BEND, Ore. — A Central Oregon hemp farm is among dozens that have made the transition to organic production, a growing trend within the industry.

Lazarus Naturals farms roughly 335 acres of hemp north of Bend for CBD, short for cannabidiol, a compound in cannabis that has become a popular alternative medicine for treating pain, seizures and promoting wellness.

After recently completing an inspection, Zack Troyer, farm manager and agronomist, said he expects this year’s crop will be certified organic.

“We’ve gone through the process,” Troyer said. “All of the acres we farm, we have used certified organic practices.”

Oregon Tilth, a nonprofit based in Corvallis, Ore., that certifies organic farms in 49 states, provided the inspection for Lazarus Naturals.

Chris Schreiner, executive director of Oregon Tilth, said the organization certified three organic hemp farms in 2018. Then Congress removed hemp from the list of Schedule I drugs as part of the 2018 Farm Bill, opening the floodgates for growing the crop.

“Last year was when we really saw a boom,” Schreiner said. Oregon Tilth certifies 66 hemp farms, including 43 in Oregon.

Because hemp is a “new” commodity — at least in the legal sense — Schreiner said there are few conventional fertilizers and pesticides approved for it. In a way, he said, that almost makes hemp organic by default.

Taking the step of becoming certified has economic advantages, said Beau Whitney, a Portland economist who studies the hemp industry. He said hemp growers and CBD processors can charge a premium for organic products.

Before the 2019 hemp boom, Whitney said growers earned around $1 per CBD percent in every pound of hemp. That has since sagged to about 40 cents.

But organic growers were charging double that, Whitney said. He expects that premium will hold.

“That is definitely something people find of value,” Whitney said. “Then you can differentiate yourself, and enter into markets you otherwise wouldn’t have access to.”

Whitney said his firm is working on a report about the expansion of CBD markets in cosmetics and drinks.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, however, is still evaluating CBD, and there are no FDA-approved CBD products on the market apart from Epidiolex, a drug to treat rare and severe forms of epilepsy.

For Lazarus Naturals, Troyer said going organic was driven more by sustainability than the bottom line. Lazarus Naturals sells a line of CBD tinctures, capsules and topical lotions and provides a 60% discount to veterans, individuals on long-term disability and low-income households.

“There are a lot of cash grabs in the hemp industry,” Troyer said. “We’re trying to break that mold.”

Transitioning to organic is a 3-year process marked by extensive record-keeping. Farms cannot use any conventional practices during that time.

In addition to eliminating chemical fertilizers, Troyer said the farm makes use of rotational and cover crops to build soil organic matter, break up diseases and reduce erosion.

“There are some aspects of hemp production that are unlike any other crop,” Troyer said. “It’s been a work in progress to figure out how it fits under current (organic) rules.”

Founded in 2014, Lazarus Naturals has offices in Portland and Seattle. The company became vertically integrated in 2017 by growing its  hemp in Central Oregon. The farm also has a CBD extraction lab.

Evan Skandalis, vice president of farm operations, said vertical integration has been key to their success. They can control their product from seed to sale, avoiding bottlenecks at the processor level that have doomed some upstart hemp operations.

“We know exactly where our product is going,” Skandalis said.

He said the farm aims to maintain its position as a low-cost provider of CBD. The organic label, he said, will only strengthen trust among  its customers.


By George Plaven for