Enthusiasm for Kern County hemp may have worn off a little.
Registered acreage has fallen two-thirds since late August to 2,011 acres, county data show. Roughly the same number of farmers — 50 — signed up to grow the plant on a third fewer sites.
The acreage decline reflects sharply lower hemp prices since December and perhaps uncertainty about federal regulation of hemp. It may also have to do with a change in the cost of registering acreage in Kern.
Hemp is virtually identical to marijuana but by definition it produces no high. It has only become legal in recent years and regulations to govern its production are still being written.
Comparisons with other California counties were not available and so it's unclear whether Kern retains its 2019 lead in total registered hemp acreage.
Some growers who registered acres last year have cut back this year, in some cases because they didn't end up using all the land they planned for, said Cerise Montanio, deputy director of the Kern County Ag Commissioner's Office.
A handful of farmers renewed their registrations and a handful chose not to, she said, while another handful signed up "trying to get into the game."
But activity does seem to have slowed, she said: Instead of fielding hemp-related calls all day long, she gets maybe a couple of inquiries per week.
Her guess is that registered acreage will eventually rebound.
"There are so many uses for it," she said. "It's just a new industry and we have to see what works for our area. … We just have to find our niche."
Suggestion of a decline in hemp's popularity in Kern comes as a disappointment on some levels.
A variety of crop choices benefits farmers and hemp looked like an attractive option a year ago because of strong demand for cannabidiol, or CBD, a popular cure-all.
Plus, the county has welcomed hemp, with the notable exception last year of 500 acres destroyed because of suspicions the hemp there was marijuana; the destruction has prompted ongoing legal action.
Otherwise the county has viewed hemp as warding off marijuana production because the two plants cross-pollinate and lower each other's potency.
Hemp prices averaged about $22 per pound of biomass in December, according to website Kush.com. By May the average had settled at about $10 per pound.
Montanio said the decline in registered acreage was probably market-driven but that it's possible some growers chose to be more conservative about how much land they would actually plant on. She noted the county began charging a fee of $25 per acre and requiring a deposit of $1,000 per site plus $100 per acre.
Meanwhile, expressed interest in processing hemp in Kern — on unincorporated county land, at least — has failed to yield results.
A number of people have asked about processing the plant in the county but none have gone through the process of applying for a permit or actually set up an operation in unincorporated Kern, said the county's top planner, Lorelei Oviatt.
It's possible processors have looked to set up instead in Arvin or California City, which have laws more lenient toward the cannabis industry in general. Planners at both cities were unavailable for comment Wednesday.
Hemp industry consultant Chris Boucher, CEO of Farmtiva Quality Hemp Seed, said local interest in hemp may have faded a little because of less than ideal farming results.
Some growers plant hemp in the summer, which they shouldn't because high heat diminishes quality, Boucher said. He said they should wait until fall and plan to harvest in November.
"At the end of the day you're growing a molecule. You're not growing a fruit, you're not growing a nut," he said. "There's a little more science it in the way you do it."