LITTLEROCK — The former Scattaglia Farms warehouse bustled with activity Tuesday morning as more than 150 workers prepared hemp buds to be shipped to a processing plant.
In one room, workers wearing protective masks and gloves clipped buds from approximately eight-inch stems, tossed the stems on the ground and then cleaned exterior leaves from each bud. They dropped the buds in a crate and moved on to the next one.
This is the first industrial hemp crop from SoCal Farms, the limited liability company whose founders include Antelope Valley agricultural industry leaders.
Back in May, SoCal Farms founders, including President Donald Collins, held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate planting of the company’s first 100 acres of industrial hemp.
“We look forward to being able to figure out what hemp can do on economics and sustainability here,” Collins said at the time. “It’s really important that we do protect the environment and the asset of the water, air, and soil here.”
Industrial hemp has an approximately 90-day grow cycle. The crop consumes about one-third the amount of water needed to grow alfalfa, the Valley’s number one crop.
In another room, thousands of hemp plants hung upside down on approximately 10-foot-tall drying racks.
Brandon Calandri, vice president of farming operations for SoCal Farms, walked over to one rack, picked up a plant and held up it up.
“We did it,” he said.
Calandri, smiling, held onto the green and pale yellow plant with both hands.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be profitable,” he said. “It was a lot of trouble, a lot of blood, sweat and tears.”
But Calandri deemed the quality of industrial hemp produced in the Antelope Valley as stellar.
SoCal Farms’ first crop produced approximately 650,000 hemp plants. The trimmings from the buds are sucked into a bag, then placed in a tank. That product can also be sold to produce oil.
“Our goal is to have 100% use of the product and I think we’re going to get very close,” Zac Cullen, SoCal Farms’ vice president of Sales and Marketing said.
SoCal Farms is dedicated to the research and cultivation of high-quality hemp. The company’s ultimate goal is to be the West Coast’s largest provider of full-spectrum hemp oil. Company officials also want to be the largest supplier to large brands nationally, as well as on the West Coast.
SoCal Farms partnered with Antelope Valley College to conduct an industrial hemp research project.
AV College students, supervised and supported by faculty, are involved with the research.
Calandri said they finished collecting data and will analyze the crop’s water consumption. They will also look at market viability to see what the potential profit on industrial hemp is, as well as the best uses for it.
“It really is an unknown industry,” he said with a laugh. “We did it, that’s a major, major goal. Now the question is, we did it, should we have.”
After the buds are sorted and processed through a machine, they emerge a perfect-size bud. The buds will then be packaged and shipped for processing.
SoCal Farms employs about 150 workers at the warehouse. Another 50 people work at the growing site. The crop is harvested, trimmed and packaged by hand, before it is shipped.
“This is a giant research project,” Calandri said. “We have to see once it’s done, to see if this is a viable industry for LA County, especially Lancaster.”
People are looking at what Calandri, Collins, Cullen, John Hemme, vice president of Logistics and Transpiration and Chris Van Dam, vice president of Finance and Asset Management are doing.
“People are paying attention to what we’re doing in Lancaster because we’re doing it right, and we’re doing it to scale,” Calandri said.
The company downsized its second crop, after the sticker shock of the first crop.
“One-hundred acres didn’t sound too crazy, and then when you go to harvest it’s like, ‘Oh, wow that’s a lot,’” Cullen said. “A 100 (acres) was a little more daunting at the end than we thought it would be.”
It’s too early to know whether SoCal Farms’ gamble on industrial hemp will pay off and create a new industry in the Antelope Valley.
“It’s been an incredible amount and the question will be is the risk worth the reward and is the work worth the reward,” Calandri said.