On a recent spring evening, Joe Swanson stood in his field of winter wheat, envisioning a different scene across the Kansas landscape.
A green plant with five-pointed leaves, and acres of it.
“I’m fired up about hemp,” the 72-year-old Rice County, Kansas, farmer said. “I can’t say enough good about it.”
Swanson sees industrial hemp breathing new life into the struggling farm economy. Hemp could be more revenue-yielding than wheat and milo. It uses less water than corn. It makes a variety of products, including biodegradable plastic and paper.
Moreover, processing plants would create jobs for many Midwestern towns, he said.
“I think hemp can offer a whole new industrial revolution for communities,” Swanson said.
However, the potential hemp industry is toeing a legality line. While it won’t get anyone high, the crop’s expansion suffers from association with its illicit cannabis cousin.
The 2014 farm bill included a provision allowing states, through research institutions and departments of agriculture, to grow industrial hemp. About three-quarters of U.S. states have enacted such laws, but there are still barriers.
Industrial hemp falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which still considers the crop as the equivalent of marijuana, which classifies it as an illegal substance.
Despite a handful of bills the past five years to begin developing the prospective multimillion-dollar industry in the state, Kansas is one of 16 states that hasn’t passed hemp legislation.
But Swanson, who sees hemp boosting the farm’s profitability for his daughter and son-in-law—the farm’s sixth generation—is optimistic that soon-to-be-introduced federal legislation will remove the final roadblocks that have put the fledgling cash crop at a stalemate.
“This could be a very positive thing for our country,” Swanson said. “Kansas legislation has been very slow in dragging their feet but hopefully the federal proposal will help us get this off and going. We sure need it.”
A country built on hemp
It’s sometimes forgotten how deeply rooted hemp once was in the U.S. agricultural economy.
Before the drug prohibition, hemp was a prominent part of everyday lives. It was used to make a variety of items, including clothing, rope and sails. The Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper. Even the first American flag, reported to be made by Betsy Ross, was crafted from hemp fiber.
Henry Ford experimented with hemp to build car bodies.
But the hemp industry began to go downhill after that. Hemp was doomed by the “Marihuana Tax Act of 1937,” which defined hemp as a narcotic drug, according to the Congressional Research Service. Farmers growing hemp were required to have federal registration and a special tax stamp, effectively limiting further production.
During World War II, the U.S. Department of Agriculture campaigned with “Hemp for Victory” and allowed farmers to grow it with a permit.
Yet, by 1958, there were no U.S. hemp fields. Rigid restrictions in the Controlled Substances Act brought the industry to a halt, turning the United States into one of the world’s largest importers of hemp.
Current U.S. hemp sales total more than $600 million, according to the congressional report. That figure is based on imported hemp, primarily from Canada.
Changing the landscape
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY, wants to make hemp a viable commodity again.
McConnell announced in late March he would introduce the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, which will legalize hemp as an agricultural commodity and remove it from the list of controlled substances.
Besides breaking down federal barriers, his legislation builds upon the success of hemp pilot programs in states like Kentucky by allowing the states to be the primary regulators of hemp if the U.S. Department of Agriculture approves their implementation plan. It also would give hemp researchers the chance to apply for competitive USDA grants allowing them “to continue their impressive work with the support of federal research dollars.”
“Hemp has played a foundational role in Kentucky’s agricultural heritage, and I believe that it can be an important part of our future,” McConnell said in a statement issued by his office.
During a press conference, McConnell added he could see hemp surpassing tobacco in Kentucky, where health hazards of smoking have caused a drop in production.
“The goal of this new bill, should it become law, is to simply remove the roadblocks altogether,” McConnell said. “It would encourage innovation and development and support to domestic production of hemp.”
Kentucky has paved the way, with the state’s agriculture division approving more than 12,000 acres for hemp production and research in 2018. Colorado comes in second in acreage, followed by North Dakota. Last year, 19 states had pilot programs or research plots, which totaled more than 25,000 acres.
But a bulk of Farm Belt states haven’t addressed hemp. Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Iowa have introduced bills at their state capitals, said Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, a nonprofit founded in 2000 as a way to advocate for a free market for industrial hemp.
“Farmers are always looking for new crops and ways to diversify,” Steenstra said. “It is kind of crazy that American companies are importing hemp from Canada, China, Europe—wherever.”
If McConnell is successful in getting the new hemp legislation into the next farm bill, farmers could see a new environment, Steenstra said. At present, most banks won’t loan money for hemp production and the USDA hasn’t funded a single hemp research project.
“There also is no crop insurance available,” he said. “Hemp isn’t classified as a specialty crop. There are things that could help get the industry going and build from that.”
Those states that haven’t implemented anything are falling behind, he added. He noted a California company broke ground in Kentucky in mid-March on a $30 million hemp processing facility that will add about 140 jobs.
A move toward hemp
In Kansas, Swanson's dream is making some progress.
Rep. Willie Dove, R-Bonner Springs, introduced legislation the past few years to make hemp the state's newest commodity. However, different bill, which came out of the Senate, passed the Kansas House in March.
On April 7, the Senate voted to concur with the House amendments to the bill, which now takes the legislation to Gov. Jeff Colyer's desk.
If signed, the Kansas Department of Agriculture could establish a pilot program in Russell County and other counties determined by the agency, said Dove, the Legislature’s leading hemp advocate.
It’s a “small step” in the right direction, but not the big one Dove wants to see.
“They are way ahead of us—all the other states,” Dove said, adding he felt like he has been fighting the former Brownback administration to get any hemp legislation passed. “Kansas doesn’t seem to be on the same page. Hopefully, with the new administration, we can go much further with this.”
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation and law enforcement agencies have spoken in opposition, saying legalizing industrial hemp would make drug laws difficult to enforce.
However, Dove stressed industrial hemp is not marijuana.
While both plants look similar and belong to the same species, they are genetically different, which is noted in the current farm bill. The major difference in is the level of THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis. Industrial hemp contains less than 0.3 percent THC and does not produce a high. Marijuana, smoked for its hallucinogenic and medical properties, contains 10 to 100 times that amount.
“Everyone thinks automatically that hemp is marijuana,” said Rock Gagnebin, a Reno County cattle producer and business owner. “You ever hear the saying ‘Go smoke some rope’?”
But the economic possibilities for rural Kansas are endless, Gagnebin said. Hemp can be made into healthcare products, concrete, particle board and insulation, to name a few items.
“I can see Kansas being the epicenter of the hemp world,” he said. “It makes a good crop, it’s hardy and it doesn’t take much water. If you’re a farmer, I don’t see how you couldn’t be for it.”
A boon for farmers
Reid Shrauner, a fourth-generation Morton County, Kansas, farmer who farms with his father, Scott, in both Kansas and Oklahoma, calls industrial hemp a viable option to water-intensive corn.
His family’s livelihood is dependent on irrigated farming that was put in place by his grandfather and father. But the Ogallala Aquifer is declining.
Shrauner recently calculated the profit for irrigated grain sorghum, but noted with the current trade issues with China, he didn’t want to take that risk. He has been outspoken about hemp, flying with a neighbor to Topeka last year to show support for the crop.
“Irrigators are in the unique situation of being in control of a nonrenewable resource,” he said, adding he would use hemp as one of the crops in his rotation.
Swanson sees those benefits, too. And for young farmers getting their start on the farm amid a stagnant economy, it also could be a profitable answer.
“If we can bring in hemp and these other things, good things are in the future,” he said. “The reason we are excited about industrial hemp is it will give us another diverse crop to put into our no-till system.”
Amy Bickel can be reached at 620-860-9433 or email@example.com.