Hemp, hemp, hooray: Bill aims to aid farmers with new but controversial crop


It can be made into paper, rope, food, biodegradable plastic and even low-carbon concrete, but in Minnesota it is illegal to grow hemp. A bipartisan group of legislators is hoping hemp production will be a boon to Minnesota farmers and manufacturers as demand for the plant and its byproducts continues to grow. The Industrial Hemp Development Act ( HF 608) would allow the state to issue licenses to qualified farmers who pass background checks.

Canada already allows for industrial hemp production, and North Dakota has passed laws to allow its farmers to produce hemp — only to be stymied by the United States Drug Enforcement Agency.

Hemp farmers are required to gain a permit from the DEA, but the agency has continued to reject the applications of North Dakota farmers, prompting them to file suit against the federal government. Six other states have legalized hemp production — Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Montana and West Virginia — yet none is producing the crop because of DEA resistance.

The hemp bill has been offered a half dozen times before in Minnesota but met with failure after posturing by law enforcement groups, which have said that policing farm fields for marijuana will be impossible if those fields all look like marijuana. Hemp is related to marijuana in the same way that cauliflower is to broccoli: Both are the same species, but breeding has given the two plants very different characteristics. While marijuana contains enough psychoactive chemicals to induce a “high,” hemp contains so little that a “high” is virtually impossible.

Minnesota researchers have led they way in solving the problem cited by law enforcement. George Weiblen, a University assistant professor of plant biology, established a method of DNA testing that can differentiate hemp and its psychoactive cultivar marijuana.

The Industrial Hemp Development Act would also alter the definition of marijuana and differentiate it from hemp. Currently the law treats the two plants as being the same. The act also would enact strict regulations as to what seed sources are used and would require regular inspection of fields to reduce the potential for abuse.

Jim Franklin of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association (MSA) said his group opposes the bill. “The MSA has in the past and will in the future be opposed to any [attempt] to legalize the growing of marijuana or hemp,” said Franklin.

“Additional research has shown that it is not a viable crop. The market for the product is very limited, and Canada, for one, has mountains of hemp they can’t sell.”

In the late 1990s, Canada did see a surplus of hemp fibers when a major processor in California, who was working with 40 percent of Canada’s hemp growers, unexpectedly shut down. Because Canada’s hemp production has only been legal since 1998, it took a number of years for smaller processors to spring up and create more demand.

Alberta’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development had this to say about hemp production. “[T]he negative events of 1999 have brought a lot of skepticism and fear for the future growth potential of hemp industry in Canada. However, the downturn in hemp cultivation during the last three –four years is buoyed by a steady increase in the processing of hemp, and the development of many small businesses engaged in developing new products and marketing of these products.”

Commercial crop

Hemp is a commercial crop in every industrialized nation in the world except the United States, which, ironically imports more hemp and hemp products than any other industrialized nation.

“Hemp would simply provide another option for Minnesota farmers apart from corn, soy beans and wheat,” said Thom Petersen of the Minnesota Farmer’s Union. “It’s one product that is legal to export from Canada but not to produce in Minnesota.”

Part of the Farmer’s Union argument for the bill is that it is a crop with a growing demand. Hemp is hardy and well-suited to Minnesota’s climate. It requires very little chemical pesticides or fertilizers, which makes it a popular choice for increasingly environment-conscious consumers.

Petersen pointed to hempcrete, concrete that utilizes hemp hurds (fibers) instead of aggregate such as sand or gravel. “Concrete [production] is a huge emitter of carbon dioxide, and hempcrete reduces carbon.” Because hemp sequesters carbon, the production of hempcrete is at the very least carbon neutral.

“We are often talking of green jobs,” said Petersen. “Something like hempcrete could fill that role.”

Many industries are exploring the possibilities of hemp. In food production, hemp oil and seeds are gaining popularity because of its high essential amino acid content. Food sales of hemp were $20 to $30 million in 2007, according to the Hemp Industries Association. Researchers in Europe have been perfecting a biodegradable plastic made entirely of hemp.

And automakers are taking advantage of the new green movement in automobiles and including hemp materials in their vehicles. But that idea isn’t necessarily new, as the following video demonstrates. Henry Ford made some of his cars in the 1940s out of hemp.

The Industrial Hemp Development Act bill has a number of Republicans joining with DFLers in the House. A Senate version has not yet been introduced. Sponsors include:

Reps. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis; Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis; Greg Davids, R-Preston; Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar; Mary Ellen Otremba, DFL-Long Prairie; Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley; Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock; Jim Abeler, R-Anoka; Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson; David Bly, DFL-Northfield; Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City; Sheldon Johnson, DFL-St. Paul; Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul; Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis; Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont; Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis; Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester; Cy Thao, DFL-St. Paul; Diane Loeffler, DFL-Minneapolis; and Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids.