PLANT PEOPLE — Left, Clorissa Lepe takes care of the plants that were planted at the Sonoma County Junior College’s farm in July. Right, the SRJC planted 0.8 acres of female hemp plants as part of their research into the best growing practices for cultivating the plant.

Slated to begin fall 2020, the SRJC is the first college in the state to offer program

Santa Rosa Junior College recently announced the development of a new agriculture program focusing on hemp. The program, slated to launch in fall 2020 with some classes available this spring, builds on some of the SRJC agriculture department’s pre-existing courses.

“Hemp was legalized federally through the Farm Bill in December 2018 and that really opened the door for colleges and universities that receive federal funding to be more comfortable growing the hemp plant, which was previously classified the same as cannabis — as marijuana,” said Benjamin Goldstein, dean of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Culinary Arts. “The industry demand has really been primarily on the cannabis-for-marijuana side, at least in Sonoma County and locally for some time. The local hemp industry hasn’t really had a chance to emerge because of the federal legal situation, and now because Sonoma County has the moratorium.”

By definition, hemp has to contain less than 0.3% of THC.

Despite the county’s moratorium on hemp cultivation, the SRJC received an excemption from the temporary county ban in April in order to begin developing their program. Goldstein said that the SRJC will have the first collegiate hemp program in the state.

“We wanted to be first out of the gate because we have one of the strongest agriculture departments out of any community college in California,” Goldstein said. “At various junctures throughout the decades we have developed new and innovative programs to respond to changes in agriculture production locally and statewide.”

Goldstein cited the college’s viticulture program coming online as grape cultivation was growing countywide, saying that he believes hemp is at a similar juncture where grapes were.

Like grapes, the junior college will be growing hemp at Shone Farm, where students will be able to study and research best practices for developing the crop.

Work started at Shone Farm in July, when around a dozen students helped plant the hemp. All of the plants in the 0.8 acre are female clones, Goldstein said, which will help prevent propagation.

“We have gone from propogated clones and seeds to transplanting plants in the field,” said Tara Faber, an SRJC student who has taken on the role of lead research assistant. “In my time since starting in June I have come across so many opportunities to learn from tasks directed by George Sellu or from trial and error and experiments.”

Faber worked at Shone Farm over the summer as part of an internship. She’s working on receiving an associate’s of science in sustainable agriculture.

“When this opportunity came up I knew it would be the chance of a lifetime,” she said. “To work with George Sellu, a ‘master Agronomist’ and the team at Shoen Farm has been an experience I could have only dreamed about. Now that the college is about to add hemp as an AS option, I will be completing that program alongside my AS in sustainable agriculture.”

Though that part of the farm isn’t certified organic, the planting was performed using all-organic practices.

“We’re using organic practices to grow the crop — so we’re keeping track of irrigation, we’re keeping track of pest management,” said George Sellu, an SRJC professor who will be teaching some of the foundational agricultural courses. “We decided to do all of those things, and are also looking at if we can also grow those crops with other crops in the county without negatively impacting other crops.”

“There’s a lot of unanswered questions on best practices — where, when, how should we grow this crop, what resources are required,” Sellu said.

The SRJC program intends to answer those questions, both for its own research and to assist the county.

Students in the program will conduct research to help better understand ideal growing conditions — according to its website, they will specifically be looking at good farming practices for sustainable outdoor cultivation, how to properly educate and prepare students to enter the hemp cultivation workforce and how to effectively teach skills that lend themselves to hemp cultivation.

More notably, they’re also studying how the proximity of hemp to wine grapes will impact the grapes. At Shone Farm, the patch of hemp is being grown near the farm’s small plot of student grapes, Sellu said.

“We don’t have answers for that and the ag commissioner wants those answers,” he said. “We see this as helping answer questions for local farmers who want to help integrate this crop into their farms, and then we also want to work with industry folks in terms of what skillsets they’ll want.”

As of right now, there aren’t any immediate plans to have the program expand into teaching about testing and processing, or manufacturing.

“The testing and processing side would fall primarily under a lab technician,” Goldstein said. “There is a need for that workforce and we hope to expand eventually and possibly establish a lab technician certificate as well, but we don’t have that course currently on the books.”

Manufacturing is in the same boat, he said. Adopting certificated programs for lab or manufacturing technicians would require a sizeable financial investment in materials that the college doesn’t currently have and while Goldstein would like to establish those certificate programs in the future, he said that they “just wanted to start the program with what we could do well right now — and that’s the cultivation side.”

As it stands, the program will have two primary focus points — nursery management and sustainable agriculture. According to Sellu, students will be able to choose electives based on each track, which will help them form a stronger specialization.

By working with other students in the farm, Faber said that she’s also been able to help other students learn and has “become more knowledgeable myself by teaching them how to complete the tasks.”

“At the end of the day, you want the students to be employed when they get out of college,” Sellu said.

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