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Growers experiment with industrial hemp

Officially it is still a Schedule 1 controlled substance, a narcotic. But it is being grown legally at prescribed locations in North Dakota. The state is completing its third year of an industrial hemp pilot program.

“People have to apply to be processors or growers,” explained Doug Gehring, North Dakota agriculture commissioner. “If they are issued a license to cultivate or process, it is just for that growing year. They have to apply every year.”

Across the state this year 3,300 acres of industrial hemp were planted by 57 individual growers. In addition, the state approved licenses for five processors. Industrial hemp is processed for a wide variety of uses. It can be used for oil, fiber, textiles, recycling, automotive, furniture, food, paper, construction materials and personal care products.

“Some processors take the seed. Some sell it whole. Some grind it into flour and extract the oil,” said Gehring. “People like it too. It has a high protein content. You can take the seed, remove the outer coating and warm it up for breakfast.”

Industrial hemp differs from its close cousin, marijuana, in that it can only contain .3 percent THC (delta9 tetrahydrocannabinol). By law, if a hemp plant contains more than .3 percent THC it must be destroyed.

The current proposed farm bill under debate in Congress contains language to deregulate hemp which would remove it from being under the control of agriculture departments.

“If the farm bill is passed, signed by the president, industrial hemp would no longer be under the authority of the Ag Department or universities and treated like any other commodity and process it,” said Gehring.

Three years of conducting a pilot program for industrial hemp in North Dakota has already provided some interesting data. Included in the learning process, said Gehring, is the misnomer that help is drought tolerant.

“Like every other crop it needs moisture,” said Gehring. “We have industrial hemp clear across the state. We are geographically spread out which helps in our research. Some crops did well. Others never germinated or just ran out of steam. Some growers got hardly anything. Others were pretty good.”

According to Gehring, a good yield for industrial hemp is about 970 pounds per acre. When the pilot program began three years ago the market price for a pound of hemp was $1. It has since dropped to 40-cents per pound.

“If there is deregulatioin and no supply management, it could potentially flood the market,” said Gehring. “As we’ve increased the acres we’ve seen the price go down. It’s about developing new markets.”

Industrial hemp flour can be used in baked goods and other food items. Hemp fiber can be used for fiber board, traditional ropes and in furniture. It has benefits for concrete products as well.

“It’s a very tough fiber and lighter than concrete,” remarked Gehring. “Its weight is less but the strength is greater.”

In early September an industrial hemp field harvest day was held near Grand Forks. One of the presenters was Chris Adams, a producer in the state’s industrial hemp pilot program. There prospective industrial hemp growers saw plants in the field, asked questions about growing hemp, how to manage it from planting to harvesting.

“At a dollar a pound it’s a pretty viable crop, even a bit lucrative,” said Gehring. “At 60-cents it’s not a bad crop. At 40-cents it is challenging.”

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