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Legal hemp could be a boon for North Dakota farmers, proponents say

Stunted by heavy rainfall, an industrial hemp crop grows at the Langdon (N.D.) Research Extension Center on Aug. 9, 2016. (Nick Nelson / Forum News Service)

GRAND FORKS — Hemp may soon become the next cash crop for North Dakota farmers, proponents say.

Tucked into the 2018 Farm Bill approved by Congress this week is a provision that legalizes the production of hemp. With the stroke of a hemp pen, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on Dec. 10 signed the $867 billion legislation and expressed his support for hemp farming.

Following the House’s approval Wednesday, Dec. 12, the bill moves to President Trump’s desk for his signature.

“At a time when farm income is down and growers are struggling, industrial hemp is a bright spot of agriculture’s future,” McConnell tweeted Tuesday, Dec. 11. “My provision in the Farm Bill will not only legalize domestic hemp, but it will also allow state departments of agriculture to be responsible for its oversight.”

Legalizing hemp will be a “really good thing” for the state, North Dakota Farmers Union President Mark Watne said Thursday, Dec. 13.

“Hemp grows very well in our climate, especially in western North Dakota,” he said. “It’s a little less sensitive to drought, and it’s got just an endless amount of uses, from seed to the oil to the fibers. This is going to create an opportunity for another crop that hopefully we can fit into some type of rotation that makes some money.”

Watne also said he’s seen “a lot of interest” among NDFU members who want to grow hemp.

The U.S. made the production of hemp illegal with the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, which placed the product on the schedule of controlled substances. Both hemp and marijuana are derived from the cannabis sativa plant, but hemp has a much lower percentage of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana.

Hemp can be used in food, nutritional supplements, fabrics, insulation materials and a host of other products.

Since hemp production has been prohibited for so long, North Dakota has some catching up to do in terms of crop quality, according to Watne.

“I would say agronomically, we haven’t been developing as much as we should” on the hemp front, Watne said. “Our university systems … probably would have been enhancing seed quality and the genetics to make it a better crop. So we’re probably a little behind on that.”

In the 2014 Farm Bill, Congress allowed states to roll out pilot programs for industrial hemp production. North Dakota was one of the the states to participate in the program.

State Rep. David Monson, R-Osnabrock, said North Dakota would still need to test hemp to ensure its THC content remains low.

The North Dakota senator from Cavalier County said he already has begun working on legislation with the state’s agriculture commissioner to get North Dakota’s laws in line with the farm bill.

With the product legalized, there likely will be a need for processing plants for hemp seed and fibers, Monson said.

“That, to me, is a real big bonus because that’ll mean jobs,” he said.

Roger Gussiaas, president of Healthy Oil Seeds, cautioned growers to “make sure they have a market” for hemp before they start growing it. The company processes hemp seed, flaxseed and borage. He also stressed the need for more processing plants for the crop.

Still, hemp legalization could be a boon for his firm, which is interested in expanding, Gussiaas said.

“I think it could bring us more business,” he said.

Dan Niepow

Niepow covers social and community issues for the Grand Forks Herald. Before joining the paper, he worked as a magazine writer and editor. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he currently resides over the river in East Grand Forks, Minn. To reach Niepow with story ideas, send him an email at dniepow@gfherald.com or call him at (701) 780-1110. Follow him on Twitter @dniep.

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