Monday, May 2, 2016

Indiana advocates seek hemp crop expansion, education


FRANKLIN, Ind. (AP) - Behind tall fences and under the continuous watch of security cameras, Purdue University researchers are working on the next potential cash crop for Indiana.
The seeds of the plant could be used for a high-nutrition food, loaded with fiber, protein and essential fatty acids. Fibers from it can be made into rope, clothing and paper. Parts of the plant could be turned into biofuel, or even building materials.
For those working on the project, industrial hemp offers a wealth of possibility for the state.
“If it can be made with trees, cotton or plastic, it can be made with industrial hemp, only more environmentally friendly,” said Ashley Sample, a Whiteland resident and community coordinator for the Indiana Hemp Industries Association. “We have the flat lands, just like corn. We have the optimal weather in temperature and rain. So there’s no reason for it not to grow well here.”
Purdue researchers, industrial leaders and other supporters of industrial hemp are working to make the plant a viable option for Indiana farmers. The crop has only recently been approved to be grown in research facilities and universities, but enthusiasts hope that the work they’re doing will eventually lead to a growing program and manufacturing industry here locally.
But the current challenge is changing perception about the crop and helping people understand what it is.
“Obviously, hemp is not legal yet. Part of the effort to make hemp legal is an education process - the legislators, the farmers and the general public,” said George Blankenbaker, manager of Real Hemp in Indianapolis.
Hemp is used in more than 20,000 products worldwide, Blankenbaker said. Blankenbaker is on the board of the Indiana Hemp Industries Association, as well as co-chair on the research committee of the Kentucky Hemp Industry Council.
His company Real Hemp was created as a subsidiary of his main company Stevia Corp., to focus on the commercialization of hemp. People can order hulled hemp seed, botanical skin salve and hemp-fiber bags from the company’s website.
Real Hemp also helps facilitate research into the medicinal properties within the plant, as well as looking at the antibacterial properties of hemp fibers.
“Hemp grows well wherever corn grows. So we expect that Indiana could be a major grower of hemp for the Midwest, Ohio Valley area,” he said. “But one thing we don’t know right now is the full economics.”
At one time, Indiana had a robust hemp industry.
The northwestern portion of the state grew fields full of hemp, and processing plants to help turn it into useful products such as clothing. But that changed in 1970 with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act. The law classified hemp plants in the same vein as heroin, psychedelic drugs and marijuana.
Though hemp and marijuana come from the same plant - cannabis sativa - the industrial hemp movement is not about making marijuana legal, Sample said.
The psychoactive component that makes people feel high, tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, ranges from 11 to 30 percent in marijuana. Industrial hemp has a much lower level, typically below .3 percent.
“Hemp is not marijuana. So many people believe that, so we have to get rid of that stigma,” Sample said.
The entire cannabis plant is highly regulated and is considered a narcotic by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration regardless of whether the variety is marijuana or hemp.
But changes have been made in recent years to provide greater distinction.
When President Obama signed the Farm Bill of 2013 into law, it gave colleges, universities and research facilities the ability to grow industrial hemp.
Gov. Mike Pence signed Senate Bill 357 into law in 2014, authorizing colleges and universities to do research and development on hemp. The Indiana Hemp Industries Association was instrumental in working with the legislature to pass that bill.
The association was formed in 2014 to promote industrial hemp in the state, and aims to be a bridge between farmers, processing facilities and manufacturers in creating an industry around the crop, Sample said.
Sample, founder Jamie Campbell Petty and Taylor Glover started the group to address what they felt was a missed opportunity for the state.
“We have to have it in the ground if it’s going to result in an industry and help the economy. If it never gets in the ground, we’re never going to know as a state where it might lead,” Sample said.
But while the laws have been loosened regarding industrial hemp and hemp research, commercial hemp cultivation remains illegal.
Before any farmer could plant hemp in Indiana, the Drug Enforcement Agency would have to reclassify it. Ron Turco, professor of agronomy and the assistant dean for agricultural and environmental research at Purdue, believes that could be coming soon.
Purdue planted its first crop of hemp in 2015. This year, researchers are planting a section of hemp specifically for fiber, and another just for products for its seeds. Researchers will have 16 cultivars to test this summer, Turco said.
The hope is to have a collection of varieties that represent the entire range of plant materials people might be interested in growing hemp for, he said. The research will help create a roadmap for growing hemp in Indiana, as well as shed some misconceptions about the plant.
“Our ultimate goal is to make hemp as boring as corn or soybeans. We want to make it a very simple process where you show up, get your seed, plant it, grow it and sell it,” Turco said. “So the goal right now is to find the best varieties for Indiana.”
All of the hemp used by Purdue has been imported from international sources. The mountain of regulations, permits and rules makes every step of the process difficult, Turco said.
“If we were doing work on corn, and I wanted to do that type of work, I’d make a few phone calls, order the seed and be done. Hemp has a whole different group of problems,” he said. “It’s a difficult set of steps involved - a week here, a week there.”
Already, some states are ahead of Indiana in terms of developing a hemp industry. Colorado is a leader in many different cannabis-related industries, while Kentucky has embarked on an aggressive program with farmers throughout the state.
“Once Kentucky imported the seed, the state took a very liberal view, and they allowed universities to issue permits to individual farmers to grow hemp on their farms, and then report back to the university their findings,” Blankenbaker said. “What that enabled them to do is have the involvement of hundreds of growers.”
Indiana’s approach is conservative so far, Sample said. Purdue has been testing and trying different varieties of the plant to determine which grow best locally.
Purdue also will be taking a more careful look at the types of products that can be made from the plants that grow well in Indiana. They are talking to a number of companies about all aspects of the hemp plant this summer, Turco said.
“We’re trying to help spur that discussion about what to do with that material,” he said. “Let’s say we have 10,000 acres of hemp planted. What would we do with that hemp? There is no place to take it right now. That’s a critical step that’s missing right now.”
If the laws change and farmers are able to plant hemp seeds legally, the association will help those growers get their crop to processors and manufacturers who can create products with it.
The association has been supporting the effort by hosting educational events throughout Indiana, talking with farmers and residents about the benefits of industrial hemp. Members have hosted “happy hour” events, set up a booth at the Farm Aid concert in Chicago and hosted a field day at Purdue so people could see the test plot.
“Everyone’s excited about it, but no one knows that much about it,” Sample said. “So our main goal is stressing that hemp is not marijuana and teaching people about what it is.”

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