Arrow-right Camera
News >  Idaho

America appears ready to open the door for the ‘grain buffalo’

Hemp products, such as the hemp seeds shown here which were grown in Canada, are available to purchase at area stores, but cannot legally be grown in Idaho. (Pete Caster / Lewiston Tribune)
Hemp products, such as the hemp seeds shown here which were grown in Canada, are available to purchase at area stores, but cannot legally be grown in Idaho. (Pete Caster / Lewiston Tribune)

It’s been nearly 20 years since former Idaho legislator Tom Trail began beating the drum for industrial hemp.

The eight-term Moscow representative tried repeatedly to convince his legislative colleagues to support the crop. Trail introduced at least five resolutions and memorials over the years, urging Congress to recognize the difference between hemp and marijuana and to authorize its cultivation.

Despite support from the Idaho Farm Bureau, most of his bills never made it out of committee. The only one that did was shot down on the House floor on a 47-15 vote.

However, the U.S. Senate – and perhaps Congress as a whole – may now be prepared to go where the Idaho Legislature feared to tread.

Earlier this year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., introduced legislation that would remove all federal restrictions on hemp cultivation. Co-sponsored by Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the measure was included in the Senate version of the latest farm bill reauthorization, which passed the Senate Agriculture Committee on June 13.

The full Senate still needs to approve the bill. The hemp provisions, which aren’t in the House farm bill that passed Thursday, also have to survive negotiations over the final version of the reauthorization measure. Nevertheless, for the first time in more than 80 years, commercial cultivation of industrial hemp could once again be an option for American farmers.

Trail, it seems, was decades ahead of his time.

“We’re the only country in the world that prohibits the growing of industrial hemp,” he said in a recent interview. “I think it would be a very viable crop for Idaho farmers.”

No high here

Although hemp and marijuana are both varieties of cannabis sativa, hemp has much lower levels of THC – the psycho-active component in the plant that makes people “high.”

By modern definitions, industrial hemp must contain less than 0.3 percent THC by weight. Even poor grades of marijuana, by contrast, have about 10 percent THC; the most potent strains can exceed 30 percent.

This difference in THC levels undercuts one of the main objections Trail heard regarding his hemp legislation.

“The big concern by law enforcement was that (drug dealers) would hide marijuana in the middle of hemp fields,” he said. “But I had testimony from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police saying that wasn’t true, because cross-pollination ruins the quality of the marijuana. The pollen can float about 15 miles.”

Trail first became interested in hemp after attending an international farm conference in Canada in 2000.

Like the United States, Canada banned the crop in the 1930s. However, controlled production by licensed growers resumed in 1998. Last year, a record 136,000 acres were harvested. That prompted the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance to crow that “the agricultural hemp industry is poised to grow to $1 billion in sales by 2023, creating 3,000 new jobs over the next five years.”

Before it was banned, hemp had a long history in the United States and around the world as a source of fiber. In recent years it has also become a popular food supplement. All told, the plant can be used in about 25,000 different products. Its short- and long-strand fibers make everything from rope and canvas to cloth, paper and building materials. Hemp seeds are a nutritious source of protein for humans and livestock, while hemp oils and extracts are used in cosmetics, soaps, plastics and lubricants.

Given these broad applications, Trail, who served five years as chairman of the House Agricultural Committee, figured Idaho farmers should have the opportunity to raise the crop.

“One of the beauties of hemp is that its root system goes down 12 feet and encourages the percolation of water,” he said. “It also controls weeds, because it grows so thick. I see it as an excellent rotational crop.”

Idaho: Surrounded by hemp states

Trail may have been one of the few Idaho legislators who was sweet on hemp, but that wasn’t the case nationwide.

In fact, there were enough supporters to convince Congress to add a section to the last farm bill reauthorization, in 2014, allowing the crop to be grown as part of a state or university research pilot project, so long as it’s permitted by state law.

Since that time, the National Conference of State Legislatures says, at least 35 states have passed some sort of hemp-related legislation. That includes Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Montana.

Nevertheless, cultivation of the plant is still subject to numerous regulations. Anyone who wants to grow the crop has to be licensed or permitted by the state department of agriculture. Some states also require growers to undergo background checks. Hemp continues to be listed as a controlled substance by the federal government, so water from federal reservoirs typically can’t be used to irrigate the crop. Even acquiring the seed to plant an experimental field requires a special import license from the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Many of these barriers would be eliminated by the language Sen. McConnell inserted in the new farm bill, as it removes hemp from the list of controlled substances.

“It’s time the federal government changes the way it looks at hemp,” he said in April, when introducing the legislation. “We’re optimistic industrial hemp can become, sometime in the future, what tobacco was in Kentucky’s past.”

From ‘Reefer Madness’ to ‘Hemp for Victory’

Tobacco was the Bluegrass State’s top agricultural product throughout much of the 20th century. As recently as the 1990s, average annual sales exceeded $800 million.

