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It's notoriously difficult to make a living at farming, especially in states like Utah, where a farm's productivity hinges on the severity of the latest water shortage. But some Utah farmers believe one plant could change that, if only they were allowed to grow it: cannabis.
About two dozen like-minded farmers met during a session of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation's midyear conference Friday to discuss whether growing marijuana for medicinal purposes could prove lucrative locally.
Scott Ericson, deputy commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, told the bureau that he believes it is likely the state Legislature will pass a law legalizing some form of medicinal marijuana next year. And while that will open up opportunity for local farmers, he said, the actual feasibility of a local cannabis farm will depend largely on how the state chooses to regulate its production.
Recent, ultimately unsuccessful, state proposals to legalize marijuana would have limited cannabis production to one facility for every 200,000 residents, required farmers to demonstrate at least $250,000 in liquid assets up front and pay $35,000 in application fees, Ericson said. And that's just to start in Colorado, he said, the state Department of Agriculture must devote $300,000 to inspecting the various pesticides applied to cannabis crops, which have different regulatory requirements depending on their intended use.
The Utah Legislature "doesn't want just anyone to grow it, and wants the people who do grow it to pay for" the inspections and oversight associated with the crop, Ericson said. "… We don't want to negatively impact farmers and ranchers with a program we didn't ask for."
Many farmers, however, were also interested in considering the ways marijuana might benefit them. Brett Behling, a farmer from Emery County, took an interest in researching medical marijuana when he learned it might effectively treat his Crohn's disease. Other medications, he said, cost thousands of dollars a month, come with side effects that he said left him with zero quality of life and ultimately proved ineffective. But the scientific literature on cannabis oil looks promising, he said.
Along the way, Behling said, he realized that if he moved to a state where marijuana is legal, he might be able to grow his own cannabis. Were it legal in Utah, he said, he'd like to help others by growing it on his farm.
Behling said his current products primarily beef cattle, alfalfa hay and small grains bring in about $135,000 a year, but after all his annual expenses, he's often left with $40,000 in profit.
Marijuana, he said, has much greater potential for profit. It's well suited to growing in Utah's climate, Behling said, though various factors, like the need for additional security, make greenhouse production more efficient.
Marijuana grows best when it's exposed to 24-hour daylight, Ericson said, and then plunged into darkness when it begins to flower. That way, he said, the plants produce more of the oils used for medicinal purposes.
Behling said he figured he could set up a hydroponic greenhouse for marijuana at his farm for about $50,000-$100,000. After his initial startup costs, he said he thought he could keep the operation going for a couple thousand dollars a year and rake in profits in the range of $300,000 to $400,000 annually.
Ericson, however, cautioned that things might not go so smoothly. Farmers who want to grow cannabis face not only a barrage of regulations, he said, but also competition from well-established producers in California and Colorado, and the difficulty of acquiring seed money for a project few banks are willing to fund.
"There's a stigma with it and some challenges," he said. "Anyone could do it, theoretically, but it's a big business. A multibillion-dollar industry. Someone just starting out would have some challenges in that area. … The other challenge is that banks don't want to touch dollars that are paying for this product."
But Behling thought Utah farmers could find a way to overcome those hurdles.
"We're motivated," he said. "If I could get a foot in the door, I could come up with $100,000 to put up a facility that would quadruple my income."
This is the first time the Utah Farm Bureau has discussed cannabis production at a conference, Behling said, so the federation hasn't adopted a formal position on the topic. Given the possibilities, though, Behling said he thought it was possible the organization would adopt a policy regarding cannabis at its annual conference this fall.