Hemp: Wyoming’s crop of the future?


TORRINGTON – The Wyoming Legislature passed House Bill 230 earlier this year which will allow Wyoming farmers to grow hemp, cannabis sativa L., a botanical cousin to marijuana, beginning in July 2018. Hemp is used worldwide in fuels, textiles, clothing and food, and while the United States is the largest importer of industrial hemp in the world, approximately $550 million per year, yet it has been illegal for American farmers to grow the versatile plant since 1937.
In 2014, the U.S. Congress passed a farm bill that allows states to grow hemp for research purposes in accordance with federal guidelines. The Agricultural Act of 2014 allows universities and state departments of agriculture to begin cultivating industrial hemp for limited purposes if the industrial hemp is grown or cultivated for purposes of research conducted under an agricultural pilot program or other agricultural or academic research and the growing or cultivating of industrial hemp is allowed under the laws of the state.
The Wyoming bill, which became law without Gov. Mead’s signature, will allow farmers to plant, grow and sell industrial hemp for experimentation and research, under the rules, regulations and supervision of the Wyoming Department of
Agriculture.
However, Wyoming’s agricultural producers haven’t been plowing up their cash crops for the chance to plant hemp. There are several hurdles that need to be crossed before it joins the ranks of corn, alfalfa, beans and sugar beets as one of the state’s
cash crops.
“It’s hard to say when we will be in a position to start hemp farming,” said Derek Grant, spokesman for WDA. “The last budget cycle wasn’t great. There is no money for the equipment needed to verify the THC levels of the hemp or for the training staff would need to be able to use
the equipment.
“But we are working on the things we can. We are currently writing the rules for the program so we can get them out for comment and we are working with the Drug Enforcement Agency to get our exemption for growing hemp.”
Hemp and marijuana are distant cousins, but the levels of THC, the psychoactive chemical compound found in both plants, is much less in hemp, usually less than one percent, whereas in marijuana it can be as high as 30 percent.
“We can’t send samples to an outside lab to test the THC levels, we have to verify it in house, in order to certify a grower,” Grant said. “We are hoping we can get the funding for the equipment and the training during the next legislative session, but right now we are doing everything we can to move the program forward.”
In Colorado, growers began growing hemp in 2015 and the acreage planted has increased every year.
“There was 200 acres planted in 2015,” said Duane Sinning, assistant director of the hemp program of the Colorado Department of Agriculture. “In 2015, that increased to 2,000 acres and in 2016 it rose to 6,000. We don’t have the numbers for 2017, but I expect it to be 7,500 acres if
not more.
“Peaches have been a good crop in Colorado, and they are worth more on the market than hemp, but we have more acres planted in hemp than peaches.”
Sinning said most of the plants are used to produce cannabinoid oil, or CBD oil, which is relatively easy and inexpensive to produce.
“Processing the plant for use in textiles, paper and manufacturing products is a much more technical and expensive process,” Sinning explained. “And the way the law is written, right now producers cannot ship their product over state lines to be processed.”
Asked if hemp will develop into a major cash crop, Sinning was reluctant to guess how large the industry might get, but believes it is here to stay and will grow. How much it grows will depend on how federal and state laws evolve to encourage production and processing, especially across
state lines.
“I get asked all the time by lawmakers why hemp should be made legal, what benefit could it have for agriculture? I tell them it’s about being fair to the American farmer.
“We can bring hemp in from oversees and ship it anywhere we want within the U.S. But a guy growing a hemp crop in Montana can’t ship it to Wyoming or Colorado without the threat of it being stopped, confiscated and the grower being arrested.
“If we are going to import hemp and make money for a Chinese farmer, then we should at least give the same consideration to
U.S. farmers.”
Unlike the response in Colorado, Grant said the inquiries in Wyoming have been slow, but there is still a lot of time before the state defines it’s program and is set up to certify growers and verify
their product.
“It will be at least two planting cycles before we have our program defined and are ready to open up hemp production. Right now we have seven people listed who have called our office with inquiries to sign up for the hemp program and they’ve been from Platte, Natrona, Laramie and Albany counties.
“But once we define the program and get the word out, and if the legislature follows through with funding for the verification equipment, I suspect we will be getting a lot more calls from producers interested in looking into hemp as an alternative crop.”

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