Hemp hopeful

After two years of congressional deadlock, HR 2642 emerged from the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday with a good chance of becoming the nation’s latest farm bill.

The nearly $1 trillion, 10-year legislative package is slated for a vote in the Senate on Tuesday. If it passes there and is signed into law by the president, it should introduce some significant policy changes to agriculture in America, including the elimination of fixed payments for producers and reductions to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. And, for the first time in more than four decades, farmers in North Dakota and nine other states may soon find themselves with a new cash crop: industrial hemp.

Restricted as a controlled substance since 1970, hemp is a fibrous variety of Cannabis closely related to marijuana. What distinguishes the two is industrial hemp’s nominal content of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive compound that gives pot its high-inducing qualities. Industrial hemp has by definition 0.3 percent or less THC content by dry weight, compared with the up to 5 percent content typical of marijuana.

But now under section 7606 of the bill being considered, an institution of higher education would be allowed to grow or cultivate industrial hemp if it is done for research and if it is allowed under state law, such as in the case of North Dakota.

“This is huge. It’s a really big step forward,” commented state Rep. David Monson, a Republican from North Dakota’s 10th District. Monson has been an active proponent of legalizing hemp production over the past two decades.

The idea began as a practical solution to a persistent problem. In the early 1990s, North Dakota’s wheat and barley harvests were suffering from recurring Fusarium head blight, or scab. “We had to find something to break this disease cycle,” Monson explained. “Other states around us were talking about industrial hemp,” which as a broad-leafed plant was less susceptible to scab. Canada had already begun taking steps to make the crop legal to cultivate, which it formally allowed in 1998.

This in mind, the North Dakota Legislature pushed ahead, authorizing research in 1997 and becoming the first state to pass a law of its own in 1999 that liberalized commercial hemp production. However, under the Controlled Substances Act, hemp remained illegal to grow without a permit from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, stymying growers from starting up production.

“In our situation I think there are a lot of great benefits,” said Doug Goehring, the state agriculture commissioner. He said North Dakota farmers have shown interest in the plant as an additional, cash-viable crop, “but we were never really allowed to do anything.”

As a crop, hemp is disease- and pest-resistant without the need for fertilizers or pesticides, making it useful for field rotation. The practical applications of hemp are also numerous, with the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center estimating at least 25,000 uses so far. Its seeds can be used for edible oil, rich in B-vitamins and omega-3 acids, or for a number of industrial purposes ranging from lubricant and paints to biofuels and plastics. Among other things, hemp fiber can be used for making paper, blendable textiles, or rope.

“It’s very lightweight; very, very strong,” Monson added, and can be made into a fiberboard suitable for use in construction.

“You could build a whole house out of hemp,” said Wayne Hauge, a fourth-generation farmer from Ray interested in the crop. He and Monson jointly filed a legal action against the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2007, unsuccessfully challenging the agency’s unwillingness to approve their state-issued licenses for growing hemp.

The latest news comes as potential vindication for their perserverence, but the goal of producing industrial hemp domestically is not assured.

“We’ve still got a long way to go before we put seeds in the ground,” said Monson. Trying not to be too hopeful, he said state legislators, officials, researchers and prospective growers all will have to wait and see how the DEA interprets the changes, should HR 2642 become the next farm bill. The U.S. Border Patrol and Department of Justice will also have to be consulted.

“Right now I’m thinking we’re sitting in a pretty good position. We’re way ahead of most other states,” Monson said, in terms of legislation. But he added that the state is potentially disadvantaged by its Legislature meeting only biennially. Any additional rules that may need passing could have to wait until the next session begins in 2015, by which time other states may well have gotten a jump on their own programs.

In the meantime, such a program is already prepared to move forward through North Dakota State University’s agricultural research staff.

“We have preliminary plans in place,” said David Ripplinger, agribusiness specialist at NDSU and the state’s bioenergy and bioproducts economist. He said a study was undertaken 15 years ago examining the benefits hemp could have for farmers and the state economy. “The results were very positive.”

In his position, Ripplinger works directly with farmers, consulting them on NDSU’s findings. But before he can make any recommendations regarding the cultivation of industrial hemp, the crop needs to go through a field research process.

“We’ve really never grown it across the state,” explained Burton Johnson, NDSU production agronomist. Before the 1970 ban, he said state hemp cultivation during the post- World War II era had been largely limited to around the Red River Valley.

Though the experience of Canadian farmers over the past 14 years should be helpful to the researchers, Johnson noted that the soils, geography and climate particular to North Dakota will make their own experience unique. But the methodology of the field testing for hemp should not be much different from that of other crops such as soybeans or sunflowers.

“One of the first things we would do is look at the available varieties,” Johnson said, choosing plants that might yield well in the state’s different soils and climate. Once the candidate varieties are identified, they would be sent to seven of NDSU’s research extension centers across the state for ground-truthing, whence they would be assessed.

Beyond that, hemp’s supporters are on tenderhooks waiting for the legal uncertainties to clear. While section 7606 of the impending farm bill would amend the Controlled Substances Act to allow industrial hemp’s cultivation by researchers, whether it will lead toward the broader lifting of restrictions on the plant is yet to be seen.

“If it can be grown in Canada it certainly should be grown in the United States,” Hauge opined. From his point of view, there is no reason to lump industrial hemp together with marijuana.

A report released by the Congressional Research Service last July (www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL32725.pdf) addressed the prevailing concerns that link hemp cultivation to that of marijuana, presenting reasons why it would be impractical to use hemp fields as a hedge for growing the narcotic. In particular, cross-pollination between the two crops would have a middling effect that would reduce the desired qualities of each.

The report concluded that, despite legal obstacles yet to be overcome, the market potential for domestic industrial hemp production and the crop’s benefits to agriculture are worth consideration.

“It would meet a need that exists in the United States,” Goehring said of legalizing hemp. Though prevented from growing its own, the U.S. is still estimated by the Hemp Industries Association to have imported about $500 million in hemp products in 2012 alone.

“We’re going to see some jobs here,” Monson predicted. Because the storage and transport of harvested hemp can be difficult, he expects that would incentivize the establishment of local processing facilities. “I’m looking at that as a very positive possibility,” he said, of a “processing plant, or many processing plants, in North Dakota.”