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Looking over their field of 5,000 thriving hemp plants, Marianne and Marvin Yong, the owners of Wholly Hemp Farm, said their mission is to educate the Klamath Falls community about the industrial plant’s potential, ranging from textiles to building material to medicine.

“It got kind of lumped in with its crazy, wild sister marijuana,” said Marianne Yong. “That’s what I tell people: Hemp is the boring, smarter cousin of the cannabis family. But it’s really exciting stuff, and really, the potential is limitless at this point.”

With the guidance of operations specialist Vernon Norwest, they started planting June 1 and expect the plants to flower by the middle to end of August.

“We all have a dream here,” said Norwest, who is an Oregon Medical Marijuana Program cardholder and has grown his own plants for years. “They had the business sense, and I had the grower’s sense.”

Their hemp, which can develop as fast as half an inch a day, will largely be used for cannabidiol (CBD) oil. The product is made with the plant’s flower and leaves. Unlike marijuana products, it has a high concentration of CBD and minimal traces of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabis’ psychoactive chemical compound. The oil has been shown to help with pain, anxiety and nausea, among other ailments.

Eventually, the Yongs are interested in expanding to other industries, including textiles, rope and hempcrete, a mixture of hemp and lime that is used for construction and insulation. In addition to being more environmentally friendly than other building materials, hempcrete is also mold and bug resistant. Marianne Yong said she wants to take the stalks of her plants and make a hempcrete tiny home, so all parts of the hemp can be used.

Small-town dreams

The Yongs met in Seattle, where they previously lived. Marvin Yong was the coach for both of their sons’ football team. Marvin Yong is of Hawaiian descent, and he connected with Marianne Yong because she had lived there. They combined their self-described “Brady Bunch family” of eight kids and housed five foster children, two of whom they have since adopted.

“It’s very much like this hemp farm,” said Marianne Yong. “It just kind of happened. The kids we knew through our time as youth pastors, and so when they were in trouble caught up in the foster system, they asked for our help.”

To support their growing family, Marianne Yong worked for Prudential Financial and Martin Yong was a carpenter. They even rented a larger home to have enough space. After visiting his sister in Klamath Falls in 2014, Marvin Yong decided to move his family to Oregon.

“I’ve just been a city boy all my life,” said Yong, who grew up in Los Angeles. “I’ve never really had real grass.”

Marianne Yong had studied chemistry and environmental science at Evergreen State College, and despite her career in finance, she had always wanted to be “a little bit more reckless” and raise her children as “farm kids.”

They bought the land, which was used for hay, from a family friend, but realized that they could make more money growing hemp. Although they decided to switch crops in 2016, they spent a year getting to know the Klamath Falls community. Marianne Yong took a job as the head secretary at Klamath Union High School.

“You discover a whole new part of yourself when you live in a drastically different environment,” she said. ”But we’ve been really lucky. We’ve taken to Klamath Falls. Klamath Falls has really embraced us in a lot of ways.”

The benefits of hemp

With Wholly Hemp Farm, they are joining the three other industrial hemp growers registered by the Oregon Department of Agriculture in Klamath County. In total, there are 218 in the state. The Yongs said they were encouraged by relaxed laws around hemp farms passed by the Oregon Legislature.

While weather extremes and bugs can make agriculture a trying industry in the Klamath Basin, hemp plants are more resilient and “grow like a weed.”

The Yongs began planting their 5,000 seeds in June and were already “thrown a curveball” with an early summer storm.

“They had snow on them and frost,” said Marvin Yong. “The wind had been knocking them over: It was like 40, 50 miles per hour out there. They were banging their heads on the ground, basically.”

But due to the resiliency of the plants, Marvin Yong said, they survived and are currently “our biggest, best, bushiest ones out there.”

So far, their first crop has been successful: All of the plants sprouted and only a handful were males, which have to be taken out because of their potential to cross-pollinate.

In addition, Marianne Young said, they are using significantly less water than with hay. Currently, with the same irrigation system, they need 90 percent less water. After installing a drip line later this summer, this will go up to 95 percent.

This focus on the environmental impact carries over into how they maintain their whole land. After buying the farm, they developed an “expensive farming zoo,” which includes cats, ducks, turkeys, dogs, goats and a horse named Harley who likes eating pancakes and lazing around the almost 7-acre property.

Now, each of these animals plays a role: The cats and birds scare away the gophers and bugs, respectively. Marianna Young joked that when puppies attacked a few of their plants, they thought about sending them to the pound.

Challenging stereotypes

Although their plants are visible from the road, they have installed 24/7 security including cameras and electric fences. Marianne Yong said they are worried about people who think it’s marijuana and want to steal it as well as those who make the same assumption and want to ruin it. This is why she said they encourage people to come visit the farm, where planes from the nearby Kingsley Field fly overhead.

“We want to talk to people and tell them what we’re growing,” said Yong. “That’s the only way that the stigma can be addressed.”

Their larger goal is to encourage other farmers to grow hemp, or at the very least, to rent their land.

“As farmers, what I’ve been telling them is that we can add on a couple of zeros per acre of what you’re making on your hay,” said Marvin Yong.

Estimates range, but an acre of hemp can reap profits of around $200 to $400. The Yongs said they hired workers to help with planting and want to be able to pay wages that attract people to Klamath Falls.

While Marianne Yong said Klamath Falls is “a great place to live” and she wants to have a float in the next Main Street parade, she understood why the youth — such as the high school students she interacted with at Klamath Union — want to leave.

“As much as we would love for them [our children] to move to Klamath and be down here, they really struggle with that idea: What will we do there? What jobs are there here? And that’s one of the things that makes me want the hemp industry to be successful, because I think it will draw younger people or keep younger people here in Klamath Falls.”