BISMARCK, North Dakota — Two North Dakota farmers who seven years ago became the first in the nation to receive hemp-growing licenses from the government hope a few paragraphs in the nearly 1,000-page farm bill passed by Congress will be a giant leap forward in helping them realize their dream.
Rep. Dave Monson and Wayne Hauge have never seeded the crop that is a non-hallucinogenic cousin to marijuana because they failed to get approval from the Drug Enforcement Administration to grow and lost a court battle against the federal government. That rendered their state commercial production licenses issued in February 2007 by then-state Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson useless, though Monson has continued to pay his $150 annual renewal fee.
A provision in the farm bill allows for research plots of hemp in states that permit its cultivation could be a major step toward the eventual establishment of a national hemp industry, the men said.
"I think it's been clear for a long time that the only real way of getting hemp into production is for Congress to sanction it, somehow, and say it's all right," said Johnson, who is now president of the National Farmers Union.
Federal drug law doesn't distinguish between marijuana and hemp, which can be used to make rope, paper, lotion, cooking oil and other products. All three men all said as early as 2007 that some type of action by Congress might be necessary to grow a hemp industry. Already, the U.S. is one of the top importers of legal hemp products, about $11.5 million worth in 2011.
"Once (the farm bill) is signed into law, then it's really made it from being a drug to being a crop, an agricultural issue," said Monson, a longtime Republican state legislator who farms near Osnabrock. "We'll have to see where it shakes out."
Johnson, Monson and Hauge, who farms near Ray, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture still must write rules and other agencies, including the DEA, might weigh in. The farm bill language also authorizes research plots only in North Dakota and nine other states, though Johnson said that is a good starting point in building a hemp industry.
"We pretty much have to start from scratch," he said. "The first place to start is with the agronomic research."
North Dakota State University waited nearly a decade for federal permission to study hemp, which it received from the DEA in 2007 — along with security requirements such as a 10-foot-tall wire mesh fence around test plots and an alarm system. But the potential cost for just a three-acre plot outweighed the $55,000 the university received from the state.
Seven years later, the situation hasn't changed, said Burton Johnson, an agronomy professor with NDSU's Department of Plant Sciences.
"It's sitting right where it has been for a number of years because of the fence and the cost, all of those protocols," Johnson said. "We never moved forward to building a facility and initiating any field studies."
If those roadblocks are removed, initial tests would study which existing hemp varieties are best suited for various production areas, and would take 2 to 5 years, Johnson said. Developing new industrial hemp varieties would take much longer — from 5 to 10 years, he said.
Hauge said that even if farmers are eventually able to legally plant hemp, they'll have to be careful they don't over-produce.
Retail sales of imported hemp products in the U.S. total about $500 million annually, according to the Vote Hemp nonprofit advocacy group. As a comparison, the latest USDA data show that North Dakota's wheat crop alone is worth five times that.
"Obviously it's not going to be something I would put 1,000 acres into," Hauge said.
Monson agreed, "There's a lot left to be settled before we get too excited."
"I've been on this roller-coaster ride — we get out our hopes up, we get them dashed, we get to the bottom and we start all over again," he said. "But I'm very pleased that it did get into the farm bill."
Johnson said the only support in Congress for hemp seven years ago came from "out of the mainstream" lawmakers. He thinks the fact that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., backed the hemp provision this year was a key factor.
"It went from the very, very, very fringe to the center of political action," Johnson said.
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