How Colorado became ground zero for Hemp production
The view was spectacular. The property, a few miles north of Boulder, Colorado, sat on a little rise with the Rocky Mountains a mile to the west and the Great Plains a mile to the east.
To the south, 125 miles away, I could see the snowcap of Pikes Peak. In the foreground was an unobstructed view of the Boulder Flatirons, the five triangular and semi-vertical rock formations that frame the iconic image of Boulder the way the Golden Gate Bridge does for San Francisco. “Flatirons View” was an oft-used phrase in upscale Boulder real estate talk, surpassing even “Bordering Open Space” as the pinnacle of desirability.
Much more important to me was the thirty-six acres of irrigated pasture where, in a few weeks, I intended to plant a hemp crop. Hemp had just been made legal again after eighty years in federal exile. I turned to the real estate agent, a prosperous specialist in Boulder County farm properties.
“He’s asking 1.5 million?”
“The seller is very motivated. Make an offer.”
“What will he take?”
“The only way I ever answer that question is to say I know he’ll take 1.5.”
“I’ll offer 1.2.”
“I’ll let him know.”
The idea of buying a small farm in Colorado to make money actually growing something on it had been moribund since about 1900.
I’d been researching hemp for the past year. I had read that growing hemp could clear over $100,000 an acre. Thirty-six acres times $100K is big money. The farm was obviously underpriced, but I was told the seller wanted out for personal reasons. I thought all the small farms around here, like this one, with irrigation and water rights, were underpriced.
My reasoning was that the real estate brokers, who play a big role in setting asking prices, hadn’t yet factored in the hemp multiplier. Farm sellers, mostly older folks who’d spent their lives flirting with the breadline growing corn, hay, or alfalfa, didn’t know much about hemp, and what they thought they knew they didn’t like one bit. To them hemp wasn’t a real crop; it was marijuana, and farmers growing hemp were dope dealers.
On the buyer side, hemp wasn’t in the mix yet either. Demand for thirty-six acres of farmland around here was pretty thin unless you had horses and were already wealthy. It was too small a spread to scrape a living growing corn and too large to manage without expensive equipment. The idea of buying a small farm in Colorado to make money actually growing something on it had been moribund since about 1900.
My view was that the marketplace hadn’t yet twigged to the emerging reality of hemp cultivation. But I had. Time to start a new business! I’d been starting businesses since my teens and had done pretty well. Well enough, at least, to make a serious bid on a million-dollar farm property. Hemp was going to hit the big time and I was more excited than I’d been for years.
I’d moved to Colorado fifteen years earlier from the East Coast, and I mean really East Coast. I lived for twenty years on Nantucket Island, which is even east of Boston, and I lived at the eastern edge of the island in a little village called Siasconset. Local legend has it you can see all the way to Portugal on a clear day. I’m so East Coast I was elected chairman of the Nantucket Board of Selectmen, a seventeenth-century vestige of Puritan democracy, sort of equivalent to mayor.
I traded in Nantucket for Boulder and never regretted it. For most of my time in Boulder I lived in the posh Mapleton Hill neighborhood in a downmarket rental. I have a nose for the best side of town, having spent a different twenty years as a long-haul trucker for a fancy van line. I’ve seen thousands of neighborhoods and can tell with a sniff and a glance where money likes to insulate itself. Mapleton Hill is right next to downtown, and I could walk or bike anywhere.
Boulder is one of the most beautiful cities in the country and was a great place to land. Even back then it was suffering from its own popularity, which has been one of the patterns of my life. I grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, before it was overrun by the hedge fund boys, and moved to Nantucket before it was overrun by the hedge fund boys, and moved to Boulder while it was being overrun by the hedge fund boys. I’m not sure if I’m the canary in the coal mine or part of the problem. Probably the latter, but I’m no hedge fund boy. I could have been. I was handed all the advantages my town of origin, contacts, education, and attitude could provide.
Naturally all that Greenwich privilege was dressed down in ripped jeans, flannel shirts, and long hair, and called a meritocracy. Even as a teenager I saw it for the fraud it was and wanted out. I got out. I got way out. My guardian angel turned me into a long-haul mover, so instead of croquet weekends, I was transporting my former classmates’ belongings between Hobe Sound, Aiken, Middleburg, Belle Haven, Friday Harbor, Quidnet, and Atherton. If those place names don’t ring a bell, it’s because you haven’t been given the frequency to hear it. Really massive money operates like a black hole; it accumulates everything and emits nothing.
Places like Vail, Monte Carlo, Palm Beach, Malibu, and Miami are for the arrivistes. Massive money is content for the philistines inhabiting those locales to take the spotlight. Anyone who’s read Michael Pollan understands that corn became the most successful plant on the planet by a subtle and patient manipulation of Homo sapiens. Money does the same thing: it thrives by moving between hosts, allowing the current host to hold the conceit that it controls the money, until it doesn’t. Then the money moves on, unscathed.
