Can Industrial Hemp Save Rural Economies?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may seem like an unlikely champion for an illegal substance, but the Kentucky Republican just added the legalization of marijuana’s non-psychoactive cousin, hemp, to the Senate farm bill. The industrial hemp business is increasingly seen as an economic savior and substitute for vulnerable industries like mining, especially in Colorado, the first state in the nation to make hemp legal at the state level.

For over a decade, Cory Colombo worked in farming and construction in the town of Nucla, Colorado. Now, he has a new job at Paradox Ventures.

I meet him inside a large greenhouse that’s chock full of baby hemp plants. Noisy, giant fans whir above to circulate the air.  He tells me they usually have rock music playing for the plants too. It makes them happier, he says.

Colombo’s family and community are steeped in the region’s older industries. His grandparents grew up in the town of Paradox and entered the mining industry in the nearby town of Nucla during the uranium boom. But the uranium and coal mining jobs that used to sustain the region have waned and the Tri-State power plant is set to close.

“That feeds a lot of families there in Nucla,” Colombo said, referring to the power plant and the mine. “My goal is that if I can get ten families in Nucla involved in hemp and save ten farms then I did my job.”

He says Paradox Ventures is making progress. Last year the operation started out with 50 hemp plants and this year they’re cloning and transplanting nearly 50,000.

Planting time is just around the corner.  Don Coram, the founder of Paradox Ventures, takes me out to one of their farms.

Coram is no ordinary farmer. He’s actually a Republican State Senator from Colorado. He represents mostly rural districts in the Western half of the state; communities like Columbo’s hometown of Nucla.

“I just saw what I thought was going to be an already devastated community and said, ‘You know I think if we can put this together, we can make it work,’” Coram said.

Coram actually sponsored the legislation that legalized industrial hemp in the state four years ago. Since then, Colorado has become the top producer of hemp products in the country.

Thirty-five states have legalized it now and researchers have identified at least twenty-five thousand uses for hemp ranging from textiles to animal feed to medicine to something Coram hopes will become this area’s specialty: building materials.

Coram said you…

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