Thursday, February 18, 2016

Hemp could bolster farm economy, producers say

By Janelle Atyeo

Hemp harvest
A grower in Canada harvest industrial hemp. North Dakota producers will be growing the crop for their first year in a state-run pilot program.

As South Dakota lawmakers debate whether to allow farmers in the state to grow industrial hemp, the first North Dakota producers are preparing for their first growing season under a state-run pilot program.
Adrian, N.D., producer Jamie Edwards and his dad, Lyle Edwards, account for two of five pilot projects approved in the state. Jamie Edwards said they’re hoping hemp will become a crop that can generate a little more revenue than the prices they’ve been getting for the 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans they normally grow.
“The farm economy is kind of suffering right now,” he said. “I’m hoping this hemp will spark the markets and get everybody out of depression mode.”
The 2014 farm bill allowed for ag departments and universities to launch research projects in states that permit it. South Dakota isn’t currently one of those states, but lawmakers are looking to change that.
North Dakota is leaving it largely up to producers to decide what varieties to plant, how to harvest and where to market the seeds or fiber. Farmers will share what they learn through the growing season.
The pilot project limits the number of acres a producer can plant to 15. Edwards said he and his dad will plant 15 acres each. They’ll work together in order to try some different soil types and other variables and hopefully learn a bit more.
He plans to plant with a press drill used when he and his dad grew wheat and barley. He’ll harvest it from his combine equipped with the same draper head he uses for soybeans. Edwards said he hopes to get in touch with some Canadian growers who can advise him on how to best set his combine.
Much of the hemp that makes its way to U.S. processors is grown in Canada. The oil is used in health foods, cosmetics and hand lotion, and the fiber is used to make paper and rope, including much of the baling twine that farmers use.
Hemp has the ability to grow in many different climates, including some challenging environments. That makes it a good crop to explore across North Dakota’s varied landscape, explained Doug Goehring, North Dakota Department of Agriculture commissioner. The pilot program, he said, will help farmers understand the best ways to grow and manage the crop. North Dakota State University, which had a hemp test plot last year, will be helping farmers assess their methods.
North Dakota farmers will grow their first season of industrial hemp as part of a pilot project this year. This Canda variety from Parkland Industrial Hemp Growers is a shorter plant known for the high oil content of its seeds.
“This is a trial by error,” he said.
Having a place to market the crop is one of the biggest challenges for growers, according to Goehring.
The seed or stems can’t be transported across state lines without a specially licensed buyer, he explained, so it’s important to explore places that can buy the crop well before harvest.
“I don’t want anybody to be in a tough situation,” he said.
Edwards decided to focus on producing hemp for oil and seeds because there wasn’t a place to market the fiber nearby. He will grow a shorter variety of the plant at the recommendation of his seed company, Parkland Industrial Hemp Growers of Dauphin, Manitoba, Canada. Their Canda variety grows to 36 inches and has a high oil content.
He’s planning to sell his crop at two locations, an oilseed plant in Enderlin, N.D., and the Healthy Oilseeds company in Carrington, N.D. Both are about 60 miles from his home.
A field is hemp is harvested in Canada.
Like Edwards, those supporting the ability to grow industrial hemp in South Dakota see it as another crop that farmers could rely on when commodity prices are down.
Corn and soybeans dominate agriculture in South Dakota, but the state should look seriously at ways to support smaller crops such as industrial hemp, said Rep Thomas Brunner, R-Nisland. “Diversity is the backbone of the ag economy,” he said.
House Bill 1054 passed the South Dakota House floor Feb. 4 on a vote of 57-11. It’s now up to the Senate to weigh in.
“For any small farmers, I think it would be particularly attractive,” said Rep. Mike Verchio, R-Hill City, the bill’s prime sponsor.
Those who spoke against the bill brought up worries that growing hemp would lead to growing marijuana. Hemp is a cousin to marijuana, but it has low levels of the mind-altering THC chemical.
Congress currently is considering a bill that would set industrial hemp apart from marijuana as a controlled substance.
Those who are part of the North Dakota program – and anyone who works on their farms – went through a lengthy application process that involved a background check and a license from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
Edwards said he hasn’t received much of a backlash from the anti-marijuana crowd. Neighbors joke with him about growing pot, he said, but many of them are interested in how hemp will work for him.
Edwards is excited to be on the ground floor. He sees a lot of potential benefits. It’s a crop that’s used in many products, so it should be in demand, and it might be a way to help break up the weed cycle in his fields.
But Edwards knows he has a lot to learn about the crop.
“It’s going to be a very educational and maybe a very challenging year for us,” he said.
Follow reporter Janelle Atyeo on Twitter at @JLNeighbor.

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