Boulder, Colorado, is another of these money vortexes. As Coloradans not living in Boulder will tell you, it’s neither Colorado nor the Wild West. They’d probably describe it as a redoubt of the Upper West Side of Manhattan or maybe a Summit, New Jersey, without Republicans. I don’t get involved in those kinds of quarrels, but I did feel I was missing out on the West. I wanted a change and needed to make a living. I figured the best way to do those and get Western was to be either a rancher or a farmer. The looming hemp revolution made farming look like an easy layup, ergo my offer for the farm.
The farm house itself was a horrific rectangular box that dragged down nearby real estate values. It looked like a Walgreen’s plopped onto the prairie, with an interior flair reminiscent of an airport Marriott. If a key real estate strategy is to buy the worst house in a great neighborhood, I had that covered. The possibilities were endless, though. With hemp profits I’d pay off the whopping mortgage year one, and enjoy a steady income in the following years. I’d fix up the house, maybe build a nice barn. Get a few llamas, goats, a burro or two.
With all that hemp money, I could move a clapboard farmhouse here from Connecticut. Get a barn from upstate New York or Pennsylvania. Yeah! One of those granite barns the Amish have, or maybe a giant red one from a struggling dairy farmer in Vermont. The only hitch seemed to be that others were starting to figure out hemp, too, so I figured I’d better hurry before they got on board.
Hemp is Mother Earth’s super-plant—and I’m referring here to the industrial hemp plant, not the marijuana plant. It can grow almost anywhere and used to be a major crop. George Washington mainly grew hemp at Mount Vernon. In recent years, herbal practitioners have been singing from the rooftops that the oil from hemp, cannabidiol (CBD), can cure anything from arthritis to cancer. God’s green Earth had hemp hiding in plain sight, but we hadn’t seen. Now we had. Hemp was going to put all those nasty pharmaceutical companies right out of business, and well past time too. The War on Drugs against hemp was waning, and science was going to show us the way.
All my antennae told me this hemp thing could become the big score I’d been looking for my whole life.
As any hemp evangelist will tell you, there are at least 25,000 uses for the plant. The main ones everyone talked about were medical, health, textiles, building material, bricks, rope, paper, fuel, and animal feed. Apparently, there are 24,991 more. Well, the US just spent the past fifty years getting rid of its textile industry, exporting the machinery, pollution, and low-paying jobs to Asia, so that was unlikely to become a significant use. You can make bricks out of hemp, but they aren’t certified in any building codes so it couldn’t be that. There’s hemp rope, which is at least triple the cost of nylon rope, and hemp paper, upon which the Declaration of Independence was printed, but that doesn’t mean anyone wants to use it now. I didn’t know anything about fuel or animal feed, but since hemp has been illegal to grow in the US since 1937, there was no infrastructure for any of these uses either.
Maybe there would be, and the hemp clerics kept saying it was going to happen soon, but it wasn’t happening yet. Hemp was being grown exclusively for various consumer products involving the CBD produced by female plants, and for smokeable flower. CBD products are found everywhere, from anxiety relief to sleep aids to hand salves to seizure control. Smokeable flower means buds that you toke, like a cigarette or a joint, but don’t get you high. They just transfer the CBD into your system.
Gone were the stoner white boys in dreadlocks. Well, they were still around, but in Colorado, lots of hemp folks wore lab coats and had PhDs. Scores of them had quit tenured positions in university biochemistry departments or research jobs at Big Pharma and started hemp companies. Most of these folks were in their twenties and thirties. I was a Baby Boomer, and not the only one, who saw the potential of hemp. Regardless of our being universally viewed by the hemp vanguard as anachronistic supernumeraries in the brave new world of what everyone was starting to call the Hemp Space, and endlessly derided with eye-rolling catcalls of “OK, Boomer,” we had one thing most of our young colleagues didn’t have: capital. Not human capital, not sweat capital, not brain capital, but actual greenbacks, in bulk, sitting in retirement accounts.
Some of us were growing antsy about the performance of those accounts. We’d watched once mighty dividend aristocrats like ExxonMobil and GE get unceremoniously bumped off the Dow Jones 30, and we were looking for greener pastures. If we intended to spend our dotage in status and comfort downing diabetic-friendly daiquiris at the 5 O’Clock Somewhere bar in Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville retirement village near Daytona, or playing shuffleboard listening to a Styx tribute band in Sun City, or driving our customized golf cart to the early bird dinner at a Cracker Barrel in The Villages, we’d all need to seriously increase our nest eggs. Loads of Boomers like me were getting energized by the investment possibilities of hemp.
