees from OSU — are tending to the plants,
Three years of breeding has gone into the plants, which carry the names Elektra, Lifter and Suver Haze. Intense grow lights beam down from the ceiling. The plants range from a couple of weeks old to a couple of months. Indoor growing dramatically speeds up the harvesting cycle. The Crawfords can glean four to five crops per year.
“Under lights,” Eric said, “you can plant in June and harvest in August.”
Around the corner is an old shipping container. Inside the narrow, brightly lit and plywood insulated crate are 72 more Lifter plants that are in the final stages of seed production.
“We cut, hang dry and then wait for the right moisture content and run ‘em through the seed cleaner,” Eric said.
That’s 72 plants times 1,200 seeds per plant or more than 85,000 seeds … at $1 per seed.
Three identical greenhouses are next on the tour. Two of the greenhouses contain plants that are grown for their flowers, which the brothers sell for $350 per pound, mainly to international markets. The third contains plants for seed production that are ready for the harvest. Like other farmers, the Crawfords add extra employees during the picking season.
Ultimately the Crawfords want to transition to a greater reliance on greenhouses.
“Greenhouses are more efficient, but we needed a place to get the plants in,” said Seth about their use of barns and warehouses. And he added hat there will be some upcoming capital expenditures. “We’re not taking any crazy vacations, but we’re going to have great greenhouses.
“We’re harvesting some of the best cannabis seeds in the world,” Seth said. “I don’t want to sound arrogant, but …”
Oregon CBD has acreage and warehouses in five sites in Benton, Linn and Polk counties, with its Albany indoor growing site getting the OK from city officials earlier this month.
Where do they go for advice? OSU Extension?
“We are the OSU Extension for the state in industrial hemp,” Seth said. “We sell seeds for $1 and provide advice for free. The breeding’s not that difficult. You can figure it out. Prospective clients come by regularly for tours. We spend a lot of time on tech support for farmers.”
Have they thought of patenting their work?
Seth: "You can, but it’s stupid."
Eric: "All of the strains exist in the wild."
Seth: "You can patent a process or an idea. You can’t patent a plant. You can create a plant that’s just a little bit different. There is little value to a plant (in terms of patent rights). The original plant is trash compared to what we are doing now.”
Which leads us to what the Crawfords are talking about doing next. It’s kind of like the guy who designs Corvettes. Yes, the 2018 model is awfully cool but that designer already is working on future models and knows the 2022 is going to be even cooler.
Oregon CBD, just as its name suggests, is working mainly with cannabis with the CBD strain. The next wave is CBG.
“CBG is pure,” said Seth, who picks up a piece of paper and fires up an immediate gene sequencing chart to illustrate the concept. “No THC ever. CBG can grow anywhere.”
Eric: "Hopefully, we’ll have CBG next year."
When will it be in Walmart?
Seth: "After the 2019 harvest."
“Some of this stuff we’re just dreaming up,” Seth said. “It’s an incredible plant for what it can do. Its chemistry is so malleable and diverse. And we’re just getting to the point where we have the ability to find out what each one of these little things can do.”
Have things turned out the way you thought they would?
Eric: "Yes and no (he cites mites and aphids as one of the biggest challenges)."
Seth: "It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had. It’s what I was meant to do. I can’t express to you the excitement we feel working in this field. Every day there is something new, exciting and incredible. Sharing what we know and having a good time.
"And I wouldn't be able to do it with someone other than Eric. There is such confidence and trust there. We hope to continue to push the science of cannabis. Buy new equipment and do a lot of groundbreaking work."