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Stephen J. Lee, Forum News Service, Published February 04 2014

Hemp provision in farm bill clears way for crop in ND

GRAND FORKS - The new five-year, $480 billion farm bill passed by the Senate on Tuesday includes a tiny provision authorizing North Dakota and a few other states to grow research plots of cannabis as a farm crop.

No, it’s not pot, but the version of the same cannabis species used for marijuana that is known as industrial hemp, doesn’t make you high and is used in many food and industrial products from shampoo to health supplements to fibers used cars.

But it hasn’t been legal to grow in the United States for decades.

North Dakotans long have pushed for the crop’s production and legalized it years ago, even though federal drug laws made it practically impossible to grow.

It used to be a major American crop, grown by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and most farmers when sailing rope and paper made from hemp were essential.

But by the mid-20th century, new products such as plastics and wood-based paper combined with growing concerns over marijuana led to federal restrictions on hemp production based largely on concerns it would encourage pot smoking.

Legal obstacles

Even though North Dakota made hemp production legal a decade or more ago, federal drug laws imposed so many restrictions on its growth it hasn’t made economic sense, said Doug Goehring, state agriculture commissioner.

“It was so restrictive, so cost-prohibitive, no one wanted to put resources toward that,” Goehring said, citing federal drug laws requiring expensive permits, high fences and constant monitoring of hemp plots.

The few paragraphs deep in the new farm bill weren’t expected, Goehring said last week of the bill that the Senate passed Tuesday.

“It’s kind of interesting, it came out of the blue and I think it shocked and surprised a lot of people,” Goehring said. “It would authorize colleges and land grant universities to grow industrial hemp for research purposes in those states that already permit it.”

The main mover on the hemp provision was Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader who sees it having a big future in his state.

But hemp does great in Canada and will grow well in North Dakota, Goehring said.

According to the Vote Hemp organization, North Dakota is one of 10 states that have authorized production of hemp as a crop, but about 20 other states have introduced or passed pro-hemp laws.

Already, using hemp products imported from Canada and other countries, there is a $500 million retail market for products made from hemp seed or fiber imported from Canada and other countries, according to Vote Hemp.

Hemp has no, or very low, levels of THC, the chemical that gets people high when they ingest marijuana, a variation of the same plant species. The farm bill says only hemp with less than 0.03 percent THC is legal.

Big in Canada

It is a major minor crop in Canada, where acreage has been up and down but has increased 10-fold since 2003 to nearly 66,761 acres last year, said Russ Crawford, president of the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance, an industry association including most of the 197 growers as well as processors and retail users.

The size of the acreage is dwarfed by major crops such as wheat, corn and canola. But for the few farmers who grow it, it’s a money-maker right now, Crawford said: grossing $700 to $1,000 an acre, with a few irrigators grossing $2,000 per acre or more, at a price of about 70 cents a pound for the seed.

“Nothing compares to that,” he said Tuesday.

The crop also can be grown and harvested for the fiber in the tall stalks.

Jon Page, a scientist researching hemp and marijuana biology at the University of Saskatoon, said it grows well in northern climes. The growing move to legalize marijuana has helped dismantle arguments against hemp production, Page said.

N.D. potential

David Monson, a state legislator and farmer who lives near Osnabrock in northeast North Dakota, has been pushing for hemp production for 20 years and is excited about the new provision in the farm bill.

“I think it’s going to make a big difference, hopefully in the next year or less,” he said last week. “This is certainly a huge step forward for us.”

Still, it will be years before it’s a production crop for farmers in the state and it’s never going to replace wheat, corn or soybean acres, he said.

“It’s a niche crop.”

But firing up the research plots in the state will pave the way, Monson and Goehring said.

The new deal “may spark some interest with our producers in the state to look at this as a cash crop, if they see (North Dakota State University) and other researchers finally doing some things,” Goehring said, adding that, among others, defense contractors are huge consumers of fiber products.

That means it’s not just farmers, but processors who could benefit in the state, Monson said. “This is something we could turn into some local jobs in North Dakota. We could be a producer of fiber-board, carpet, all kinds of things that would be made from it.”

For example, a chip board made out of hemp fiber used in construction is much lighter and used much less glue than such boards made out of wood products, Monson said.

In Canada, most of the crop is raised for the seed, which is crushed for its oil, used in many industrial and food products and the hulls also are used in health foods, Crawford said.

If U.S. production of hemp gears up, that probably will help, not hurt, the Canadian hemp industry, he said, by priming consumption.

Nutiva, a U.S. company, specializes in food products made from hemp seed, he said.

It’s not an easy crop to harvest, Crawford said, but farmers can use the same equipment they use to plant and harvest wheat, corn and beans.

“John Deere has a hemp setting on its combines.”