BISMARCK, North Dakota — State Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring has chosen three farming operations to help determine whether industrial hemp can be successfully grown in North Dakota.
Jamie and Lyle Edwards, of Black Dirt Inc. in LaMoure County in the southeast, David Lommen in Grand Forks County in the northeast, and Clarence Laub in Grant County in the southwest were among 17 applicants for the state research program. A committee earlier determined them to have the top proposals among the 11 that were deemed eligible.
The four farmers will grow 40 to 60 acres of hemp this year.
"The program's primary goal is to increase our knowledge of how industrial hemp fits into the existing agriculture landscape and economy," Goehring said Wednesday.
Congress in 2014 allowed universities and state agriculture departments to research hemp in states that permit its cultivation. North Dakota issued the nation's first hemp-growing licenses in 2007, but efforts to establish the industry in the state have been hampered by federal drug law that doesn't differentiate between hemp and its cousin marijuana. A new bill in Congress might soon change that, however.
Hemp produces fiber that can be used in products such as rope, paper and clothing, and also oil that can be used in food and health products. Some North Dakota farmers hope it can become a profitable part of their operations. The state research program aims to help determine how viable hemp can be.
"Just seeing agronomically how it can be put into our crop rotations, (with) wheat, sunflower, corn, and seeing how it works with the equipment we have," said Laub, an Elgin farmer and crop consultant.
The state Agriculture Department will quickly start working with federal drug officials to get approval to import hemp seed for the research program, most likely from Canada, which already has an established hemp industry. The Drug Enforcement Administration registered the state agency as a seed importer last August, but officials still need additional approval for actual imports, said Rachel Seifert-Spilde, a plant protection specialist in the department.
"We intend to plant mid-May," she said. "I've been told the (import approval) process is lengthy but the DEA has assured me that our time frame is reasonable."
Program participants will bear the cost of importing the seed and growing it. They also must obtain a state hemp permit that costs $5 per acre with a minimum of $150, and pay $42.75 to cover the cost of a background check.
State officials will visit the farmers' plots at least three times to test the crops for the chemical THC, the intoxicant that gives marijuana smokers a high. Should they ever be above levels allowed under state rules, the crops would be destroyed, Seifert-Spilde said.
Laub said dealing with the regulations isn't a deterrent for him.
"I accept doing a little paperwork. I think it's a very good opportunity," he said.
The Agriculture Department has no set budget for the program.
"The only money available to us is that brought in through licensing fees," Seifert-Spilde said. "It's likely we'll have to find money elsewhere. We'll be dealing with it as we go along."