Process still heavily regulated by Deparment of Ag and the Drug Enforcement Agency
Thanks to the change of some regulations in the 2014 federal farm bill, North Dakota has been able to conduct a pilot program for industrial hemp the last two growing seasons, and so far, the results have been positive.
According to the North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, the yields have produced some of the highest profits in the state.
“Commodities have not been good this last year, and all of a sudden this one looked pretty darn good,” he said in a phone interview with the Record.
So how do producers enter the Industrial Hemp pilot program?
They must fill out an application, provided by the North Dakota Department of Agriculture, and go through a background check.
Since hemp, a close relative of the marijuana plant, is still classified as a schedule one controlled substance, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) heavily regulates the program. The producer is required to get a DEA number before a license can be granted, adding that the background of the producer needs to be cleared.
“If something comes back in your background check, and the DEA says no,” Goehring said. “Chances are I’m not going to issue you a license and allow you to grow it.”
After an application is approved, the seeds are supplied by the state’s ag department.
But, the regulations don’t stop there.
Goehring said that they take multiple samples throughout the growing process to ensure that the plant is still legal. They monitor the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) level in the plant. THC is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that gives its users ‘the high,’ and in hemp, to be legally grown, the level needs to be no higher than .3 percent. The levels in the drug marijuana varies from 3 percent to as high as 15 percent.
Though there is quite a few steps to take before the plant can be put in the ground, Goehring said the product is very viable in the state.
“Quite frankly, what were showing so far, [is] pretty viable,” Goehring said. “I think in North Dakota, it probably had the highest profit last year.”
Goehring said that he saw profits as high as $150 per acre, a significant increase against a crop such as corn, where producers saw profits as high as $40 with some even losing money.
But, in order to participate in the program, there is some additional work for the producer above and beyond the typical growth and cultivation. Because it is an educational program, the state needs to monitor your work nearly every step of the way, including the timing of planting, conditions during the initial planting, whether the area was pre-burned, information about the growing conditions and when the plant started bolting, among other things.
“We come out and actually have to sample and analyze the plant in the growing season,” Goehring said. “We want to know what you harvested with, when you harvested.”
But maintaining the crop does not require the effort other crops do. For instance, Goehring said that because the plant is a schedule one controlled substance, the Environmental Protection Agency restricts the use of pesticides, essentially subtracting that task for farmers.
So how would this product do locally?
Both Goehring and Research Agronomist John Rickertson, with the Research Extension Center in Hettinger, said it is very feasible for hemp to succeed in this state.
Rickertson noted that the plant is native to North America and that it should be durable enough to grow in the southwest part of the state.
However heavy rains can be detrimental to the success of hemp. The research center in Langdon, N.D., was experimenting with 12 different variety when rain and flooding destroyed them all, according to Goehring.
Rickertson said that the state is fortunate to have the regulations in place to study the crop and gather as much information as they can. Rickertson suggested that there might be a learning curve right away, especially in figuring out a way to properly cultivate the plant. Planting the seeds may not prove to be as difficult as actually cutting and harvesting the product. Rickertson said he hopes to do some research of his own soon.
“Some time in the near future I’ll look at growing it here in Hettinger,” he said. “So I can get a look at how it does here.”
There is a market for it. Hemp can be processed into three different types of product: oil, fiber and meal.
The fiber may be the most popular form of the processed plant, and can be used for things like paper, and clothes. Though a multitude of products can be made from hemp, including beauty supplies, food products, and in the cosmetic industry.
Asked whether it could be seen as a replacement industry for things like paper made of wood from trees, Goehring said that he sees it more as a partnership.
“For any country to be really successful, they need to utilize all their resources,” he said. “And I think that’s just a great way of looking at building a better foundation for your economy and supporting use of the land in very reasonable and good ways.”
During the 2016 growing season, which was the first year that the state was able to set up and execute the full-fledged pilot program, there were five producers that participated, including one near Elgin. But Goehring anticipates that number to grow for 2017, and highly encourages anyone interested to contact his office.
“I want to really encourage producers, if you’re thinking about doing this, please, please contact [the Department of Agricultre] and fill out an application, be lengthy, wordy, so that we know what your objectives are, what you’re trying to do,” he said. “And do it soon, I don’t want a situation where I hear about a grower that grew it without being in our program and then that field is destroyed and somebody goes to jail.”
The deadline for applying for the pilot program is Jan. 31, 2017. The application is available through the office of the North Dakota Department of Agriculture.