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South Dakota awaiting licensing to join North Dakota as hemp producer

Industrial hemp produces a dense stand of plants. The seeds are harvested and can be used for oil products. The fiber of the plant stalks is currently not harvested in North Dakota. John M. Steiner / Forum News Service

ABERDEEN, S.D. - Hemp is no longer a controlled substance in South Dakota, but that doesn’t mean farmers can rush out to plant it.

The 2018 Farm Bill doesn’t include hemp as a controlled substance, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said. But north of the border, farmers will still need to be licensed and pass a background check before they can grow it. And once the crop is in the ground, he said, regular testing is required to ensure tetrahydrocannabinol levels do not exceed the minimum threshold of 0.03 percent.

Tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly called THC, is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

Hemp is a cousin to marijuana, the plant that has higher levels of THC and, in most states, is an illegal drug.

North Dakota has a program to license farmers interested in growing hemp. South Dakota does not.

Goehring said North Dakota also approves of the number of acres of hemp farmers can plant.

States have had the option to allow the growing of industrial hemp since the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, although that has been restricted to research purposes only.

Hemp-related bills have been introduced in the South Dakota Legislature, but none have passed.

Dani Hanson, policy adviser for the South Dakota Department of Agriculture, said with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, South Dakota has two options:

  • Leave the oversight to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
  • Set up a program in South Dakota.

Either will need to include licensing and inspection, Hanson said. USDA’s program will need to be developed through the agency’s rule-making process, she said. South Dakota’s program would have to meet with USDA approval.

Now, Hanson said, the state Department of Agriculture has more questions than answers. And, she said, there are no answers from USDA with the partial federal government shutdown.

But District 28A Rep. Oren Lesmeister, D- Parade, said he’s confident there will be a bill before the Legislature this year.

“What we’re doing is deciphering what we need to put in for language,” he said. “There will be a bill brought so we can open up hemp production.”

Lesmeister said he already recognizes that the South Dakota Department of Agriculture isn’t staffed to handle crop testing, which means it might be overseen by another agency. But he’s encouraged by what hemp could mean for South Dakota.

“It’s still a huge win for the nation and the state of South Dakota, but it doesn’t quite throw the door wide open,” Lesmeister said.

He has championed past hemp-related bills, partially succeeding in 2017 when one was passed in the House, but was tabled when it reached the Senate.

If a bill can be passed quickly, Lesmeister said, it’s possible farmers could get hemp planted yet this year. It is a short-season crop, he said, best planted in June when the soil is warm.

Goehring said the new federal regulations are less invasive and, while states need to continue to track how much is grown, the crop and seed that are produced can cross state borders, which wasn’t allowed under the previous regulations.

Both Lesmeister and Goehring point out hemp’s versatility. The seed can be crushed to make flour or other edible products, Goehring said. The oil has uses for cosmetics and cooking, he said, and the fiber can be used to not only make fabrics, but also a lighter, stronger concrete called hempcrete.

Lesmeister said there’s also a fair amount of research into the protein levels of hemp seed and its use as cattle feed.

“I’m hoping (South Dakota State University) takes this on,” Lesmeister said. “I think it could be very interesting to see.”

But he and Goehring caution that this is just another commodity option for farmers.

“We could, at the end of the day, flood the market so bad it could kill it for a while,” Lesmeister said.

Goehring said it’s like any other commodity — there needs to be demand.

While Lesmeister said hemp is a fairly hardy crop once it’s established, Goehring said there have been fields in North Dakota where it did not take hold.

“It doesn’t handle drought well at all,” Goehring said.

Lesmeister said hemp won’t germinate if it’s planted when the ground is too cold or too wet.

District 1 Rep. Steve McCleerey, D-Sisseton, said he knows the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate is interested in growing and processing hemp in South Dakota.

“They are looking forward to it,” he said. “It’s a progressive industry program. To me, it’s almost an appetite like ethanol was a few years ago.”

According to a written statement from Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribal Chairwoman Ella Robertson, the new Farm Bill provisions regarding hemp will mean expanded production on the reservation because they give tribal organizations the ability to self-regulate, develop and expand hemp production.

Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate was approved as a pilot producer in North Dakota in 2018 and successfully planted and harvested industrial hemp, Robertson said.

“So with this provision we can now develop a tribal plan to self-regulate and expand industrial hemp farming on our Lake Traverse Reservation lands,” she said in her statement.