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Hemp Has Potential But Many Questions Remain, Even If Governor Signs Bill

Esther Honig/Harvest Public Media
Industrial hemp is already growing in Colorado. Iowa farmers could have the opportunity to grow it again soon.

Among the bills passed by the legislature this session and now awaiting the governor’s signature is one allowing farmers to grow industrial hemp.

It would open up that crop to cultivation for the first time in almost 50 years. Industrial hemp once was used for clothing, rope and a wide variety of other products, but in 1970 it was lumped in with its cousin marijuana and classified as a controlled substance. That made it illegal to grow nationwide.

Under the 2018 farm bill, it’s now legal for individual states to choose to allow.

In Iowa, hemp potentially offers a way to break-up the common corn-soybean rotation, said Iowa Farm Bureau economist Sam Funk. But there is very little infrastructure to support hemp growing and that may give farmers pause.

“It’s going to be a changing marketplace,” Funk said, “and we’re going to have to take a very close look for each individual operation as well as for the state as a whole.”

Jonathan Vaught is C.E.O. of Front Range Biosciences in Colorado, a company that is developing hemp seeds and transplants to supply to farmers. He says there are three major avenues for hemp, and each grows best from a particular variety of the plant.

“The first question any farmers should ask themselves, who’s interested in growing hemp, is what are they producing their hemp for?” Vaught said, “meaning, what’s their primary target for the product and how (do) they plan to capitalize that crop?”

He says the largest market right now in the United States, though it’s not yet very big, is for cannabinoid oil. But hemp can also be used as a vegetarian protein source for food and Vaught predicts in five or 10 years many industrial uses—both old and new—will emerge.

He says the kinds of commodity markets that corn and soybean farmers are accustomed to don’t yet exist for hemp but he expects those, too, will come along.

Funk says the Iowa Farm Bureau will explore the potential for hemp during its 2019 Iowa Economic Summit in June.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames