More than 40 Farms Digging in on Potentially Major Cash Crop

 

After decades of hype and setbacks, industrial hemp is finally in the ground and growing in Montana — with more than 500 acres grown in 2017 by 12 different farmers.

Hemp could be a boon to Montana family farmers and reinvigorate the rural economy, advocates say. Successful harvests last year grossed as much as $1,800 per acre, several times more than many traditional crops like wheat or barley. And farmers could start with just a few acres.

“For the farmer that‘s been trying to make ends meet growing wheat, this is a totally different game-changing crop,” John Porterfield, CEO of Whitefish-based MontanaGrow, said at the Montana Cannabis Conference at the state Capitol in Helena in February.

1,734 ACRES?

LAST YEAR, THE MONTANA Department of Agriculture approved licenses for 14 growers in its federally approved pilot program. Thanks to the historic drought, only 12 farmers had any harvest, nearly all of it for seed, to be cold-pressed into hemp seed oil.

Plant starts in the greenhouse.

This year, 49 growers are licensed by the state. Of those, 41 have at least one location approved for growing, with plans to plant 1,734 acres.

So far, Montana farmers have had no easy market for the fiber-rich stalk of the plant but, Porterfield expects this year to contract with farmers to process all parts of the plant — flower, stalk and seed — at a Great Falls facility, providing raw materials for potential Montana industries in a growing global marketplace.

Products include oils from the flower, like a pain-killing oil for medical use (with negligible amounts of the high-inducing THC compounds); fiber for for textiles and building materials, with even plans for biodegradable car parts; and biofuels. food, and skin and hair products from the seed.

Hemp for the flower, which demands more water, will be planted on the west side of the state, with plants grown for seed and fiber in the East to avoid cross-pollination.

GREEN FIELDS, RED TAPE

MONTANA FIRST AUTHORIZED the growing of industrial hemp back in 2001, with overwhelming bipartisan support. But federal law barred its production almost entirely until the Farm Bill of 2014 allowed states and universities to establish tightly regulated pilot programs.

But there are a lot of things in the way of the industry. Last year, Helena Valley farmer Kim Phillips lost her crop because she couldn’t irrigate it with water from the federally managed Canyon Ferry Lake.

Plants grown for seed and fiber in Eastern Montana in 2017.

She did manage to harvest four of the 12 acres she planted — pulling in 16 tons per acres, which “were chopped and fed to the cattle,” she said said at the Cannabis conference. “And they loved it.”

She likened to the federal regulations to “a stick in the spokes.”

Porterfield says the biggest hurdles for the industry — and ultimately for a potential boon for Montanans wanting to make things from the various parts of the pant — remains the federal government.

The state of Montana, he says, has done a great job to help launch the industry, but farmers still lack some of the most basic tools of the trade — namely insurance and banking services, both now severely restricted under federal law for both the medical and industrial plants.

Last year, a bill to allow insurers and banks to work with licensed industrial growers was introduced in the U.S. House, but it’s stalled.

Another hurdle, according to the Montana Department of Agriculture: getting seeds. Colorado and Oregon produce high-quality seeds, but they can’t legally cross state lines. Montana is working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to locate and certify domestic sources of seeds, a department spokesman said in an email, and the state has now has DEA permits to import seeds from Canada, Italy, Germany and Finland.

KEEP YOUR POLLEN UNDER CONTROL

There are some other fundamentals for Montana growers to learn: They need specialized equipment for efficient harvests. They need security, or at least a way to let people know the plants aren’t marijuana and you shouldn’t try to steal them

And hemp for fiber and seed needs to stay away from medical marijuana grows, so the industrial plant doesn’t pollennate the medical plant and make seeds where they’re not wanted. So growers of both types of cannabis want clear regulations and knowledge of where the other is, with plenty of distance where needed.

Porterfield’s company is trying to make it easier for farms to get started, developing plant starts by the hundreds of thousands in a specialized facility in Corvallis, culling the males where needed, and helping out farmers with services from drip lines to fencing.

With the Farm Bill now allowing research on hemp, the farmers would also like to see some study here, at MSU — not just at academic giants like Perdue and Cornell.

“The next steps are wide open because the industry hasn’t really shown itself yet,” Porterfield said.

–Sanjay Talwani

Photos courtesy John Porterfield

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