Sharp-eyed students at the University of Minnesota might do double-takes this summer if they spot what looks like marijuana plants growing on the agricultural testing fields at the St. Paul campus.

But the dark green foliage with jagged leaves will actually be industrial hemp, a close look-alike and cousin to marijuana that's useless for getting high, but potentially valuable for certain foods, cosmetics and oil.

Signs will be posted to indicate that the plants are a hemp experiment and not a drug.

The industrial hemp is part of a pilot program regulated by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) that's now beginning its second year and has generated surprising interest.

Last year, seven producers planted about 37 acres of the crop in the state. In 2017, 42 growers will be planting more than 2,100 acres in 26 counties.

Andrea Vaubel, MDA assistant commissioner, attributes some of the interest to greater public and farmer realization that industrial hemp is a legitimate crop, and that it's different from medical hemp or cannabis. Industrial hemp is the same plant, she said, but its delta-9 THC level — which gives marijuana its kick — is less than 0.3 percent.

"You'd have to smoke a whole field of it, and all you'd get is a headache," she said.

Even though industrial hemp has no value as a drug, it is still considered a Schedule 1 narcotic under the federal Controlled Substances Act and has been illegal to grow since the 1940s.

However, the 2014 Farm Bill allowed states to begin pilot programs to raise industrial hemp as long as they had corresponding laws to regulate it. About half of the states have done so or are moving in that direction.

Vaubel said the goal of the state's pilot program is to study the growth, cultivation and marketing of industrial hemp.

"We really want to understand if this is a viable crop for Minnesota, and are there markets out there for farmers to capitalize on," she said. "So far we think there are."

Because of federal restrictions, Minnesota producers ordering industrial hemp seeds must have them delivered to the state agriculture department, which inspects and tests them. The growers also need to apply for state permits, pass criminal background checks and agree to various other conditions during the season and after the hemp is harvested.

Bryan Biegler, a corn and soybean farmer in southwestern Minnesota's Murray County, said he's excited about trying to grow industrial hemp for the first time this year. He ordered seed for 5 acres as an experiment, because corn and soybean prices are relatively low and he's looking for crops that will diversify his operation.

"I'm in a full learning curve on this," Biegler said. "I know some of the uses for hemp, but as far as planting it and everything, it's completely new to me."

Canada has a well-established industrial hemp industry, so Biegler and others are buying seed from sources there. It costs about $2.50 a pound, he said, or about $125 per acre — not much more than the corn seed that usually costs him between $100 and $120 per acre, depending on the variety.

John Strohfus, who raises hay and cattle and runs a commercial horse boarding operation near Hastings, planted 18 acres of industrial hemp last year. The crop grew well, he said, but there are few places to have the hemp processed into usable products.

To counter that, Strohfus founded Minnesota Hemp Farms, a company that he envisions will help farmers grow hemp and find markets for them to sell it.

"I wanted to be in on the ground floor and be a pioneer in the industry," he said. "I want to be involved in the branding, product development, processing and subsequent market sales, as well as grain brokerage."

Part of that development will be learning how and where industrial hemp grows well in the state. Under the pilot program, the University of Minnesota also received the go-ahead to plant it in its agricultural fields in Rosemount, Crookston and Morris, and possibly on the White Earth reservation.

"We're going to raise 12 industrial hemp varieties in an experimental design that will allow us to compare how they perform here in Minnesota and in different soil types and locations," said George Weiblen, University of Minnesota plant and microbial biology professor in charge of the trials.

Weiblen said the focus will be on varieties that produce large amounts of seeds, rather than fiber. The seeds are highly nutritious, and rich in protein and omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids that are popular among the health-conscious, he said. The hulled hemp seeds can be used as seasonings or on salads, cereal and yogurt, he said, and are sold at health food stores as well as Target, Costco and other retailers.

Hemp seeds also can also be pressed to produce hemp oil, Weiblen said, an ingredient in skin care products like lotions and soaps as well as for cooking oil that's similar to olive oil.

"In terms of the American demand for hemp right now, it's primarily the grain [seeds] that is taking off for food and cosmetics," he said, with sales surpassing $600 million in the U.S. last year.

Hemp fiber is less valuable than seeds, but extremely durable and absorbent. It was grown in Minnesota legally at the end of World War II to produce strong ropes and tough canvas for tents and backpacks as part of the war effort, and has been used more recently in products ranging from paper and textiles to vehicle door interiors and animal bedding.

Vaubel said some have criticized the pilot program because of confusion about the difference between industrial hemp and marijuana.

Others have worried that because the plants look so similar, people may plant illegal marijuana inside fields of legal industrial hemp, but she said that hasn't happened yet and doing so would only dilute the marijuana's potency because of cross pollination.

In addition to allowing tests before harvest to assure that the THC is below legal levels, hemp growers are also required to notify local law enforcement that they're growing industrial hemp and where it's located.

Biegler said he has an open mind about whether hemp may become a big-time crop that he rotates with his corn and soybeans some day.

"I'm not one to shy away from new things," he said. "You never know until you try it and see how it works."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388