Idaho small farmer heads West to grow hemp

The Fletcher family knows the success of its first hemp-growing season could be tough to repeat come 2020.

“It’s really finicky,” Vale, Ore.-based farmer Randy Fletcher said. “You have to get your irrigation just right along with nutrients in the soil. Otherwise, hemp can go bad or die. It’s extremely hard to grow.”

Randy and Patty Fletcher, both 61, and their son Luke, 35, used organic practices on the 2019 crop, their first. That helped soil and flower quality but intensified the weed challenge every hemp grower faces.

“We introduced a cover crop, white clover, to help suppress the weeds,” Randy said. “Something we are working on is to develop a seven- to eight-seed cover crop for hemp growers.” The ideal cover crop would help provide soil nutrition to hemp plants without growing too tall and depriving them of sunlight.

The Fletchers are growing hemp in southeastern Oregon partly because Idaho does not yet allow the crop.

“If it ever does become legal, we would want to keep Vale and expand into Idaho with a farm on the Idaho side,” Patty said. She and Randy own a home in Boise. They frequently get help from family on the Vale farm.

The family owns 4 Fletcher Farms LLC, which does business as Fletcher Farms Hemp. They bought about 30 acres in Oct. 2018 and grew hemp on half the ground this year — producing a total of nearly 5,000 pounds of smokable hemp flower for CBD, “a very successful harvest,” Patty said.

In the1980s, they grew alfalfa hay and raised Texas Longhorn cattle near Susanville, Calif. They left production ag during drought years. Randy, an electrician, ended up in the Boise area, where the family ran an electrical services business for about 25 years before selling it.

“That’s when we started looking to get back into farming,” Patty said. They found the Vale farm, where corn and other crops were grown over the years.

Luke, who works in Portland for a sizable provider of CBD products and comes to Vale weekly, said nearby Ontario, on the Idaho border, is becoming well known in the industry. The drier climate and availability of irrigation water help, as does dispensaries’ and shops’ heavy traffic that includes Idaho residents.

“We don’t have to go far to find customers,” Patty said.

A lack of guidebooks and other resources means growers of the fairly new crop “really have to rely on the community,” Luke said. “The biggest thing we learned is that if you can find people who have grown hemp, that goes a long way.”

Randy said soil in the area is “a little light. Hemp likes to be grown in a pH of 6.5 to 7, and out here in Malheur County it’s about 8 to 8.5.” Organic fertilizer helps, but takes time. He expects the new cover crop to help speed the process.

Patty said the family’s 2019 hemp crop was helped by good seed genetics, and better weather than some growers closer to the coast experienced in late summer and early fall.

The Fletchers have two 30- by 100-foot greenhouses for drying and curing hemp flowers. They’re considering growing an indoor crop this winter — possibly adding greenhouse space for it — and growing different varieties next year.

“We’re not sure quite yet if we will add acres,” Luke said. This year’s acreage was “perfect. It fit the greenhouses for storage and drying perfectly.”