Advocates and the Colorado Department of Agriculture gave encouraging remarks for the revival of hemp as a cash crop during the Four States Agriculture Expo last week.
Under Amendment 64 passed by voters in 2012, Colorado farmers are allowed to grow industrial hemp for commercial purposes. But there are some strict requirements, including registration with the CDA.
Producers must register with CDA by May 1 if they'd like to grow industrial hemp (Cannabis spp) during the 2014 growing season. The fee for commercial production is $200 plus $1 per acre. For research purposes, the annual fee is $100 plus $1 dollar per acre.
"I recommend starting out on the research and development level to see how it goes and better understand the crop in this climate. We don't know which strain is best for your area," said Michael Singer, an agricultural specialist with the CDA.
Hemp crops can't exceed 0.3 percent THC, the psychoactive ingredient that reaches 10 to 20 percent in marijuana, a genetic cousin of hemp used for recreation and medicinal purposes.
"Hemp does not get you high," said presenter and hemp advocate Karen Kreshner. "You could smoke a whole roomful, and it would not alter your consciousness."
Inspectors will analyze one in three industrial hemp farms to insure the minuscule THC amount is complied with, Singer said. Non-compliance will result in the crop's destruction, but the grower can try again the next year.
"We know there will be some trial and error, especially because there are very limited seed stocks for hemp right now," he said.
During the inspection, the registrant or authorized representative must provide the inspector with complete and unrestricted access to all industrial hemp plants, seeds and registration documents.
Singer added that state regulations are farmer-friendly. "Also, a producer can have their hemp crop in different locations and on different properties as long as it is all recorded in the paperwork."
However, there are production challenges for hemp and problematic legal issues.
Hemp has not been grown commercially in the U.S. since World War II. Because it is within the Cannabis plant family, the Drug Enforcement Agency considers it illegal under the Controlled Substance Act.
However, the U.S. Department of Justice has issued guidelines that will, if followed, limit the likelihood of federal enforcement against commercial hemp producers.
"While the state passed legislation legalizing the cultivation of industrial hemp, there are still many unanswered questions on the federal level," said Ron Carleton, deputy commissioner for the CDA.
Growing hemp is becoming more accepted nationwide. Congress included in the 2014 Farm Bill a provision permitting research and development of hemp by universities. The provision specifically exempts hemp production by higher-education facilities from the Controlled Substances Act , the first decriminalization of hemp at the federal level in 70 years.
Industrial hemp is typically used to make textiles, fuel, oil, soaps and paper, but there are many other applications, including as a durable and organic replacement for plastics.
Under the CDA guidelines, industrial hemp must be processed into an industrial material prior to shipment out of Colorado. No part is allowed to be shipped out in raw plant form.
It is unknown how many processing facilities will be available in Colorado at harvest. One local possibility being discussed is a pressing facility in Dove Creek that was used to process sunflower oil, but the plant closed down. Ag officials believe the machinery could be retooled to process hemp-seed oil.
"There is no market until processing centers are built," said James McVaney, of Industrial Hemp in Colorado LLC. "Producing hemp for seed oil is what I would recommend for this area."
Textile use is a challenge because hemp's high tensile strength requires specialized equipment.
Seeds in short supply
Procuring seeds for hemp production is also a challenge, McVaney said.
"Stock is limited, and shipping it into the state is illegal," he said. "A grower last year on the Front Range is keeping all of his seed for his next crop."
Officials warn that hemp seed that does exist in Colorado may be variable and have unknown THC levels.
"There is a need for certified lab testing for hemp in rural agricultural areas," said Kreshner said. "It presents a another business opportunity that is unmet right now."
Federal laws prohibit hemp sampling to be delivered to Front Range labs by mail. They have to be driven, increasing the costs.
Commercial producers also must grow strains specific to buyers needs, whether textile, oils, or paper, McVaney said.
"Our goal is to find farmers willing to do the research and development, then we can attract processing plants," he said.
Hemp is a short-season crop that is relatively drought tolerant because of a deep tap root. It grows well at higher altitudes, and prefers irrigation, requiring similar water needs as alfalfa. Seeds can be broadcast or drilled ¼ to ½ inch.
In Canada, the crop is generating $200 to $250 per acre, Kreshner said.
Other states, most notably Kentucky, are aggressively pursuing a hemp economy, and have equipment retrofitted for hemp.
"Colorado needs to jump on it early on so local farmers benefit, We deserve first dibs on this industry," Kreshner said. "Dr. Bronner hemp products have already said they would buy Colorado hemp."
Pleasant View farmer Merle Root is interested in getting in on rebooted hemp business.
"It is a ground-level opportunity. Getting registered and growing for research on a small plot is the first step," she said.