For the first time in generations, Minnesota farmers are planting hemp.
“We’re the first ones putting seeds in the ground since the 1950s,” said Ken Anderson, watching as a bottle-blue tractor trundled across a field near Hastings on a sunny Friday afternoon. The 8.5-acre tract is the first of at least half a dozen hemp fields to be cultivated this summer under the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s new industrial hemp pilot project.
The seeds should have been in the ground a month ago, but bureaucratic delays and shipping companies leery of carrying a cargo of cannabis delayed delivery. The seeds, and the entire hemp project, had to navigate a maze of federal regulations and red tape that treat this state-sanctioned crop like a narcotic.
Hemp was a booming cash crop in Minnesota before the federal government banned hemp production in 1957, and the plant still grows wild all around the state.
To get back into the hemp business, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture had to register as a narcotics importer. Even after the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Department of Justice approved the state’s pilot program, a series of shipping companies balked at delivering Anderson’s seed, even though the delivery address was that of a state agency.
“This is a nightmare we have to jump through,” said Anderson, a Minnesota native who has spearheaded hemp start-ups in other states.
Even though Anderson could get hemp seeds from, say, his operation in Kentucky, federal guidelines require states to buy hemp for cultivation from other countries — Canada and Ukraine, in Minnesota’s case.
Despite having all the proper state and federal permits, and the blessing of U.S. and Canadian customs, Anderson said he couldn’t coax FedEx or UPS to deliver the hemp seeds. In the end, a small Canadian shipping company delivered the seed bags to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture loading docks on Thursday.
Hemp is a strain of cannabis that’s useless if you’re looking to get high but useful if you’re looking to cultivate a plant that can be used in everything from food to fibers to construction material. But a field of industrial hemp looks just like a field of marijuana, and the crop was swept up in the federal drug ban six decades ago.
The compound that gives marijuana its buzz, THC, is virtually absent in hemp, even though the two cannabis strains look alike. For someone to get high, a cannabis strain would need THC levels of around 6 or 7 percent. The THC levels in Minnesota’s hemp crop will hover around 0.3 percent.
Minnesota legalized medical marijuana last year — without any federal paperwork for the Health Department or the state’s two cannabis companies, since the federal government still holds that cannabis has no legal medical use. Now hemp is making its Minnesota comeback.
In 2014, the federal farm bill allowed universities and state agriculture departments to cultivate it. Today, 28 states cultivate or are studying industrial hemp, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The Minnesota Legislature set up an industrial hemp pilot program last year through the state Department of Agriculture, and the agency will monitor the hemp fields and study the growth, cultivation and marketing of the crop. Six farmers have been approved for the pilot program’s first year, and a seventh application is pending.
What keeps the farmers and state agriculture officials pushing on through the red tape maze is the hope of tapping into the growing market for hemp products. A farmer can get $18 for every pound of hulled hemp seeds — more than enough to make up for the fact that hemp isn’t eligible for federal crop subsidies, Anderson said. Hemp is a hardy crop, and there’s a market for every part of the plant.
“I think there’s huge potential out there for our state that we’re missing out on,” said Andrea Vaubel, assistant commissioner with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Hemp is a $500 million market in Canada, she noted. “We’d like to tap into that”
The Agriculture Department is eager to see not only how the hemp crop grows, but what farmers do with it once it is harvested. Anderson is CEO of Original Green Distribution, which incorporates hemp into building materials the company bills as energy efficient and fire and mold resistant.
“There’s huge obstacles right now,” Anderson said of the hemp industry. “But huge opportunities.”