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Rocky Mountain High - the boom and bust of Colorado's hemp industry

 Finn Murphy holds a copy of his new book Rocky Mountain High at the Boulder Bookstore on June 22, 2023.
Maeve Conran
Rocky Mountain Community Radio
Finn Murphy holds a copy of his new book Rocky Mountain High at the Boulder Bookstore on June 22, 2023.

In 2019 Finn Murphy bought a farm in Boulder County, Colorado, hoping to cash in on the hemp boom.

Like thousands of others, he was enticed into the "hemp space."

But one year later, it all went bust.

He chronicles his adventures in the new book Rocky Mountain High - A Tale of Boom and Bust in the New Wild West.

Finn Murphy spoke with Rocky Mountain Community Radio's Maeve Conran.

Finn Murphy: In late 2018, November, 2018, the U.S. Farm Bill passed, which made hemp legal for the first time in 83 years.

And so 2019 in Colorado, a whole bunch of us thought, 'well now it's legal, let's do that.'

Prior to 2018, Colorado had pilot programs for hemp, and the University of Colorado was doing hemp research, and Colorado State University was doing hemp research and the Colorado Department of Agriculture was doing hemp research, so when the Farm Bill passed, Colorado was the only state that had any infrastructure that was built in and ready to go.

Maeve Conran: In addition to all of that, the Colorado Department of Agriculture really seized on hemp as something that, I'm going to paraphrase here, but I think they felt could really help and impact in a positive way agriculture and especially maybe smaller farms here in the state.

What was the Colorado Department of Agriculture's role in really pushing hemp as a crop here?

Finn Murphy: Yeah, they were looking for a solution to small farm bankruptcies in Colorado which have always been a problem since 1859.

So we're talking about small holdings here, so I've got 36 acres, that certainly qualifies as a small farm in Colorado.

Corn doesn't work, sugar beets don't work, vegetables don't work.

You know, we have a rocky alluvial plane and a semi-arid climate, there are very few things that grow that a farmer can actually, you know, stay with his farm, raise his family, make a little bit of money.

And that's why hemp was considered to be a very good candidate for this type of farmer.

Maeve Conran: Now, you were not alone in stepping into what you describe as the hemp space.

Who were some of the other folks who were excited by the opportunities, who were investing big, big money into growing hemp?

Finn Murphy: So this had all the classic characteristics of a boom.

So we had locals who were eager to ride the wave, like me, even though I wasn't a farmer and have no background in farming whatsoever.

You had massive outside investment coming in from New York and Toronto and Dubai, and then you had very significant government support from the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

Then you had other business support for ancillary businesses that were going to take part in this.

You had support from the universities, and then you had support from the media and you had fluff pieces, and you had internet chat rooms opening up.

So all of these things, each one of these little bricks constructed this wall of the hemp opportunity in Colorado.

Maeve Conran: And yet despite all of that, there was inevitably a bust.

And so you outline your own personal experience of the bust in your new book.

But you'd experienced so many challenges, it's not just growing the hemp, but of course it's the processing, it's the selling.

And despite the fact that it was included in the Farm Bill, there were still many, many federal barriers, including a limited access to banking and even how do you ship hemp, you know, processed hemp to another state, it keeps getting intercepted?

So what were some of the elements that really led to the bust?

Finn Murphy: Well, all of those elements, and I probably need to correct myself by saying Colorado had the infrastructure in place to grow hemp, nobody had the infrastructure in place to grow hemp.

We had a legal Farm bill that made it legal to grow hemp, but there was no other infrastructure to grow hemp.

So there was no clearing house where you could buy and sell hemp in the marketplace, for example, there was nobody who knew how to grow hemp and how to process hemp, except people who had been growing the other kind of hemp and they weren't talking.

So there wasn't any information on that either.

So those were the two big ones, and then you had, you know, 2,554 growers in Colorado growing hemp that year, and there was only about a hundred the year before.

And so Colorado planted only a couple thousand acres of hemp, and then the next year it was 80,000 acres of hemp, which is 125 square miles of hemp.

Maeve Conran: Growing hemp is one thing, processing and then selling the hemp is a whole other thing.

You mentioned there (that) there wasn't a marketplace in which you could actually sell all of this, but there really weren't even the facilities to deal with the crop once it had been grown, let alone store it.

That's actually one of the parts of your story.

Has that infrastructure improved here in Colorado, the processing, the storage, and the marketplace?

Finn Murphy: No, that's one of the tragedies of this whole thing, there's no hemp being grown outside in Colorado anymore.


It's all being grown hydroponically inside for a variety of reasons, which I, I go into in the book.

The raison d'être for hemp being legal in Colorado and what the Colorado Department of Agriculture wanted to do, which was to help small farmers, it didn't work.

And so it's over.

So there is no hemp infrastructure for hemp.

The hemp infrastructure that was built by people like me, we sold it all off for pennies on the dollar and closed it all down.

It's done.

Maeve Conran: Are you seeing a boom in hemp now in other states, as we are seeing this patchwork quilt of legalization, decriminalization of hemp, of cannabis all around the country.

(Is there) anywhere you're looking to elsewhere in the country that you would like to maybe call up a farmer and go tread carefully?

Finn Murphy: If I was going to talk to any farmer about growing hemp, I would say 'do not do that,' period.

There is no hemp boom in the agricultural sector in any state in the union.

People are still trying to grow hemp, maybe for fiber, maybe for building materials, but there's no infrastructure for that either.

So right now, the only, if you can call it mature market for a hemp product, would be the CBD droppers that you see all over the place, most of which are probably not what they say they are in the ingredients.

There's about 30,000 CBD brands out there right now, and they're all fighting each other like cats in a bag to differentiate each other.

I'm not an optimist about hemp.

I still love the plant.

It's a regenerative plant, it takes all the nasty stuff out of the soil.

It's got 25,000 uses that we'll get infrastructure for at some point.

But right now, the hemp thing isn't working.

But I will say that my foray into this was still a whole lot of fun.

I met a whole bunch of great people and I wouldn't trade it and I would do it all over again.

This story was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including KSJD.