DES MOINES (AP) — The momentum for legalizing industrial hemp in America is building. Iowa supporters of the once-prevalent crop, though, have moved on from being eager about its possibilities to feeling anxious to get growing.
Hemp got lumped in with its infamous sibling cannabis crop, marijuana, when it was made illegal to grow in the U.S. without a permit in 1970. But hemp doesn’t get you stoned, since it contains negligible amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.
In the past five years, the plant has been making a quiet comeback in America. At least 35 states nationwide now allow some form of industrial hemp cultivation, and Republican U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, wants hemp federally de-scheduled — meaning states could carry out changes without interference — as part of the latest farm bill. But that massive, catch-all legislation is caught up in bureaucratic snags.
A research and exploration bill for hemp passed the Iowa Senate unanimously this past legislative session, too, but talk in the House quieted after it was approved by a subcommittee.
Some Iowa farmers such as 34-year-old Ethan Vorhes, who helps oversee land a few miles south of Charles City, are tired of waiting. He thinks the crop could stand as a companion to corn and soybeans in Iowa’s rotation. After all, tens of thousands of acres of hemp were raised here during World War II. Plus, the plant has uses in more than 25,000 products, from fibers, textiles, paper and construction materials to beauty products, food and beverages.
It can serve as animal feed, which Vorhes said would raise the profile of his farm’s stock of cattle raised for kobe beef. Numerous studies are showing hemp requires minimal amounts of pesticides and does little to impede soil health.
Growing hemp can increase corn and soybean yields the following year by an average of six and four bushels per acre, according to the Iowa Hemp Association.
“I want to be able to revolutionize a family farm,” Vorhes told The Des Moines Register. “Hemp can help us change part of that situation in the field.”
Hemp is no wonder crop, but it offers enough financial options to let individual farmers dream beyond their staples. It’s expected to be a billion-dollar industry nationally by 2020, according to a report from the Brightfield Group, a Florida-based analytics firm.
And for the past several years, entrepreneurs have been lining up for small-business loans to find their place on the business’ front porch. They’ve come from several states to people like Charles Wellso, a co-founder of Colorado-based Sanitas Peak Financial LLC who grew up in Cedar Rapids, for getting that start.
“Rarely do you get an opportunity to build a national business,” Wellso said. “Hemp is one of those things that offers people with ability to use hard work and talent to really make great returns. The opportunities are dramatic.”
For individuals, perhaps. For a state as a whole, maybe not so much. Iowa State University agricultural economist Chad Hart cautioned hemp’s potential doesn’t mean you’d see marijuana’s sibling running wild.
He compared the billion-dollar hemp potential with the $40 billion national soybean market and the $60 billion that comes from corn. He concluded farmers won’t be moving to hemp in droves.
Hart sees hemp as a larger-scale version of the switchgrass fad, considered a viable component for ethanol production around the turn of the century but one that never became a must-have investment.
Hemp has been legal in Kentucky since 2014, and the latest profit measurements from 2016 were around $5 million over 2,320 harvested acres. The issue, Hart said, isn’t about production, but rather the marketing and the utilization.
“Could farmers produce a lot of it (if hemp is legalized)? Yeah,” he said. “But unless I have an active market demanding the product, just because I can doesn’t mean I should. That’s the challenge.”
But in Iowa, the pro-hemp bill stalled in the Iowa House of Representatives after making its way through a Ways and Means subcommittee in early April.
Republican State Rep. Lee Hein, of Monticello, who chaired the subcommittee, said the lack of passage this year had to do more with time than anything else. The House was working on an amendment to address funding for two state initiatives: the Industrial Hemp Commodity Program, administered by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and the Industrial Hemp Production Program, administered by a Board of Regents institution.
He added that numerous discussions involving medical marijuana in the Legislature over the past several years have helped differentiate hemp from the overall cannabis discussion.
“They’re two separate issues,” Hein said.
Retiring Ways and Means chairman, Republican Guy Vander Linden, of Oskaloosa, said broad bipartisan support for the Senate bill indicates hemp approval could come as early as the 2019 legislative session — depending on the political makeup of both houses, of course.
“A little diversification (in crops) may not hurt anybody, and the lobby made a pretty good case that this is something to consider,” Vander Linden said. “So I think it’s got legs for down the road.”
For now, though, farmers waiting to enter the market are broadening their own horizons. Vorhes, for example, is attending a conference in New York in early June, on his birthday, and is contemplating transplanting parts of his operation where he can take advantage of the hemp culture now.
“I don’t think Iowa can wait but another year,” Vorhes said. “Otherwise, you might start to see things take root somewhere else. ... It hurts every day that we wait.”