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A tip for American farmers: Grow hemp, make money

| Saturday, July 5, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Hemp fiber can be made into a number of products.

After a 77-year break, hemp plants are growing in American soil again. Right now, in fact. If you hear farmers from South Carolina to Hawaii shouting “God bless America,” the reason isn't because Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper (he did). Nor is it because the canvas that put the “covered” in pioneer covered wagons was made of hemp nor that the hemp webbing in his parachute saved George H.W. Bush's life in World War II.

Nope. It's because U.S. policy is finally acknowledging that hemp can help restore our agricultural economy and allow American family farmers to get in on a hemp market that, just north of us in Canada, is verging on $1 billion a year.

Hemp is a variety of cannabis — and thus a cousin of marijuana — that contains 0.3 percent or less of the psychoactive component THC. (Marijuana plants typically contain 5 percent to 20 percent THC.) You can't get high from hemp but, starting in 1937, U.S. drug laws made cultivating it off limits.

Finally, the U.S. hemp industry is back. A provision in the 2014 farm bill signed by President Obama on Feb. 7 removed hemp grown for research purposes from the Controlled Substances Act, the main federal drug law.

Not a moment too soon. American farmers have been watching as Canadian farmers clear huge profits from hemp: $250 per acre in 2013. By comparison, South Dakota State University predicts that soy, a major crop, will net U.S. farmers $71 per acre in 2014.

Canada's windfall has been largely due to the American demand for omega-balanced hempseed oil. But hemp also is a go-to material for dozens of applications all over the world. In a Dutch factory recently, I held the stronger-than-steel hemp fiber that's used in Mercedes door panels and Britain's Marks and Spencer department store chain used hemp fiber insulation in a new flagship outlet. “Hempcrete” outperforms fiberglass insulation.

Farmers I've interviewed from Oregon to Ohio have gotten the memo. In a Kansas-abutting corner of eastern Colorado, in the town of Springfield, Ryan Loflin, 41, wants to save his family farm with hemp. “It takes half the water that wheat does,” Loflin told me, scooping up a handful of drought-scarred soil so parched it evoked the Sahara, “and provides four times the income. Hemp is going to revive farming families in the climate-change era.”

From an agronomic perspective, American farmers need to start by importing dozens of hemp varieties (known as cultivars) from seed stock worldwide. This is vital because our own hemp seed stock, once the envy of the world, was lost to prohibition. This requires diversity and quantity because North Dakota's soil and climate are different from Kentucky's, which are different from California's. Also, the broad variety of hemp applications requires distinct cultivars.

But one final hurdle has been placed in front of American hemp entrepreneurs. In Kentucky, U.S. Customs officials, at the behest of the Drug Enforcement Administration, in May seized a 286-pound shipment of Italian hemp seed bound for the state's agriculture department. After a weeklong standoff, a federal agency had to be reminded by the federal courts that the law had changed and Kentucky's seed imports were legal.

Just last month at the Canadian border, the DEA seized another shipment of hemp seeds, this time bound for Colorado farmers. This counterproductive nonsense must stop.

We're down to 1 percent of Americans farming; it was 30 percent when our world-leading hemp industry was stymied in 1937. The crop is more valuable today than it was then. We should be waving flags and holding parades for the farmers ready to plant the crop that Thomas Jefferson called “vastly desirable.” I know I'm ready. To cheer, and to plant.

Doug Fine is the author of “Hemp Bound: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Next Agricultural Revolution.”

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