It all seemed like a Great Big American Dream. Easy money, ride the wave, invest in farmland on the endless prairie. Go west, young man. The frontier holds endless opportunity. There’s an American story so old it has gray whiskers, just like me, but no less compelling for all that.
West of the 100th meridian, farmers have spent a century and a half trying to make some money in what explorer Stephen Long called “the Great American Desert.” It gets just twelve inches of rain a year on average, and that average has been declining. (A good nor’easter can drop that much rain on Boston in a couple of days.) Sugar beets, corn, alfalfa, cattle: they’ve all been tried and never amounted to anything much for the yeoman farmer. Decade after decade, what money was to be made was made, after some catastrophic losses, by Big Ag. The yeomen were left with failed dreams and bankruptcies. They moved on but were replaced by other kinds of dreamers. That’s what I’d call the real story of the American West.
Many folks from back East might have an image of Colorado from a John Denver song or skiing. Well, John Denver wasn’t his real name, and he wasn’t from Colorado. Most of us here aren’t. Skiing, at least, is a real myth, if such a phrase makes any sense.
This time, though, it was going to be different—and that should be the epitaph of every “go west” romantic who ever hit the road looking for El Dorado.
Colorado had become hemp central due to pilot programs begun prior to full legalization, and the investment dollars were pouring in from New York, Dallas, Toronto, London, and Dubai. The Colorado Department of Agriculture was enthusiastically promoting hemp. Their young and dynamic director was beating the bushes to the farm community: plant hemp and beat the cycle of bust and then bust.
That was the sales pitch, and it was a pretty good one; good enough, anyway, to pull me and a few thousand others into its powerful maw. It didn’t hurt that I had time on my hands and missed the adrenaline thrill of a startup. In the past, I’d started almost a dozen different enterprises and maybe I jumped into hemp so quickly because I knew I was finished with driving big trucks and moving rich people’s stuff around.
It takes a certain contrarian attitude to bet on red when red has come up five times in a row.
I started my first business when I was still in college. It was a poster collection consisting of pen-and-ink portraits of famous intellectuals that I sold to independent bookstores back when bookstores lined business districts the way tattoo parlors do now. My second business was as a trucking contractor and my third was a textile company that imported sweaters from Ireland.
I bought that company while still in my twenties and have never bought one since; it’s easier to start them, and at least when you start your own you only have the problems you created, not the litany of errors a previous owner has been covering up. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the sweater import business I’d bought was an empty shell of nothing. It took me five years to turn it into something profitable, and I made every mistake a budding business owner could make. I learned, I hope, from every one. The big lessons were to never trust bankers, keep your inventory under control, hire a great accountant, never let anyone know when you’re in too deep, pay every bill on time, forget about a personal life, and take your suppliers to nice dinners even if you can’t afford it.
In my search for expanded product lines for the Irish sweater business I eventually went to Scotland, discovered cashmere, and started bringing that over to the US. This spawned real success and, ultimately, I became the cashmere king. That’s not a moniker I gave myself, but it’s how I was introduced by a colleague to another cashmere manufacturer, and it stuck. “This is Finn Murphy, the USA’s cashmere king.” My cashmere import business spawned offshoots. I opened several retail stores during the 1990s cashmere boom and created another trading arm in private label manufacturing. Cashmere scarves by Ralph Lauren, Burberry, Brooks Brothers and many others passed in one form or another through my hands. It was an amazing transition for a former truck driver, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
Since then, I’d done several more enterprises. On the high end, I opened another retail store, where my suppliers included Oscar de la Renta and Valentino. On the low end, I was a consultant for struggling warehouse companies optimizing space usage in the Brooklyn docklands. I’ve done pop-up stores, pest control, and politics. None were quite as successful as the cashmere business, but there were no failures either.
I write all this not as self-aggrandizement but to provide my bona fides. I knew what I was doing when it came to business and I knew startups. I was no Warren Buffett, just a competent business operator like millions of others out there whom I consider my band of brothers and sisters in a way Mr. Buffett isn’t. We’re not superstars. We’re the solid utility infielder, good every now and then for the clutch single or the timely tag. We know what we are and are mostly fine with that but always, in the background, there’s the lurking hope, ambition, desire, that someday we’ll erupt into the bright sunshine and forge a monumental success. That takes more than just hard work and focus and a great idea. It also includes a good helping of dumb luck.
All my antennae told me this hemp thing could become the big score I’d been looking for my whole life. I was ready, but I’d never gone all-in like I was doing this time. From a business perspective, everything I’d done before this had been practice for the big game.
The farm owner accepted my lowball offer. He was clearly on the wrong side of history and didn’t know it. People without vision never do. It takes a certain contrarian attitude to bet on red when red has come up five times in a row. The math carries the same odds, but to humans it looks like black is bound to appear. Buying a small farm in Colorado to grow a cash crop carried the same kind of contrarian view but…this time it was going to be different.