For McConnell to predict a similar future for hemp is an extraordinary turnaround from the 1930s, when the crop got caught up in the national “Reefer Madness” hysteria.

“You had Harry Anslinger (America’s first drug czar) making all these outrageous statements about marijuana,” said historian and lifelong hemp advocate John Dvorak, author of the hempology.org website.

While head of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Bureau of Narcotics, Dvorak said, Anslinger went on a crusade against marijuana, claiming the “evil weed” turned black men into rapists and all men into murderers. The result was the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which “effectively regulated the hemp industry out of existence.”

Hemp saw a temporary resurgence in the 1940s, after imports from the Far East were cut off during World War II. Needing fiber for rope and canvas, the Department of Agriculture produced a short film, “Hemp for Victory,” encouraging farmers to plant as much of the stuff as possible.

Production peaked at 146,200 acres in 1943, but dropped once again when regulations were reinstated after the war.

Dvorak said a common misconception is that the petro-chemical and timber industries lobbied Congress to ban hemp because they didn’t want to compete against the fast-growing, renewable fiber source.

However, “I haven’t found any evidence to support that,” he said.

If you look at the historical records, Dvorak said, hemp was never a major crop in the United States. A 1917 Census report, for example, indicates 7,647 acres of hemp were grown nationwide in 1909, compared with 32 million acres of cotton and 98 million acres of corn.

“Why would DuPont have been worried about hemp?” Dvorak asked. “I think it was just easier to cut down forests (for wood fiber), because the trees were already there. It was hard for hemp to compete when you had to grow it and process it.”

Multipurpose plant

Since the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill reopened the door to hemp cultivation, there’s been a steady increase in acreage nationwide.

A recent crop report by the VoteHemp.org advocacy group, for example, indicates 19 states grew 25,713 acres of hemp in 2017. That’s up from 15 states and 9,770 acres in 2016.

Kentucky harvested 3,200 acres of hemp last year. Colorado led the nation with 9,700 acres of production – something Dvorak finds “kind of ironic.”

“You couldn’t grow hemp in Colorado until they legalized marijuana,” he said. “That’s the exact opposite of what took place during the ‘Reefer Madness’ days.”

Dvorak believes the rapid increase in demand for cannabidiol or CBD oil is driving much of the renewed interest in hemp.

Like the plant from which it’s extracted, CBD contains less that 0.3 percent THC. However, various anecdotal stories suggest it has numerous therapeutic applications, including easing seizures and tremors in children and adults, and relieving pain and anxiety.

CBD is still listed as a controlled substance by the federal government, but it is widely available online and in states that have legalized medical and/or recreational marijuana.

Newer applications for hemp fiber and seeds are also prompting interest in the plant, Dvorak said. For example, researcher are now using hemp to make durable, light-weight car parts and disposable plastics. In France, the plant has been used to make “hempcrete” and other building materials for decades. Two years ago, a New York scientists announced that he’d found a way to produce low-cost “supercapacitor” energy storage devices using hemp fiber.

What this all means, Dvorak said, is that when hemp is finally legalized in America, it will support vastly different applications than the rope-and-canvas industry it served in the past.

“It’s going to be entirely new fields of uses,” he said. “The hurd – the inner part of the hemp stalk – used to be a waste product. Hemp seed was never part of the diet, at least in America. Now, we appreciate the whole plant. I call it the ‘grain buffalo,’ because it can be used to make so many essential products.”

Huge potential; enormous challenges

The hemp industry has huge potential, Dvorak said, but after 80 years of prohibition, it also faces enormous challenges.

“We basically have to reinvent the entire industry from the ground up,” he said. “We need to invent new machines to harvest and process it. There’s been no research and development for decades.”

The pilot projects that are underway in the several states can help address some of those issues, as well as determining which seed varieties perform best in different climates.

Barring federal action, though, it’s an open question whether Idaho farmers and researchers will ever be allowed to participate in these studies.

“I think it’s going to take a long education process,” Trail said.

Rep. Caroline Troy, R-Genesee, tried to pick up the industrial hemp baton after Trail retired. She has a 4-inch-thick binder stuffed with information.

“I talked to the University of Idaho,” she said. “I talked with Clearwater Paper to see if they could process (hemp fiber). I talked with the Idaho Food Producers and Idaho Grain Producers.”

Once Troy took her information to the governor’s office, though, she met with the same marijuana-related concerns that have dogged industrial hemp for the past 80 years.

“I ran into the same buzz saw that Tom did,” she said.

Troy agrees more research is needed to determine if hemp makes sense as a rotational or commodity crop for Idaho farmers – but that’s the whole point of authorizing small pilot projects.

“That’s where I want to start,” she said. “Let’s start with baby steps and see if it’s viable. It’s amazing all the different products that can be made from hemp. It’s a really interesting crop – and we need to be open to a crop that can pay dividends for our area.”


Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter

Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter

There was a problem subscribing you to the newsletter. Double check your email and try again, or email webteam@spokesman.com

You have been successfully subscribed!