Eddie Velez was looking forward to harvesting his second hemp crop—250 plants in flower that had just started budding—when the bitter cold and snow struck Texas in mid-February.
Central Texas is no stranger to unpredictable weather, powerful winds and bouts of cold. So when Velez, CEO of Oak Cliff Cultivators, heard that snow and potentially record-setting cold temperatures were about to hit the Lone Star State, he thought he was prepared.
Velez bought back-up generators for two greenhouses in Brady, Texas, about two hours from Austin, which house his plants that will later be harvested and dried for smokable flower, in addition to mother stock. Oak Cliff, which Velez owns with his wife, Martha, operates 6,000 square feet of canopy and a 2,000-square-foot climate-controlled drying facility.
Oak Cliff Cultivators hemp crop was in flower and about a month away from harvest when the winter storm hit Texas. Photo by Eddie Velez
Power is provided by a local utility company, and water comes from a special utility district, Velez said, so he knew he needed backup.
“Prior to the [storm], we were just getting plants ready, getting our backup generators prepared, and we thought that would be good enough to sustain one or two days,” he said. “Our current generator capacity was insufficient for the duration of the power outage we had. … We thought we were ready, but the backup generator is something we need to really build in our SOPs a little bit better.”
Velez, like many in Texas, lost power for several days, and temperatures dropped to zero and below with the wind chill. Velez and one employee stayed on the property that week to tend to the plants. They watched as their previously verdant hemp crop of CBG Ice #9—a top-selling cultivar—began to wilt and turn brown.
Conditions were subzero when Oak Cliff Cultivators lost power. Although they prepared with backup generators, it was not enough to sustain a week without heat. As a result, the plants died and pipes froze. Photo by Eddie Velez
“We were in the flower stage by the time the storm hit. They were looking healthy, and they were doing great,” he said. “And then that freeze just zapped them. I mean, it just knocked them all out.”
In addition to losing his crop—which was slated for harvest March 15—Velez lost his genetics, as all 10 mother plants did not survive.
“So the next step is, we have to start all over,” said Velez, who planted Oak Cliff’s first hemp crop in May 2020. “We already made a purchase for seeds and local friends, local farmers are going to help me out and cut me off some clones of the CBG I was growing. There's a good handful [of hemp farmers] that we communicate amongst each other all the time, making sure we help each other out and kind of share resources.”
Losing the crop was a $100,000 hit for Velez, he said. Replacing pipes and pumps that froze and burst will be about $5,000, but his greenhouses were spared and withstood the weight from ice and snow. While Velez’s structures are insured, his small-batch, premium hemp crop was not, as growers without production histories did not qualify in 2020, according to USDA guidelines.
After losing 250 plants in a winter storm, Oak Cliff Cultivators is rebuilding its genetics, with the goal to get its next crop ready by the end of March for a July or August harvest. Photo by Eddie Velez
“I did not have that insurance on the crops, so that's a loss for me,” he said, adding that he’d like to see more assistance available for hemp farmers. “I'm going to be pursuing a crop insurance soon. But you know, prior to this year, we couldn’t get it.”
Texas has more than 890 licensed hemp producers, with about 5,500 licensed acres outdoors and 12 million square feet under greenhouse, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture. Velez said he will be applying for federal disaster assistance for agriculture through the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) disaster declaration, and suggested other growers impacted by the storm do the same.
Before spring, which can bring strong storms, arrives, Velez is upgrading his backup generator so it can handle longer outages, finding an alternate facility to move plants if needed, and building protective structures and insulating pipes around the facility so he’s prepared for the worst.
Although Velez has to rebuild his business, he remains optimistic. Finished product was safe in a facility in Austin, so sales continue for Oak Cliff Cultivators. And after repairing the damaged pipes, securing seed and planting, he’s hoping to harvest his next crop in July or August.
“It sets us back a couple months, but you know, it's all fixable,” he said. “We have product on hand still, so we're able to sustain ourselves and keep our operations still moving.
“We just have to do some repairs and get growing again.”