Industrial Hemp Could Take Root, If Legal Seeds Weren't So Scarce
The most recent farm bill is allowing a handful of farmers across the country to put hemp, the nonpsychoactive cousin of marijuana, in the ground.
The bill allows small-scale experimentation with the plant. But despite the new law, many farmers say they're getting mixed messages from the federal government.
Jim Denny is one of more than 100 growers given the nod by the Colorado Department of Agriculture to start planting hemp seeds. On his farm in Brighton, Colo., just outside Denver, Denny is prepping for planting season. He recently converted his old vegetable garden into a plot to grow hemp.
Hemp is the same species as marijuana, but a different variety — one that lacks THC, the compound that gives users a high when smoked or ingested.
Hemp seeds are increasingly showing up in foods, and Denny says the plant's fibers can be turned into everything from clothing to rope to car interiors.
"The crop right now is sellable," he says. "I've already had people contact me on my website saying, 'We know you're growing stuff and we want to buy it from you already.' And we haven't even put it in the ground."
The recent farm bill allows farmers to start experimenting with hemp in states that have legalized the crop. The plant has been tightly controlled for almost 50 years.
During World War II, the U.S. was so hard up for hemp for use in rope on naval ships and on trooper's parachutes that the Department of Agriculture actually made a promotional film to encourage farmers to grow it. The film's title: Hemp for Victory.
But that was a long time ago, and today U.S. hemp seed is scarce. It's technically still illegal to import viable seed — it has to be sterile. So anyone with usable seed is suddenly very, very popular.
Ben Holmes is one of those people. He's the owner of Centennial Seeds. In his warehouse in Lafayette, Colo., emerald-colored hemp plants tower overhead.
This year, demand for hemp seed far exceeds the supply, and Holmes says he's been inundated.
"I get calls every day of every week of people who want to go into the hemp business," Holmes says. "When I let them know the seed isn't available, they really are sort of lost."
As a distributor, Holmes is in a great situation to actually get seed to farmers — except he doesn't have enough to go around. The Drug Enforcement Administration recently seized a shipment of Italian hemp seed to Kentucky. Holmes even admits he had to acquire some of his seed through nefarious means.
"It would just show up in the mail or by FedEx, or someone would come to my office and say, 'I'm a friend of so-and-so from [the] Czech Republic and he asked me to give you this,' and little bits of seed would come my way," Holmes says.
That level of intrigue is probably enough to scare off most large-scale crop farmers from hemp. The reality is, it's pretty tough to grow hemp in the U.S. right now, with limited seed stocks, legal roadblocks and nonexistent research.
Eric Steenstra, executive director of Vote Hemp, a group that lobbies for hemp legalization, is trying to temper expectations that hemp will be a savior crop for struggling Great Plains farmers. At least initially.
"There's no question in my mind that this could be a multibillion-dollar crop where we could see millions of acres, eventually," Steenstra says. "Is that going to happen in a year or two? Of course not."
But Steenstra says that with the plant's inclusion in the latest farm bill, it may not be too long before some of America's amber waves of grain get a little greener.
Luke Runyon reports from Colorado for KUNC and Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production issues.
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