Sunday, April 30, 2017

Kansas Area farmers endorse Hemp during unprofitable times

By Amy Bickel

Lawmaker still hopeful hemp legislation could pass Senate and get to governor's desk this session.

Hemp meeting
Rep. Willie Dove, far center, and Rock Gagnebin, a local business owner with Ag interests, discuss to a group of 50 or so farmers about the movement to grow industrial hemp in Kansas. 

John Fischer doesn't mince his words about the current farm economy.
"We're losing our asses on everything," he told a Kansas representative during a meeting in Abbyville about industrial hemp.
Fischer, 36, who farms in Kingman County, was one of about 50 people - many farmers - who gathered at an industrial hemp forum to learn more about a potential new cash crop that now needs the consent of the Kansas Senate before it can be researched and, someday, planted in Kansas farm fields.
For the state's farmers, faced with an economy not seen since the 1980s farm crisis, they need an alternative to crops like milo, corn and wheat, which at about $3 a bushel, is hovering below break-even levels, said Fischer.
"We need to do something different, growing wheat and corn we aren't making any money," he said, adding that with industrial hemp, "We are importing so much of this already from Canada and other countries, why don't we just grow it ourselves?"
But the clock is ticking this year for industrial hemp as lawmakers reconvene Monday - giving a bill centered on hemp research a small window to get passed with all the other big issues the Legislature must decide - taxes, the budget and school finance, said Rep. Willie Dove, R-Kansas, who introduced SB 2182.
Dove, however, already has made headway with hemp this session. Legislation enabling farmers to eventually obtain a license to plant industrial hemp passed the Kansas House in March, 103-18, with four members not voting.
Dove tried to pass similar legislation last year, but without the rallying of supporters - which was noticed by lawmakers.
"Last year no one showed up," he said. "This year is a different story."
Residents from across the state began lobbying their lawmakers. Farmers, economic development officials and others filled committee hearings from all corners of the state.
"When the board lit up to 103, I was startled - 103 is strong," Dove said of the overwhelming support by representatives who passed it through the House March 27.
But, from there, the Senate has yet to take action. Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City, told a crowd at a legislative coffee in Garden City April 13 that industrial hemp “won’t get through the Senate." Meanwhile, some have indicated that Senate President Susan Wagle would take up the legislation next year.
That puts it another year down the road before it can be grown on farms, Dove said.
"I've heard that if there is enough interest within our Kansas farming community, then there is a great possibility that we can do this and that is why we're here," he said.
Growing support
Most everyone in the room raised their hand when asked if they would be interested in someday growing industrial hemp.
That included Jim Fitzwater, a 73-year-old who farms northwest of Salina. He said he was just a small child but recalls his father taking him to a hemp farm sometime around the end of World War II.
Industrial hemp was once a prominent crop in the United States. Dove even said Kansas was among one of the top growers of hemp before the 1930s.
The Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper. Even the first American flag, reported to be made by Betsy Ross, was crafted from hemp fiber.
But the hemp industry began to go downhill after that. Hemp was doomed by the "Marihuana" Tax Act of 1937, which placed an extremely high tax on marijuana and made it effectively impossible to grow industrial hemp.
During World War II, the U.S. Department of Agriculture campaigned with ”Hemp for Victory” – allowing farmers to grow it with a permit.
Yet, while Congress expressly expected the continued production of industrial hemp, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics lumped industrial hemp with marijuana, as its successor, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, does to this day, according to the hemp council.
The 2014 farm bill included a provision allowing states, through research institutions and departments of agriculture, to grow and possess industrial hemp. Already more than three-dozen states have taken down barriers. Research programs have been launched in 15 states so far, according to the hemp advocacy nonprofit Vote Hemp.
Dove's bill would allow research and business development related to hemp cultivation, processing and distribution. It would encourage public-private partnerships and academic research to that end. A summary attached to the bill indicates the Kansas Department of Agriculture would oversee logistics, such as licensing.
The Kansas Farm Bureau supports the legislation. Opponents include law enforcement agencies like the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, who fear marijuana growers could use it as a shield.
Industrial hemp, however, is not marijuana. While both plants are members of the genus Cannabis sativa, they are genetically different, which is noted in the current farm bill. The major difference in the two is THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis.
Industrial hemp contains less than 0.3 percent THC. Marijuana, smoked for its euphoric and medical properties, contains 10 to 100 times that amount.
A boost to rural Kansas
Rock Gagnebin, a Reno County cattle producer and business owner who helped organize the event, said he attended a conference last year in Colorado about growing industrial hemp. He sees the potential revenue that could be had not only from farmers, but rural communities. If passed, work could begin on building processing plants - similar to what happened with the ethanol industry.
"I think we are in a bad situation," he said of the current farm economy. "We have the sixth generation of farmers coming into the picture. And what are you going to give them debt?"
Those who could see a windfall include seed companies like Kauffman Seed. Dustin Miller, who co-owns the Reno County business said he sees someday doing research plots to help farmers meet the needs of the area, as well as become a supplier of the certified seed.
"Everyone has to eat, but everyone has to be dressed also, and there are so many different items that can be made from hemp oil and the fiber," said Miller. "I know if we could grow hemp here and supply Sonoco (paper company) here in town with inputs ... that would be huge."
He noted with today's drone technology and farmers registering their fields, perhaps through GPS, law enforcement should be able to monitor the crop and keep tabs on who is growing it.
"I'm encouraged by it," Miller said. "I'm sure there is going to be hiccups along the way."
Fischer said he planned to call his state representatives and senators. Reno County farmer Jeff Preisser, who was sitting by Fischer during the meeting, said he would be making calls, as well.
"if we can make that much stuff out of it, why don't we try it," said Preisser, noting Dove's number that hemp can make 30,000 different products.
Rural Kansas is hurting, Fischer said. The oil industry is down and the farm economy is hurting. Hemp could help bolster the farm economy, in turn, boosting state revenue.
Preisser said he has sons ages 14 and 4 years old. Right now, farming isn't encouraging. 
"I don't know if I want them to farm," he said. "I almost want them to go to college and do something else. Unless it gets better, I wouldn't want them to be in my same shoes."

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