David Lias

Let’s take a look at what’s going on in Colorado’s agriculture industry right now.

Blue Forest Farms used to grow hundreds of acres of kale, squash and pumpkins. But it has since switched its focus to a different cash crop: hemp.

The farm, which is located in Erie, Colorado, has dedicated 150 acres to growing hemp so far -- and it's still planting. "We're now expanding it to 1,000 acres," said McKenzie Mann, Blue Forest's production manager in a CNN Business report published last April.

About 500 acres will come from land previously used to grow kale and squash.

Farmers across the United States have been rushing into hemp ever since President Donald Trump signed the Farm Bill into law last December. The legislation removed hemp from the government's controlled drug category, triggering a surge in demand for cannabidiol, or CBD, a chemical that is derived from hemp and marijuana plants.

CBD is non-psychoactive, meaning it won't get you high. (THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the chemical in cannabis that does that). Instead, CBD extracted from hemp is marketed for everything from pain relief to reducing inflammation, stress and anxiety and it is sold in an array of products from shampoos and oils to pet treats and granola.

We wish we could say there’s a rush going on in South Dakota, too. But there’s not. Our state currently seems mired, instead, in a painfully slow, molasses in January, herd of snails through peanut butter process that appears to be far from reaching a conclusion.

The South Dakota Legislature passed a bill to legalize industrial hemp during the 2019 session earlier this year, but Gov. Kristi Noem vetoed it.

South Dakota lawmakers are currently conducting a summer study of the issue, gathering information so that legislation can be crafted that hopefully will satisfy South Dakota lawmakers and the governor.

House Majority Leader Lee Qualm, a Republican who chairs the Industrial Hemp Summer Study, said in a statement that the hardy crop can be grown in nearly every region of the state.

"Industrial hemp is the first new crop that has come along in decades," said Qualm, according to an Associated Press report from earlier this week.

The AP reported that the hemp summer study committee heard from officials in neighboring North Dakota and Montana about how the legalization of industrial hemp has affected their states.

During the meeting Monday in Pierre, the North Dakota and Montana officials said they didn't face roadblocks to legalizing the crop in their states, but Noem sent members of her administration to the meeting to oppose legalization in South Dakota.

Noem said she gave 315 questions to committee members prior to their first meeting last month.

"When it comes to industrial hemp, we still have more questions than we have answers," Noem said in a statement. "Other states are struggling to implement their industrial hemp laws. As leaders, we must have answers to how any new law will be implemented effectively and how it will impact our state."

Well, we do know a few things. We know, for instance, that total sales for hemp-based products in the US were about $1.1 billion in 2018, and are expected to more than double by 2022, according to New Frontier Data, a market research firm focused on the cannabis industry.

We know that marijuana and hemp are related in the plant world, but they are NOT the same. The points below come from a March 27, 2018 Business Insider article:

• Hemp contains negligible amounts of THC — the intoxicating substance in marijuana— and can't get you high.

• Marijuana can contain up to 30 percent THC, while hemp contains less than 0.3 percent (per dry weight) THC. Hemp also contains more CBD, a non-intoxicating compound with medical applications, than marijuana.

• Hemp leaves are skinnier than marijuana leaves.

• Hemp was selectively bred for a range of consumer and industrial uses and has been grown in the US for centuries. The fibers from the stalk can be used to make rope, clothes, and other textiles — and can even be used as an organic construction material. The seeds are also edible.

• The marijuana that you'd find in a dispensary is generally cross-bred from different strains and is grown carefully in climate-controlled indoor environments. Rather than selecting for strong fibers, marijuana strains are optimized over generations to produce THC-containing trichomes on the plant's buds.

• Unlike marijuana, hemp is relatively easy to grow outdoors in a range of climates.

• Hemp stalks can grow up to four meters tall, without needing pesticides, and are generally much skinnier and taller than marijuana plants. Hemp leaves are also thinner and less densely clustered than leaves on a marijuana plant.

• Hemp production soared in 2017 as more states have legalized cannabis. The number of acres licensed for hemp cultivation increased 140 percent from 2016 to 2017, and the number of hemp producers doubled over the same period. The hemp market in the US is set to hit $1.65 billion in 2021, a six-fold increase over 2017, according to Marijuana Business Daily.

We know, too, that combining a bit of caution with a lot of collaboration can have positive results.

Members of the hemp summer study committee learned last month from Kentucky officials that hemp farming can work as long as state agriculture and law enforcement officials collaborate to regulate it.

Kentucky has been regulating hemp since pilot programs were allowed under the 2014 Farm Bill and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was instrumental in federally legalizing hemp in the 2018 Farm Bill.

In the early days of hemp in Kentucky, law enforcement speculated about the problems hemp could cause because it takes lab testing to determine whether a plant is marijuana or hemp, according to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. Those concerns caused friction between Kentucky agriculture officials and state police.

The Kentucky State Police still supports tight regulation of cannabis, but the relationship has improved since its rocky beginning because the state's agriculture commissioner has proven that the agency will treat hemp as a farm commodity and not as a step toward legal marijuana, State Police Lt. Col Jeremy Slinker said.

"If you decide to move on with the hemp program, put things in place to assist law enforcement and keep it as agriculture and not marijuana," Slinker advised the South Dakota legislators.

Hemp has had a "substantial impact" on law enforcement, mostly on its testing needs, he said. They tried to outsource testing suspected hemp plants for THC levels that are too high, but that became too expensive. The State Police instead purchased two more testing machines and hired one more chemist for each of the state's six labs, he said. Hemp affects law enforcement's workload, but it's not too much that they can't handle it, he said.

A good working relationship between agriculture and law enforcement agencies needs to be a top priority, Rogers said.

Monday's meeting included testimony from North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, Montana hemp program coordinator Andy Gray and Montana Agriculture Department Director Ben Thomas. Industrial hemp production has been allowed in North Dakota for several years, while Montana is setting up its processor licensing system.

Meanwhile, back in Colorado, if Blue Forest Farms plans stayed on track, it dedicated 1,000 acres of its land to hemp this year.

Farms that were already growing hemp are seeing both demand and profits surge, while farmers who have never grown hemp before are rushing to plant it in their fields, CNN Business reported last spring.

"There's a lot of excitement in the farming community because hemp is seen as a high-return crop. There are many farmers around the country who are struggling to make ends meet and they're looking for an alternative like hemp to boost revenue," said Eric Steenstra, president of VoteHemp, a non-profit that advocates for the commercial sale of hemp.

Mann has been fielding multiple calls a day from farmers around the country. "They're corn farmers, wheat farmers. They want advice on how to grow hemp," he said.

Blue Forest charges $35 to $40 per pound for the high-quality hemp it sells for CBD extraction. That compares to about $1 a pound for the kale it sells. The company declined to disclose its total sales of hemp last year but said the category is very profitable for the business and it expects its hemp sales to double this year.

Mann said the price of hemp went up slightly after the Farm Bill was signed. Industry watchers say the price could stay at these levels or inch even higher if supply for CBD doesn't meet the demand.

South Dakota Farmers Union President Doug Sombke said members of his organization are watching the process closely.

"Legalizing the growing of industrial hemp has been part of our policy since 2018, because our family farmers and ranchers need new opportunities. And industrial hemp is a new, potentially high-value opportunity," he said in a statement.

We suggest that Gov. Noem adopt the same stance as Kentucky’s state agriculture commissioner: commit South Dakota to treating hemp as a farm commodity and not as a step toward legal marijuana.

Please remember, Gov. Noem: Marijuana and hemp are not the same.


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