Minnesota farmers hope for hemp in 2018 Farm Bill

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As the 2018 Farm Bill makes its way through Congress, some Minnesota farmers are eyeing a measure that would legalize industrial hemp. 

Often called "marijuana's kissing cousin,” the plant won't get you high. Right now, however, it is still a controlled substance, only grown legally in the US through experimental research. 

At a hemp field off the interstate in Woodbury, the ancient plant is in bloom once again. 

“This is our third growing year. We were the first growers in the state of Minnesota,” said John Strohfus, Founder and CEO of Minnesota Hemp Farms. 

Growing hemp without a special permit is illegal. So, Strohfus and other farmers plant and harvest it through a pilot program with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. 

“There is really no difference genetically between hemp and marijuana except for the varieties, which have low THC,” Strohfus said. “Literally, you could smoke a field of this and you'll just get a headache.”

An entrepreneur at heart, Strohfus saw the crop as a business opportunity. After harvest, the hemp is processed and used in products like clothing, rope, oils and food.  

“Hemp is not a new crop, but there's a renaissance in growing hemp in the United States, and I knew that with that would come a lot of opportunity to be one of the early adopters,” Strohfus said. 

Now Strohfus and other Minnesota hemp farmers are looking to congress to pass the recent Farm Bill. Both the House and Senate have passed their own versions, and the Senate’s bill includes full legalization of industrial hemp. If passed, it would remove hemp from the federal list of controlled substances, allowing farmers to apply for crop insurance and federally funded programs. 

“The United States is the number one importer of hemp in the world. And so for us not to be able to grow it is quite silly,” Strohfus said. 

“It grows very well here. We also got in pretty early on the ground floor,” said Andrea Vaubel, Assistant Commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. “There are now 39 states that have these pilot programs, but we are certainly one of the leaders amongst others like Colorado and Kentucky. So we're really proud of that and we feel like we can continue to be a leader, particularly if this becomes law.” 

“I think it would be a relief that we don't have to constantly address the issue of is it legal or not,” Strohfus said. 

Because the plants look so similar there have been concerns from law enforcement on how they would be able to tell a legal hemp field from a field of marijuana. 

At the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus, scientists are working to resolve that very problem. 

“We've been working on cannabis genetics in my laboratory for the last 15 years, including both hemp and marijuana. Our work started with an effort to understand how hemp and marijuana are different. We know that now,” said Dr. George Weiblen, University of Minnesota Professor in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology. 

In the lab, Weiblen and his team dissect hemp seeds down to their DNA. 

“We're working on being able to confirm the test so that we can distinguish seed that would have the potential to be marijuana versus seed that would be considered to be hemp,” said Research Associate and Hemp Project Manager, Jonathan Wenger.  

As scientists do their work and politicians do theirs, Minnesota hemp growers are still watching and waiting, hoping hemp will prove fruitful on and off the farm. 

“No one is making any money off of this crop in Minnesota right now. It's going to require the development of processing facilities, markets and products that consumers are willing to buy,” Weiblen said. 

“The farm bill really legitimizes hemp for the forseeable future,” Strohfus said. 

“Minnesota, in particular, I think is well positioned to take advantage of this Farm Bill. Should it include these provisions, I think we will be one of the nation's leaders in pushing hemp,” Weiblen said. 

According to one estimate, Hemp-Derived Cannabidiol, or CBD, could become a $1-billion dollar industry by 2020. CBD is only one type of product derived from hemp.  

“You combine nature's engineering with what we can do now with industrial technologies and you can make some very strong, resilient, durable and sustainable products. And that's where a lot of the interest is,” Weiblen said. 

The House and the Senate will now attempt to sort out the differences in their respective versions of the 2018 Farm Bill. The current Farm Bill expires on Sept. 30.